Google Wallet Leader Leaves for Square: What does it Mean?

By Gary Kim April 05, 2012

Google Wallet co-founding engineer Rob von Behren has left Google for payments startup Square. It isn't unusual for engineering personnel to change jobs. von Behren had been working on Google Wallet since 2009. 

But there will now be suggestions of two types. The first is that Google Wallet “is in trouble.” The other suggestion might be that near field communications “is in trouble.” One might argue that neither really is the case. 

Rarely does an important new technology succeed the first time, or succeed right away. Apple's success with the iPad follows more than a decade of manufacturers trying to create a big new market for tablets, with almost no success. The Apple iPod is a good example of an innovation that breaks the rule and becomes a nearly-instant success. 

But that's unusual. Almost always, a foundational technological approach takes time to show its significance. For that reason, many have been warning that it was inevitable that near field communications would pass the peak of its hype cycle and enter a period of disillusionment, which one might argue is happening now. 

That does not mean NFC will fail, merely that it could be an important technology that ultimately will prove to be a mass market success. But that could take some time. Just how much time is not so obvious. 

But most important new technologies, especially when they involve change in a big and well-established ecosystem, take some time to mature. In part, that can happen because a value chain is complicated enough that lots of different contributors must be put into place to offer a full and robust solution. 

But in technology, the “best” solution, technologically, does not always “win.” The perhaps classic examples are VHS and Betamax standards for videocassette recorders. Betamax was “better” in technology terms such as image quality. But VHS was “good enough” to satisfy market demand. 

The point is that it is hard to figure out what von Behren's departure means.  People change jobs. That doesn't necessarily mean anything in particular.   But sometimes key departures signal trouble, such as a product failing to get traction fast enough. It is not possible to determine whether that is the case for Google Wallet or Isis, though. Both those efforts necessarily entail change in a complex ecosystem that will take time. 

Nor would it have been expected that near field communications would be able to avoid the crash of expectations after initial hype. Almost no technologies manage to do so. It might simply be prudent to acknowledge that NFC will not succeed right away, and that it is unreasonable to expect that to happen.  Nor, for that matter, should “mobile payments” in its several forms necessarily  be expected to achieve mass market success all at once. 

Square, for example, has mostly changed the market for retailer point of sale payment devices, not mobile payments process in a wider sense. As important as Square arguably is, it has added one more way to  swipe a credit card. Making a mobile smart phone or tablet a retail POS terminal is significant. But it does not create a new mobile payment process in the sense of changing a mobile device into a credit or debit card, or in a broader sense of transforming the shopping experience, not just the “payment” experience. All that will happen. But it will take time. 

So it isn't completely clear what the departure of one important engineer, at one important company, really means for NFC or mobile wallet or mobile payments in a larger sense. 

Edited by Jennifer Russell

Contributing Editor

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