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All Twelves: A12 Bionic Powered NFC on iOS 12

A12 Bionic Powered NFC
A12 Bionic is powering some very interesting new NFC features on iPhone XS and iPhone XR

Many people were disappointed at WWDC18 when Apple did not announce any changes to Core NFC. What people really wanted was all 3 NFC Forum defined NFC Modes: Card Emulation, Reader/Writer and Peer to Peer. iOS Apple Pay supports Card Emulation and Reader/Writer but severely limits Secure Element access necessary for Card Emulation. Core NFC is just a limited Reader/Writer Mode sub-set. Only developers with hard to get Apple issued NFC Certificates could do more.

Suica App is a good example of an extremely rare 3rd party app with NFC Certificate access to the A-Series Secure Enclave (SE) because Apple implemented a ‘virtual FeliCa SE’ in the Apple A-Series chip. This allows Suica App to recharge Suica card directly without going through Wallet, one of the very few apps that can. But there are limitations to this virtual approach: iOS has to be up and running for virtual FeliCa to work and Apple Pay Suica cannot do what FeliCa does on Android which is still work on transit gates when the device has run out of battery.

There are limitations of case-by-case NFC Certificate special access: slow expansion of new NFC service partners. The lack of established public frameworks is one reason native transit card support in Apple Pay has been expanding so slowly with big established NFC Middleware players such as MIFARE still missing from the Apple Pay platform.

One new thing that did come out of WWDC18 was NFC Certificate powered NFC Wallet Passes for iOS 12. Apple previewed the feature to media and guests entering the Steve Jobs Theater at the September 12 event. NFC Certificate enabled technology is being used for Student ID Cards, NFC Tickets, NFC Rewards Cards and more. If Apple is allowing more developers to get PassKit NFC Certificates with the iOS 12 release, I hope we’ll see new updated Apple Pay pages highlighting these new NFC features and partners.

A12 Bionic NFC
One of the fascinating aspects unveiled on September 12 are new NFC features that A12 Bionic enables on iPhone XS and iPhone XR: Express Cards with power reserve for transit and Student ID Cards and Core NFC Background Tag Reading.

FeliCa Reserve Power Express Transit has been on Android Osaifu-Keitai smartphones forever and Japanese feature phones before that. This feature mimics a physical smartcard so that users can make it through transit gates even when their device has run out of power. As long as there is just a little residual current left in the battery, it works.

Super Powered Apple Pay Suica
As explained in the iOS 12 Security Guide, A12 Bionic has a special new residual low power state that allows virtual FeliCa implemented in the A12 Bionic Secure Enclave to support transactions without iOS up and running, similar to what exists on Android Osaifu-Keitai: no fancy stuff but enough to get the FeliCa Networks keys out of the A12 Secure Enclave and get you through the transit gate.

This ability of A12 Bionic to handle SE transactions without iOS running sets Global FeliCa on iPhone XS and iPhone XR apart from Global FeliCa on iPhone 8, iPhone X and Apple Watch Series 3/4. Apple Global FeliCa finally matches the performance of the Japanese Osaifu-Keitai standard with dedicated Sony FeliCa chips, on Apple hardware.

This ability of A12 Bionic Secure Enclave to function without iOS has other benefits as well: much better Apple Pay Suica performance. Apple Pay Suica on pre-A12 devices works great but never quite achieves the magic bulletproof performance of a plastic Suica card on transit gates. With Suica essentials running on A12 Bionic with no iOS overhead, Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XS really shines and is finally bulletproof. iPhone XS puts the disgraceful scandalous iPhone X NFC problem device where it belongs, the trash bin of Apple shame history alongside the Apple III.

FeliCa for Student ID Cards
The iOS 12 Security Guide also makes clear that Student ID Cards are Express Cards with power reserve just like Suica transit stored value (SV) cards that open door locks instead of transit gates. Blackboard is using FeliCa technology to power those and are running the backend system that handles account SV ‘recharge’ from Apple Pay, similar to what Mobile Suica cloud does. Apple has not licensed MIFARE yet, though the same technique can be accomplished with other Middleware stacks that support it.

A12 Bionic is also powering the new Core NFC Background Tag Reading feature. I suspect Apple’s aim here is similar: they don’t want people to be locked out their smart home just like they don’t want students with NFC Student ID Cards to be locked out of the dorm when iPhone runs out of battery. It’s all about capturing what is great about smartcards on a smartphone: they don’t need a battery to work. It’s also a strategic win for Apple Wallet in the contactless turf wars as A12 Bionic NFC effectively destroys all rational for QR Codes, especially for transit, as they are less secure and can never work without power and a network connection.

It will be interesting to see what developers do with the new A12 Bionic powered NFC features.

Update
An earlier edit suggested MIFARE based cards for UK and Taiwan transit were coming to Apple Pay. Apple initially limited mention of ‘Express Cards with power reserve’ to iPhone XS and iPhone XR specs in certain countries. Apple has updated spec pages worldwide to include ‘Express Cards with power reserve’. This confirms that iPhone XS and iPhone XR sold anywhere can use Apple Pay Express Transit Cards with power reserve in Japan and China. I have yet to find out if this also means that Apple Pay is adding support for more transit systems that can use Express Cards with power reserve in other countries.

Update 2
The updated iOS 12 Security Guide confirms that Student ID Cards are Express Cards with power reserve just like Suica transit stored value cards that open door locks.

Update 3
Confirmed that Blackboard is using FeliCa for Apple NFC Student ID Cards for Duke, Oklahoma, Alabama, John Hopkins, Santa Clara and Temple.

Update 4
Apple updated Apple Pay eligible device information confirming global FeliCa for iPhone XS, iPhone XR and Apple Watch Series 4.

Update 5
Quick review of iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica with Express Card power reserve that does more than just transit.

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Why iPhone X disappeared from Apple’s Using Suica in Japan page

Apple Using Suica in Japan page
The September 21 update to Apple’s Using Suica on iPhone or Apple Watch in Japan omits any mention of iPhone X.

After careful examination of Apple’s recently updated Using Suica in Japan page I find the new device profile wording very strange: iPhone 8 or iPhone 8 Plus and later. Why no iPhone X or later? It was there before. Why Apple, why? Could it be that the iPhone X NFC hardware problem is a profound embarrassment? And that iPhone X Suica problems seem endless?

Bingo, we have a winner.

iOS 12 update woes: one step back after one step forward for iPhone X Suica users

Poor iPhone X Suica users. No sooner did they finally fix iPhone X Suica hardware problems by getting a Revision B iPhone exchange when the iOS 12 update set them back. Here we go again.

This time it really is software with iPhone X Apple Pay Suica Express Card sometimes unresponsive and Apple Pay demanding a Passcode/Face ID unlock at transit gates, or just good old error flicker. Users with Rev-B iPhone X devices say they didn’t have these problems with iOS 11.4.1.

This kind of thing has happened before: the Apple Pay Japan debut iOS 10.1 release for iPhone 7 had transit gate teething problems and the iOS 11.1 Apple Pay Cash debut release made life miserable for all Apple Pay Suica users regardless of iPhone model.

After dealing with Suica hardware problems for so long iPhone X users are very sensitive and, understandably, easily upset given that Apple knows about the iPhone X Suica problem but refuses to acknowledge it publicly, putting users through the Apple Support runaround game. I suspect iPhone 8 users are experiencing the same iOS 12 Suica issues but are less vocal about it.

This kind of Suica, “iOS loves me, iOS loves me not” version by version game is a consequence of Apple requiring iOS to operate Suica on pre-A12 Bionic devices. As my iPhone XS review makes clear, essential Suica operations run on A12 Bionic without iOS. This makes iPhone XS and iPhone XR Apple Pay Suica ‘bulletproof’ to any given iOS version. It just works, even when the battery runs down.

As one Japanese user complained on Twitter last night, “Is this (iOS 12 Suica) problem just an Apple ploy to get us to upgrade to iPhone XS?”

That’s not exactly the sound of a satisfied Apple customer eager to upgrade to a new iPhone. This years iPhone launch day was very quiet in Japan. Apple had better get cracking on fixing problems here if they value Japanese customers and want to keep them. These days Apple seems to take Japan completely for granted.

Quick Review of iPhone XS Japan Exclusives : Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with power reserve, 4×4 MIMO

Docomo 4x4 MIMO
Docomo 4×4 MIMO Premium 4G advertises top download speeds approaching 1GB

This is a quick review of 2 iPhone XS features unique to Japan: Express Cards with power reserve and 4×4 MIMO LTE. iPhone XR has A12 Bionic powered Express Cards with power reserve but lacks 4×4 MIMO. The ‘big three’ Japanese carriers: NTT Docomo, KDDI au and SoftBank all offer fast premium LTE service with 4×4 MIMO (multiple in-multiple out) advertised download speeds range from 600Mbps (SoftBank), 818Mbps (KDDI) to 988Mbps (Docomo). iPhone network speeds have always been rated a little slower than Japanese carrier Android smartphone speeds. Let’s find out if that has changed with iPhone XS.

For comparison iPhone 8/X were originally rated for download speeds of up to 500Mpbs on Docomo Premium 4G with 3CC Carrier Aggregation. An interesting side note is that the Apple Japan specs page originally published the iPhone 8/X top download speed as 800Mpbs then changed it to 500Mpbs.

The current Docomo network speed map shows Android download speeds topping out at 988Mbps and iPhone topping out at 844Mbps.

For this quick review I test compared Docomo iPhone X and Docomo iPhone XS performance in the Asagaya area of Tokyo. Test points 1 and 2 are in the yellow area (700Mbps~250Mbps), test point 3 is in the red area (844Mbps~738Mbps)

Test Point 1 Home (average of 3 test speeds)
iPhone X: 73Mbps
iPhone XS: 106Mbps

Test Point 2 JR Asagaya Station 2F gate area (average of 3 test speeds)
iPhone X: 51Mbps
iPhone XS: 51Mbps

Test Point 3 Suginami City Hall  (average of 3 test speeds)
iPhone X: 134Mbps
iPhone XS: 173Mbps

As you can see iPhone XS 4×4 MIMO 4G network speeds blows iPhone X away…not. In the top speed area iPhone XS definitely feels zippy and it will get faster over time as Docomo and the other carriers build out their 4×4 MIMO 4G network coverage. As with all things connected with network speed there are just too many variables: technology deployment, cell tower placement, local conditions and crowds of people with smartphones. 4×4 MIMO is nice to have going forward but at this point it’s not a sales point that interests me.

Express Card Power Reserve Mode
Express Card power reserve mode on iPhone XS and iPhone XR lasts up to 5 hours. You can use it for transit, recharge and purchase.

Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with reserve power
A12 Bionic in iPhone XS and XR powers new Express Cards with power reserve NFC feature. This kind of feature has long been on Japanese Osaifu-Keitai Android smartphones which have dedicated Sony FeliCa chips. Apple has a ‘virtual FeliCa’ implemented on their A-Series but the down side was that iOS had to be up and running and could not match Osaifu-Keitai. A12 Bionic has a new low power state that now allows virtual FeliCa to work without iOS up and running, finally matching FeliCa on Android. There are some conditions:

  • Express Cards with power reserve only work when the iPhone XS/XR battery runs down and iPhone puts itself into ‘battery reserve sleep mode’. Express Cards with power reserve doesn’t work if you turn off iPhone manually or if Face ID has been deactivated
  • Express Cards with power reserve in battery reserve sleep mode only work up to 5 hours

There are some surprises too: in addition to transit, you can recharge Suica with cash and you can purchase things. iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica with power reserve Express Transit behaves just like a plastic Suica card for up to 5 hours. Here is quick video of iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica Express Transit with reserve power performance in the field.

Suica purchase and recharge in addition to transit is very handy when you are in a power pinch and need to pick up something on the way home from the station. Students with the new Student ID Cards may be able to do more than just go through door locks with power reserve, at least within the 5 hour of reserve battery mode.

iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance
This is subjective as I have to go by gut feeling in lieu of actual measurements. FeliCa is very fast: NFC-F response speed is about 50 milliseconds (ms), JR East transit gate transaction speed is stated as “within 200ms” but actual speed is closer to 100ms.

Apple Pay Suica works great but never seems to match the magic bulletproof performance of a plastic Suica card. Maybe it is the iOS overhead. Maybe it is the occasional iPhone screen lag showing the Suica card and ‘Done’ check mark that fools the brain into thinking iPhone transaction speed is slow when it’s not. But there are definitely times when the ‘good to go’ blue transit gate light is a little slow with iPhone 7 and iPhone X. In my experience PASMO transit gates exhibit this very occasionally but not JR East transit gates.

I compared Apple Pay performance on iPhone XS and iPhone X both running iOS 12 (16A366) with plastic Suica. Bear in mind this is subjective and based on limited testing, your experience may be different:

JR East Transit Gates (Asagaya, Koenji, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro)
Plastic Suica: A+
iPhone XS: A
iPhone X (Rev-B): A-

PASMO Transit Gates (Ogikubo, Asagaya Minami, Higashi Koenji, Shinjuku)
Plastic Suica: A+
iPhone XS: A
iPhone X (Rev-B): B+

iPhone X (Rev-B) is usually snappy but occasionally feels a little slow on PASMO transit gates. A12 Bionic powered NFC definitely gives iPhone XS an edge over Apple Pay Suica on other devices. It’s very close to a plastic Suica and performed like a champ with all the different transit configurations I threw at it. Suica essentials run on A12 Bionic without iOS. This removes iOS overhead from Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XS and makes all the difference. Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XS A12 Bionic powered NFC is finally ‘bulletproof’, and the Express Card power reserve feature knocks iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance out of the park.

Summary
The iPhone XS Japan exclusives, Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with power reserve and 4×4 MIMO are only small parts of a much bigger picture and only have meaning for iPhone users in Japan. 4×4 MIMO network coverage, like all network technology, is a work in progress. It’s nice to have and will definitely be much nicer as Japanese carriers roll out extensive 4×4 MIMO network coverage, which is happening quickly, but it’s not an upgrade must have item at this point.

Express Cards with power reserve is a very nice feature to have and a ‘must have’ for some users. It’s a big stress relief for Suica road warriors and surprisingly flexible. iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance is bulletproof and the best I have experienced on iPhone to date with absolutely none of the iPhone X NFC problem nonsense. Taken together, iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance with power reserve Express Cards is worth the upgrade if Apple Pay Suica is important to you.

This is a dilemma for iPhone X users in Japan who have yet to obtain a Rev-B iPhone X exchange for problem iPhone X devices: to upgrade or not to upgrade. There might be some incentive to upgrade if your carrier offers a good trade-in price for your iPhone X, the iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance is a huge step up from a problem iPhone X device.

If you don’t choose the upgrade option and have a problem iPhone X, be sure to exchange it for a Rev-B iPhone X as it is easier to do in Japan than anywhere else. You can certainly live with a Rev-B iPhone X for a while. I feel sorry for university kids with FeliCa powered Student ID Cards on iPhone X in America when they start noticing how wonky iPhone X NFC performance really is: under the current Apple support internal guideline they are not eligible to exchange for a problem free Rev-B iPhone device.

By the way, does anybody want a slightly used Revision B iPhone X?

Global FeliCa iPhone XS, iPhone XR, Apple Watch Series 4

Update Apple Pay Suica specs
Updated Apple Pay Suica specs are for iPhone 8 and later, Apple Watch Series 3 and later

Apple updated Apple Pay eligible device information and Suica information with the release of iPhone XS today. It’s really boring to know that iPhone XS, iPhone XR and Apple Watch Series 4 are Global FeliCa just like previous generation devices, boring in a nice predictable way. They have to be in order to work with those FeliCa powered Student ID Cards for iOS 12 and watchOS 5. It’s really just Apple Pay. It just works, that’s all customers need to know.

I suspect A12 Bionic powered Express Cards with power reserve will work better on FeliCa Suica than the forever beta China Transit cards. We’ll find out soon enough.

A12 Bionic Powered NFC
A12 Bionic is powering some very interesting new NFC features on iPhone XS and iPhone XR

Express Cards with power reserve reveal Apple global FeliCa strategy

Westerns were a little perplexed in 2016 when Apple unveiled FeliCa Apple Pay but only on the Japanese model iPhone 7 and Apple Watch Series 2. Industry experts assumed that the credit card consortium created EMV contactless standard would conquer everything NFC and that FeliCa was non-standard and headed for oblivion. Why would Apple go to all that trouble if FeliCa was headed for the scrape heap?

In 2017 Apple quietly incorporated global FeliCa into all iPhone 8, iPhone X and Apple Watch Series 3 models. Anybody with those devices could add Suica to Apple Pay and enjoy cutting edge contactless transit and payments while visiting Japan. Global FeliCa is something that Android still hasn’t come up with.

And now in 2018 Apple has added Express Cards with power reserve that work with Apple Pay Transit Express cards in Japan and China, and Student ID Cards in America. The interesting thing is that outside of China, all Express cards with power reserve are FeliCa NFC-F. An unexpected twist in an unexpected story. Blackboard is working with Apple to deliver Contactless Student ID Cards to Duke, Oklahoma, Alabama, John Hopkins and Temple.

What I find fascinating is how Apple lists the new A12 Bionic powered Express Card feature. At first Apple limited mention of Express Cards with reserve power to iPhone XS/XR spec pages in just a few countries but later updated it to pretty much every market (Apple Canada for some reason omits it for XS but lists it for XR, a glitch?). Apple didn’t do that for the 2017 global FeliCa rollout. It only mentioned the feature on their Japan site.

If Express Cards with power reserve can only be used in China, Japan and a few universities in America, why list the feature everywhere? Is it just marketing, or is it something else? I’ll go with something else. Maybe not now, or even this year, but more Express Cards with power reserve for transit and ID cards are coming to more places.

Apple obviously saw more strategic long-term value in adding the FeliCa middleware stack to iOS first rather than MIFARE which powers a lot of transit card systems around the world. TfL Oyster may be big but Suica is Godzilla with e-money attached. Add China Transit into the mix and Apple’s strategy is clear: transaction volume. Apple Pay credit cards recharging all those stored value Express Cards in China, Japan and American universities is what Apple is really after. It’s a well-defined and enriching technology bundle that Apple can spread to other markets and segments, an intriguing mix of transit and higher education.

Apple’s global vision is also unmatched by the competition. Samsung Pay for example isn’t available in Japan simply because Samsung want to make more money selling Galaxy as a JP carrier locked Osaifu-Keitai premium device. The Google Pay Japan flop was also because Google wants to promote Android as a premium JP carrier locked device. Samsung and Google strangle their own children for money and market share.

Apple’s focused long-term strategy and global vision for Apple Pay and all things NFC remains a very intriguing one. I think it’s going to be another interesting year.