All Twelves: A12 Bionic powered NFC

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 could not 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 technology players such as MIFARE absent from the Apple Pay platform.

One new thing that did come out of WWDC18 was PassKit 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 updated Apple Pay pages highlighting 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.

Bulletproofed 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. Express Cards with power reserve are closer to plastic IC cards than ever before.

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 without iOS overhead, Apple Pay Suica performance on iPhone XS really shines and is finally bulletproof. It puts disgraceful iPhone X defective NFC devices where they belong, the trash bin of Apple shame history alongside Apple III.

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. The Blackboard card format is both FeliCa and MIFARE based and the implementation appears to be PassKit NFC Certificate powered MIFARE card emulation on eligible devices, the backend system handles student account SV ‘recharge’ from Apple Pay, similar to what Mobile Suica cloud does. Apple has not publicly announced MIFARE support though the same Express Card power reserve technique can be accomplished with any technology stack that supports it such as what Apple has done with China Transit cards.

A12 Bionic is also powering the new Core NFC Background Tag Reading feature. iPhone XS and iPhone XR are the first iPhones ever that can natively read NFC tags out of the box without a special app. I suspect Apple’s aim here is similar: its all about capturing what is great about smartcards on a smartphone but improving them to create a better user experience. The new features are a strategic win for Apple Wallet in the contactless turf wars as new features like A12 Bionic powered Express Transit with power reserve effectively destroy all rational for QR Codes, especially for transit as they are less secure and can never work without power and a network connection. The growing importance of NFC tags will also play out over time.

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

Apple initially limited mention of ‘Express Cards with power reserve’ to iPhone XS and iPhone XR specs in certain countries then updated spec pages worldwide. iPhone XS and iPhone XR sold anywhere can use Apple Pay Express Transit Cards with power reserve in Japan and China and Student ID Express Cards with power reserve in America.

Update 2
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
Blackboard has been using both FeliCa and MIFARE issue Student ID IC cards.

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.

Update 6
The Blackboard IC card format uses both FeliCa and MIFARE with Blackboard migrating new IC card issuance to MIFARE. iOS 12 contactless student ID cards are PASSKit NFC Certificate powered card MIFARE card emulation. Apple has not publicly announced MIFARE support but it is the only technology compatible with Blackboard IC card formats that could power the express card features of iOS 12 student ID cards across all eligible devices.

Update 7
A12 includes supercharged Javascript optimizations, performance improvements for the Secure Element Java Card are likely included as well. A12 really does supercharge Express Transit performance on iPhone XS and iPhone XR.