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 is off.

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 with the smartphone off. 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 FeliCa SE in 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.

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.