Express Cards on iOS/watchOS have a special place on the Apple Pay platform. First of all there are only 3:
- Suica was the first to appear with the Apple Pay Japan launch in October 2016
- Beijing and Shanghai transit cards arrived with iOS 11.3 in March 2018, these are still listed as ‘beta’ product
- Student ID contactless passes were added on October 2, 2018, like Suica these are FeliCa and not ‘beta’
Express cards share common features:
- they are stored value
- they can be recharged with Apple Pay credit cards or cash
- they don’t require Apple Pay authentication
- they are multi-purpose and are used for purchase, transit and opening door locks
Apple Pay credit/debit cards in both EMV or FeliCa flavors use middleware to work the transaction magic but Express Cards like Suica and Student ID don’t use middleware. They are pure card emulation residing in the super exclusive PassKit-NCF Certificate Nirvana zone where they can do anything they want.
There is a weakness on pre-Bionic architecture however: iOS/watchOS has to babysit all the card emulation and is a somewhat fragile. Changes in the OS affect performance and reliability. Here is a timeline of my experiences with iOS 10 Apple Pay Suica Express cards on the iPhone 7 JP model.
Apple Pay Express Card performance on pre-Bionic hardware tends to be cyclical: each new iOS has unstable performance at first but improves with later updates. It happened with iOS 11 and the rocky Apple Pay Cash start. And it’s happening again with iOS 12 and iOS 12.1 both of which have Express Card performance issues.
That is why A12 Bionic and Express Cards with reserve power are a big deal. Express Cards with power reserve are the latest Apple Pay Wallet feature to arrive with A12 Bionic on iPhone XS and iPhone XR. Express Cards with reserve power operate without iOS up and running and bypass iOS for basic operations even when it is running. This removes a huge layer of potential problems. My experience with ‘bulletproof’ Apple Pay Suica Express cards on iPhone XS simply blows everything else away.
At some point this feature will be standard across iOS and watchOS. The reliability benefits are huge, as is peace of mind in a power pinch.
And finally there is iPhone X Suica Express Card performance which is in a dog league all its own. Taken together with the iOS 11~iOS 12 timeline, it illustrates how complicated and confusing the current iOS 12 situation is for iPhone X Japanese users. Until Apple comes clean and provides some guidance for iPhone X devices with defective NFC, I don’t see things improving for these users. I’m glad to be out of it but cringe reading iPhone X user experiences and feel for the users as I’ve been there myself.