My Cousin Apple Pay

So the EU is going ahead with ‘open NFC’ antitrust charges against Apple. As posted back in August 2020, the whole open vs closed debate is not easy to define. It’s probably easier to look at it from the simplistic App Store debate of letting developers bypass Apple’s in-app payment mechanism to avoid paying the ‘Apple Tax’, because that’s the box most people will understand.

We’ve already seen banks and Apple chafing over transactions fees on multiple occasions, the latest being ‘Banks Pressuring Visa to Cut Back on Apple Pay Fees‘ because Apple dared release their own credit card under the Mastercard brand via Goldman Sachs. German banks and Australian banks in particular demand the right to use iPhone NFC in their own payment apps instead of Wallet so they can harvest the user data they can’t get via Apple Pay and drop Apple Pay support all together in favor of their own proprietary payment apps (our exclusive card comes with our exclusive app). But there’s an aspect of the ‘open’ argument that will not be discussed by EU regulators, the banks and credit card companies.

I’ve been watching ‘My Cousin Vinny’ a lot recently. I love the courtroom scenes with Joe Pesci’s Vinny character turning the prosecution arguments upside down. There’s a key scene early on when Vinny uses a pack of cards to convince Ralph Macchio’s character to give Vinny a chance to defend him: ‘the prosecutors are gonna show you bricks with solid straight sides and corners, but they’re going to show them in a very special way’ so that judge and jury see bricks instead of playing cards, which is what ‘open NFC’ arguments are: paper card illusions.

NFC is just hardware, it’s worthless without the software protocols that drive it. NFC also has different definitions. The bank industry defines NFC as NFC A-B ISO/IEC 14443. The NFC Forum defines NFC as NFC A-B-F for device certification. On the protocol side the bank industry defines NFC as EMV because this is their industry standard created and managed by EMVCo (Europay-Mastercard-VISA initially, now collectively owned by American Express, Discover, JCB, Mastercard, UnionPay and Visa).

Are EU regulators going to argue that ‘open NFC’ is defined as NFC A-B-F on the hardware side and EMV, MIFARE, FeliCa protocols on the software side? Of course not. They will narrowly define their Vinny brick as NFC A-B and EMV, and maybe Calypso as the transit protocol is used in France for transit. Why would they do that?

It’s very simple. European banking interests don’t want to pay transaction fees to Apple, the Apple Pay tax. They want to cut out the middle man with their own exclusive apps and harvest user data. They don’t want inconvenient questions such as why there are all those different NFC standards and protocols out there, how this came to be and what really constitutes ‘open’. Why did the ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee choose Phillips NFC-A and Motorola NFC-B while shutting out Sony NFC-F? Was that part of creating an ‘open’ and level NFC playing field on the global marketplace? Of course not, it was about playing favorites while shutting Sony and Japan out of the game. Now they want to do the same to Apple Pay. I still think Junya Suzuki is right: the EU will never demand the same thing of Samsung Pay or Huawei Pay that they are demanding from Apple.

Sawada Sho tweeted a thoughtful question recently regarding the App Store in-app payment controversy. He pointed out that gaming and other platforms charge developers great deal of money for hardware and software access, nobody questions that. Apple offers a lot of access for a very low price, is it fair to demand free passage on the App Store because it is Apple? Sho san thinks the Apple transaction cut is a fair tradeoff. Some tech writers have occasionally asked the same basic question: what’s fair?

EMV, MIFARE and FeliCa all have licensing and certification fees that all customers (developers) pay. Apple has gone to a lot of expense licensing those technologies in addition to licensing a GlobalPlatfrom Secure Element that they build into their own Apple Silicon. Those costs are recouped by Apple Pay transaction fees and fund future developments like digital keys with UWB, ID and other Wallet goodies we’ll get later on in the iOS 15 cycle.

I guess EU regulators want to give those away free to EU banking interests and let them have their way in the interest of ‘open standards’ that they define and end up protecting the home turf. That sounds like a good deal to me.