Mobile FeliCa evolution: FeliCa without the FeliCa chip

Mobile FeliCa is a Java Card applet on a secure element (SE). If the right applet is present with the right keys, and the CLF (contactless front-end) is configured to route Type F frames to the SE, you can enable Mobile FeliCa on any SE.

FeliCa Dude

FeliCa Dude did his annual public service of posting Mobile FeliCa details for the latest Pixel 6 devices. There wasn’t any change from Pixel 5, so no global NFC Pixel for inbound visitors. Nevertheless it’s a good opportunity to review some important recent developments that have taken place behind the scenes on the Android Mobile FeliCa side and examine some possible future scenarios. Android users don’t see any difference, but things have changed a lot under the hood.

All smartphones are required to have NFC A-B-F support for NFC certification. All smartphones can read and write all types of NFC, however the software that supports Secure Element transactions is another story. Up until Pixel 3, Android vendors usually only preinstalled EMV and MIFARE, not Mobile FeliCa unless they were doing a special hardware model for Japan. Then came Google Pixel 4 that changed everything, one basic model with the same hardware sold everywhere. The chart outlines Mobile FeliCa on Google Pixel developments based on information from FeliCa Dude. Mobile FeliCa v4 has a lot of changes, listed below by version.

Mobile FeliCa 4.0 (Pixel 4) freed Android device manufacturers from having to use embedded secure element + NFC chips from the FeliCa Networks supply chain. Any FAST certified secure element will do, from NXP, STMicroelectronics, Thales, and other NFC chipset providers. Mobile FeliCa is pre-installed on all Pixel 4 and later models but only enabled for JP models. Other Android manufacturers selling Mobile FeliCa capable devices in Japan are now doing what Google is doing. This development has resulted in a number of inexpensive Osaifu-Keitai SIM-Free smartphones released by Chinese manufacturers recently that are selling well. Hopefully it will have wider implications for inexpensive global NFC Android devices with pre-installed, fully enabled, Mobile FeliCa. There are lots of people in Hong Kong who would buy one to use Octopus.

Mobile FeliCa 4.1 (Pixel 5/Pixel 6) introduced multiple secure element domains. This allows the device manufacturer to ‘own’ the eSE and load or delete Java Card applets. FeliCa Dude thinks that multiple secure element domains (MSED) might play a part in the MIC digital My Number Card due to launch on Osaifu Keitai devices in 2022 (now delayed until April 2023). My Number card uses NFC-B but MSED allows the Mobile FeliCa secure element to host it anyway, an interesting development.

Mobile FeliCa 4.2 or 5.0? The next version of Mobile FeliCa (MF) will hopefully support FeliCa SD2 next generation features that shipped in November 2020, features that power Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit Cards launched in March 2022. These cards need to be on mobile for future MaaS service plans outlined by JR East which cannot happen until SD2 features are added.

The improvements in MF 4.1 certainly give Android device manufacturers the ability to update it over the air but don’t hold your breath. Standard industry practice to date has been ‘buy a new device to get new features’. Apple has been somewhat better in this regard: MIFARE support was added in iOS 12 for Student ID cards and iOS 15 fixed some Calypso bugs on ‌iPhone‌ XR/XS and ‌iPhone‌ SE.

An old FeliCa Dude Reddit post comment regarding Asus smartphones illustrates the pre-MF 4.0 situation: “any phone that lists ‘NFC’ compliance must support Type F (FeliCa), but as there is no Osaifu-Keitai secure element <aka Mobile FeliCa secure element>, you will be limited to reading and potentially charging physical cards: you cannot use the phone as a card itself.”

That was then, this is now.

People assume FeliCa support requires a FeliCa chip but this is not true. The evolution of hardware independent preinstalled Mobile FeliCa 4.x is very clear: the ‘FeliCa chip’ from Sony/FeliCa Networks requirement is long dead and gone. Manufacturers like Xiaomi and Motorola claim they make special models with FeliCa chips just for the Japanese market, but that’s just marketing BS: they have copied Google’s Pixel strategy and run Mobile FeliCa on the same NXP or Thales NFC chipsets they use in the products they ship everywhere.

Modern smartphones supporting FeliCa don’t have a FeliCa chip, everything from EMV to FeliCa and MIFARE runs on any GlobalPlatform certified secure element on any Android device. The key issue is not hardware anymore, it is what gets preinstalled and what does not. EMV is the default preinstall on all NFC secure elements. In the case of Google Pixel 4 and later, Mobile FeliCa is preinstalled in all models but disabled on non-JP models. Other Android manufactures are doing the same.

Hopefully the sum of recent Mobile FeliCa v4 developments, along with Garmin Suica, Fitbit Suica and WearOS Suica support, indicate that Mobile FeliCa Osaifu Keitai services will, eventually, become standard on Android devices as they have been on all iOS and watchOS devices since 2017.

Last updated 2023-04-01