Mobile FeliCa evolution: FeliCa without the FeliCa chip

FeliCa Dude did his usual 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 2022 scenarios. Things have changed even if most users don’t notice any difference.

The chart outlines Mobile FeliCa on Google Pixel developments based on information from FeliCa Dude’s tweets.

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. 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. 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. 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 (aka Super Suica) which are going wide in March 2022. These cards really 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 MF 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 a little bit 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.

A 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.

Most people assume FeliCa support requires a Felica chip but this is not true. The evolution of hardware independent Mobile FeliCa is very clear: the ‘FeliCa chip’ from Sony/FeliCa Networks requirement is long dead and gone. Manufacturers like Xiaomi claim they make special models and add FeliCa chips just for the Japanese market, but that’s just marketing BS: they run Mobile FeliCa on the same NXP NFC chipset they sell everywhere. The majority of 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.

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