How much does Smart Navigo HCE suck?

It’s interesting parsing app reviews that say ‘this app sucks’. How does it suck and why? As I’ve said before, the overwhelming negative App Store reviews for Suica App are not about the app but about poor network connectivity kills a connectivity critical service app. The poor connectivity is due to a variety of factors: carrier auto-connect and free WiFi or overloaded mobile connections messing with Mobile Suica recharge and other online functions. People assume the WiFi and cellular icons at the top of the phone screen indicate a healthy internet connection, which they decidedly do not.

Most users see Suica App as the software that controls everything Mobile Suica AND iPhone NFC hardware. It does not of course but people dump all blame on Suica App anyway. Fortunately most of what Mobile Suica does is done without an internet connection. The only time it needs one is recharge time with a credit card in Apple Pay Wallet app or Suica App.

Yet all that complaining over online Mobile Suica app services however, tells us something important about mobile internet connections in station areas, on trains and subways: they suck. Despite ubiquitous 4G LTE~5G cellular and WiFi coverage, reliable internet is notoriously fickle in those famously busy Japanese train stations. This is the real reason behind all those ‘this app sucks’ Suica App reviews. Interestingly enough, this is the same performance gripe with the mobile myki system in Victoria. Like Mobile Suica this became a problem because mobile internet connections weren’t up to the job of delivering reliable, trouble free ‘anytime, anywhere’ recharge/top-up, which people tend to do in transit.

Which brings us to Smart Navigo, the Île-de-France Mobilités (IDFM) Paris region transit card for mobile that is going wide on Android smartphones this year. IDFM has spent a lot of time and expense working with Calypso Networks Association (CNA), the transaction tech used for Navigo, to implement the less secure network dependent Calypso HCE ‘cloud’ secure element approach as the default mobile transit tech for Android devices in 2022.

It is very unusual that IDFM chose HCE as their go to mobile strategy on Android when the more secure hardware embedded secure element (eSE) is standard on all smartphone NFC devices, and does the job without internet connections. HCE is very different from eSE in that both NFC smartphone and the reader need a connection to talk with a server. HCE was also conceived for leisurely supermarket checkout, not the challenging transit enviroment. How does Calypso HCE compare to the network-less eSE experience? CNA says:

For security reasons, transactions using the personalization key or the load key are not possible through the NFC interface, and must be done with a secure connection to a server.

Only the Calypso debit key is stored in the HCE application for validation on entrance and control during travel, coupled with a mechanism of renewal of the Calypso Serial Number (CSN) to mitigate the risk of fraud : a part of the CSN contains date and time of validity of the debit key which shall be checked by the terminals.

Thales says: poor mobile network coverage can make HCE services inaccessible. In short no internet connection, no mobile transit service. Let’s compare the basic mobile transit card features of Mobile Suica with Calypso HCE:

It’s too bad IDFM didn’t study Mobile Suica shortcomings, they could have learned a few things. Most certainly they understand HCE shortcomings but chose it anyway for unknown reasons. Perhaps there are challenges getting Calypso retroactively installed on the eSE on many different Android devices and HCE was the only way to rollout Smart Navigo quickly. The Android platform reputation for keeping devices up to date with the latest software is lousy due to the slow manufacturer response.

Right out of the gate Smart Navigo HCE won’t support power reserve NFC transactions even on Android devices that support it for regular eSE NFC. In total, there are 6 core Smart Navigo features that are internet connection dependent vs 1 Mobile Suica feature. 6 more things to complain about when they don’t work…in other words the Smart Navigo HCE suck index is 6 times greater than Mobile Suica. If Suica App is anything to go by, there are going to be a lot of bad Google Play reviews for the HCE version of the Île-de-France Mobilités App.

iPhone and Apple Watch users can be thankful that Apple Pay Navigo will use eSE (as Samsung Pay Navigo already does), and avoid this mess when the service launches in 2023, matching the Mobile Suica experience, feature for feature.


2022-10-17 UPDATE

Navigo HCE does not support Express Mode, Android users have to wake-unlock-tap to validate. This is the price of using HCE instead of a secure element.

IDFM launched Smart Navigo HCE that does not support an Express Transit mode. Android users have to wake-unlock-tap to validate…the price of using HCE instead of an embedded secure element (eSE). That IDFM and Calypso went with HCE, despite the downsides and the fact that modern NFC capable smartphones all have eSE as standard, is very interesting and speaks volumes about the state of Android NFC and licensing fee headaches. Assume that Mobile Calypso don’t come pre-installed on smartphone eSEs, unlike EMV, then imagine the nightmare of: (1) dealing with all the Android manufacturers to retroactively update their devices so they are compatible with eSE Navigo (such as currently found on compatible Samsung Pay devices), and (2) getting Google Pay on board. Going the HCE route likely avoided a lengthy messy delay getting Navigo on mobile for the Android masses which is by far the majority in France.

This is exactly the mess that Apple Pay takes care of behind the scenes so users don’t see or deal with any of it. That’s the value of having a gatekeeper, better UI and security encourages users to use NFC payments and Apple Pay use far exceeds any other digital wallet…this is the benefit that Apple Pay delivers to developers. Too bad it’s going away for EU users that the EU is forcing Apple to give up their NFC gatekeeping role, which is very sucky indeed.