How much will 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 less about the app and more about lousy carrier auto-connect • free WiFi connections messing with the Mobile Suica recharge function. 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.

It’s a complete mystery why people even bother using Suica App when so much Mobile Suica functionality is built in Apple Pay Wallet right out of the box. Nevertheless it’s safe to conclude that Suica App user angst is network related. People assume the WiFi and cellular icons at the top of the iPhone screen indicate a healthy internet connection, which they decidedly do not.

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. All that complaining over one Mobile Suica feature however, tells us something important about WiFi and cellular internet connections in station areas and on trains: they suck. Despite ubiquitous 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.

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 (political?) reasons. 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 most of this mess when the service launches in 2023, matching the Mobile Suica experience, feature for feature.