In the Apple Pay monopoly debate context is everything

John Gruber did everyone a favor outlining some of the stakes at play in the remarkably glib, “Remarks by Executive Vice-President Vestager on the Statement of Objections sent to Apple over practices regarding Apple Pay.” The objections are annoyingly vague and refuse to specify how Apple Pay stifled competition and innovation:

(The) Digital Markets Act will…require companies designated as gatekeepers to ensure effective interoperability with hardware and software features they use themselves in their ecosystems. This includes access to NFC for mobile payments.

Today’s case addresses a conduct by Apple that has been ongoing since Apple Pay was first rolled out in 2015 <sic, 2014 actually>. This conduct may have distorted competition on the mobile wallets market in Europe. It prevented emergence of new and innovative competition that could have challenged Apple.

Mark Gurman and Jillian Deutsch at Bloomberg also did everybody a favor unmasking PayPal as one of the instigators behind the EU Commission Apple Pay investigation. Yes, that PayPal…the financial service that snuffs out user accounts whose politics they don’t like, or worse just seizes their money.

Both pieces miss important context surrounding the debate however…and with this issue context is all, especially how Apple Pay is playing out in other global markets. Most of what follows I’ve covered in earlier posts but hope to pull the various issues together in one post. Yet again, we kickoff with an updated Apple Pay diagram.

‘Open’ NFC, gatekeepers and secure element wars
Europe has been calling Apple Pay unfair since the very beginning, with many EU member banks holding out as long as they could. German banks only joined Apple Pay in December 2018 when Vestager was already actively seeking Apple Pay complaints. Less than a year later Germany passed a bill to force Apple to ‘open’ their NFC chip. Australian banks tried the same in 2017.

The so called Apple ‘NFC chip’ is not a chip at all but a hardware/software sandwich. The Apple Pay ecosystem described in iOS Security is a collection of tightly integrated polished pieces: Secure Element, Secure Enclave, NFC Controller, Wallet and Apple Pay Servers, all wrapped into a slick, easy to use UI with a final security wall of ‘secure intent’, a double-click side button hot-wired to the Secure Element. This approach has been so successful that people divide mobile payments history into pre-Apple Pay and post-Apple Pay eras.

NFC has been on Android far longer than iPhone, and ‘open NFC’ at that, but is far less successful capturing mobile payment users than Apple Pay. This is because Android device manufactures made the classic mistake of taking the ‘let’s take awesome NFC technology and figure out how we’re going to market it’ approach. Jennifer Bailey’s Apple Pay team choose the hyper focused Steve Jobs approach of starting with the customer experience and building backwards while asking: “what incredible benefits can we give the customer, where can we take the customer?” That choice made all the difference.

Apple Pay has a very simple rule: any card that loads a Java Card applet into their embedded secure element (eSE) has to reside in Wallet app. The maximum number depends on how many Java Card applets it can hold at any one time, the previous limit was 12, the iOS 15 Wallet limit is 16 cards. Developers have two ways to access iPhone NFC: 1) Core NFC framework for NFC operations that don’t use the secure element, 2) Secure Element pass certificates for NFC operations that need secure element transactions (payments, keys, ID, passes). Any developer who wants to run applets in the eSE has to apply for a PassKit NFC/Secure Element Pass Certificate. This is covered by NDA but a company called PassKit (not Apple) gives us an idea what Apple’s Secure Element Pass guidelines are:

Apple care a great deal about the user experience. Before granting NFC certificate access they will ensure that you have the necessary hardware, software and capabilities to develop or deploy an ecosystem that is going to deliver an experience consistent with their guidelines.

The end to end user experience, the whole reason behind the success of Apple Pay. But this gatekeeping is what riles banks and financial service providers who want to load their applets into the secure element without the Apple Pay gatekeeping, without the Apple Pay ecosystem and without the Apple Pay commission. They want to do their own transactions with their own app for free. This is what the EU Commission means when Vestager says: “Evidence on our file indicates that some developers did not go ahead with their plans as they were not able to to (sic) reach iPhone users.” It should read: when they were not able to reach iPhone users for free. Either the developer didn’t apply for a Secure Element Pass, didn’t pass the certification process, balked at Apple’s certification conditions, or couldn’t agree on Apple Pay commission rates.

Secure element gatekeeping is not new, it is an essential part of the secure element system:

A Secure Element (SE) is a microprocessor chip which can store sensitive data and run secure apps such as payment. It acts as a vault, protecting what’s inside the SE (applications and data) from malware attacks that are typical in the host (i.e. the device operating system). Secure Elements handle all sorts of applications that are vital to our modern digital lives…

Mobile Payments
Here, the Secure Element securely stores card/cardholder data and manages the reading of encrypted data. During a payment transaction it acts like a contactless payment card using industry standard technology to help authorize a transaction. The Secure Element could either be embedded in the phone or embedded in your SIM card.

Lifecycle management
It’s crucial that SE-embedded devices are secure throughout their lifecycle. That’s why Secure Elements need to have an end-to-end security strategy. It’s no use developing a robust security solution for a device which becomes obsolete after a period of use. This is why Secured Elements can be updated continuously to counter new threats.

What is a secure element?

Few people, especially a PayPal or EU Commission vice president, discuss the crucial secure element lifecycle management aspect. It’s not convenient for them to say the secure element ‘gatekeeper’ is responsible for keeping it secure. Far more convenient for their arguments to omit this, portray gatekeeping as unnecessary and gatekeepers as evil. In the end however, Apple has to maintain secure element updates from the various licensed secure element providers (EMV,FeliCa Networks, MIFARE, and so on) if secure payments are going to work at all This is what people who say, ‘it’s my device, we should be able to use NFC how we want,’ do not understand.

People also forget that nothing is free, you get what you pay for. With Apple Pay as gatekeeper, users get simplicity, innovation and feature updates. Simplicity: users get NFC they can use out of the box without Android-like NFC complexity such as secure element positions and obscure express mode settings.

Innovation: Apple Pay has features like Global NFC. iPhone and Apple Watch are the only smart devices that come with FeliCa built in as standard to use in Hong Kong or Japan, while Android limits functionality by market region. It’s astounding that Android, not even Google Pixel Android, has matched this basic functionality yet. We’re seeing more innovation as Ultra Wide Band (UWB) extends Wallet functionality to include ‘Touchless’ car keys and eventually, UWB enhanced automatic card selection as you approach the reader; more helpful than you might think.

Feature updates that, ‘just work’: the recent seamless Apple Cash switch from Discover to VISA, PBOC 2.0 flavored China T-Union transit cards, MIFARE Student ID, or the addition of in-app purchases and dual mode NFC for Japanese VISA card users when VISA JP finally buried the hatchet with Apple.

And the lesson? Apple Pay changed everything in the Japanese payments market, a catalyst that opened up competition and payment choices, for everybody. All boats rose together. It’s one of the most vibrant payment markets that Apple Pay operates in.

Japan is key to understanding what’s really going on in the Apple Pay monopoly debate. Japan was the first market with an established mobile payment platform in place, long before mobile EMV contactless payments took off in Europe. iPhone also has a much larger marketshare in Japan than it does in Europe. It’s a shame people pass up the opportunity to learn from the successes and failures here.

So what’s the EU Committee vision for ‘open NFC’? I think it’s a rehash of the secure element wars when carriers locked mobile payment services to SIM contracts. In 2013 Google incorporated SimplyTapp HCE (Host Card Emulation ‘secure element in the cloud’) technology as a NFC ‘workaround’ to ‘free’ NFC from the evil clutches of mobile carriers. Sound familiar? Android NFC has never been right since.

How little things change, swap ‘evil mobile carriers’ for ‘evil Apple’ and you have the same self serving ‘open’ vs ‘closed’ NFC chip nonsense that people are debating today. FeliCa Dude, the ultimate industry insider who has experienced it all, said it best: ‘It’s all eSE or nothing now.’

And yet we now have Île-de-France Mobilités (IDFM) turning back the clock, circumventing the eSE on NFC equipped Android devices and going all in with HCE for IDFM’s Smart Navigo service for Android. To me this says all you need to know what European priorities are regarding the ‘open NFC’ model: eliminate eSE gatekeepers by forcing the less secure network dependent HCE as a required option. Good luck with that. From a transit perspective, based on Mobile Suica user experiences, I don’t think HCE Smart Navigo will be a smooth ride.

The EU Committee ‘open NFC’ vision might look ideal…to Apple Pay competitors. Regular users however, will have to deal with the ugly reality of multiple NFC apps, multiple NFC secure element modes and clashing updates that cancel out NFC services. Apple Silicon eSE space is limited to 16 cards. If that sounds like a lot now, wait until you have credit cards, transit cards, home, car and office keys and ID installed along with ‘open’ NFC apps wanting their own eSE space too. Services will be squeezed out forcing the user to intervene. If the EU Committee thinks this environment fosters competition and innovation while growing mobile payment use, dream on.

Japanese tech journalist Junya Suzuki has covered NFC mobile payment developments in Europe, America and Japan for over 2 decades. He doesn’t think the EU is playing an even hand here, in his opinion Samsung and Huawei would never face the scrutiny that Apple now faces. In typical European cultural fashion, EU motives pay lip service to fair open markets while playing an underhanded game of chess to make Apple do what EU banking interests want Apple to do. In other words, a double standard.

What does Apple need to do?
I’ve always said that Apple needs to make the Secure Element Pass application process as transparent as possible. Keeping the blackbox NDA process as it is now makes Apple Pay a target, increasingly difficult to defend the status quo. Secure Element access on the level of Core NFC is a long shot, the very definition of a secure element means there has to be a developer certification process similar to EMVCo, FeliCa Networks, MIFARE, Calypso Networks Association, etc., that protects the privacy and business interests of all parties. But it would be great if there is a middle way where Apple can securely open things up for iPhone as a digital wallet, and iPhone as a payment terminal. We’ll see if Apple has anything to say about the subject at WWDC22.


Recommended reading: Ruimin Yang’s wonderfully detailed analysis, “Apple Pay monopoly, are we really comparing ‘Apples’ with ‘Apples?“outlines the entire Apple Pay system architecture, how it compares to other digital wallet platforms, (Google Pay, Samsung Pay) and what ‘open vs closed’ means in the ‘Apple Pay is a monopoly’ debate.