A iPhone X NFC failure story, for the user and for Apple

The iPhone X NFC problem will continue to be a problem as long as there are iPhone X users out there. The daily number of hits to those relevant posts tells me so. I ran across a Japanese iPhone X failure tweet a while back. Suica stopped working with a Wallet error: the maximum number of Apple Pay cards (zero) has been reached. Other iPhone X NFC failures report a similar error. I retweeted it hoping all worked out for the best. Unfortunately like all things related to the iPhone X NFC problem, it did not. The user gave me an update:

Thanks. I consulted Apple in May. They immediately did a remote diagnosis and told me it was an NFC failure and the repair would be a replacement Â¥70,980. I gave them the information on @Kanjo’s page and twitter, and asked if Apple already knew about this problem.

However, “Your iPhone has already been determined to be faulty, so this we cannot help you. You may want to consult an authorized repair shop or Apple store.” 😢

namahage

One of the weird aspects of the saga is that I’m almost certain it was an Apple employee who emailed and suggested that I gather and compare iPhone X manufacturing dates to find the cause. That and the internal Apple Support doc says all that you need to know: Apple knew iPhone X NFC was defective but chose to ignore the problem and ride it out.

Apple chose this path of inaction because: (1) it was only a problem in Japan as Japan was the only country with Apple Pay Express Transit at the time, (2) Apple considered the Japanese market expendable enough to hang out and dry because Japanese customers don’t complain loudly like American and European customers or at least enough to cross the language barrier (so convenient that), (3) the IT tech press wasn’t competent enough to catch and report the issue.

One thing is certain, no way could Apple get away with ignoring such a problem today. It’s a crime that iPhone X users never got the Apple repair program they deserved.

Final thoughts on iOS 15 Apple Maps

Reviewing Apple Maps is impossible because it’s not the same product everywhere. The iOS 15 Apple Maps users get in California is completely different from the Apple Maps users get in Japan. The vast collection of services under the Maps umbrella is such that a comprehensive overview would require separate reviews of each category and country: (1) Directions: driving, transit, bike, walking, (2) Search: pre-canned Nearby, Point of Interest, etc. (3) The two different versions of Look Around, (4) Guides, (5) Cartography design and map data quality.

The reason for this of course is that much of Apple Maps is outsourced, very little is collected in-house and created by Apple. So Apple uses many different local data suppliers of varying quality to deliver most of these services for each country. And most regions outside of major metropolitan areas only offer a small sub-set of those services.

Nobody maps the vast world Apple Maps better than Justin O’Beirne but even he limits his analysis to cartography, Apple data collection and feature availability. His useful availability table illustrates the dilemma, as you can see Maps feature availability is all over the place.

Justin O’Beirne Apple Maps Feature Availability (9/2021)

For this iOS 15 Apple Maps non-review, I’ll limit observations to a few features in Japan, or lack thereof. Before diving in it is important to be acquainted with the basic longstanding quality problems that Apple Maps Japan has suffered from:

  • Poor quality map data from supplier Increment P, especially weak in rural areas. Apple could easily and greatly improve their map product by switching to Zenrin.
  • Extremely uneven quality from Point of Interest (POI) data suppliers
  • Poor data vetting and coordination on the Apple Maps system side (duplicates, etc.) with no real way to report duplication errors.
  • Poor Japanese typography, specifically unfamiliarity with or unwillingness to accommodate and optimize non-roman character sets like Kanji that have special rules for legibility.

I created a similar feature availability chart to O’Beirne’s one, focusing only on Japan and clearly separating out Apple in-house and 3rd party supplied data. The only truly and widely available feature beyond the basics (Driving, Walking, Nearby) is Transit Directions.

iOS 15 New Cartography
All countries, more or less, get the Apple Maps ‘new look’ cartography which everybody seems to either love or hate neatly summed up in the above Twitter timeline screenshot. Justin O’Beirne will be covering it soon and won’t repeat his efforts here. Let’s start with the basic new UI elements. iOS 15 Apple Maps has 4 views compared with the 3 views of previous iOS versions: Explore, Driving, Transit, Satellite. Explore is new and serves as the default view for exploring details and Points of Interest (POI) in full glory, or drowning in gory details…depending on your point of view.

Explore attempts to limit POI clutter with a new map design element: the ‘micro POI’. Micro POI are textless small dots using the same POI color scheme that tells the users there is more information available by zooming in. It’s a nice idea that Google Maps cribbed and implemented in better (bigger, higher contrast, easy to see) fashion that Apple.

The micro POI failure in Apple Maps is due to another new map element: highlighted commercial areas. Google Maps has highlighted commercial areas with a slightly different background color for some time. Apple Maps now highlights these areas with a pale orange background color that separates it from the standard grey background of non-commercial areas. Unfortunately the commercial POI color is also orange…so you end up with orange text on orange background. Micro POI look better in Dark Mode because the different background color adds most contrast. Hopefully Apple will continue to improve their new design to match the clarity and high contrast readability of Google and Yahoo Japan.

Japanese typography problems remain
The new cartography is a mixed bag on the colored Kanji typography front. Dark mode has improved dramatically but regular light mode still suffers from low contrast where the text color is almost the same as the background color. And Apple Maps still does ‘fukuro moji‘ wrong, there are too many times where there should be a black outline instead of white to make the text label readable. This issue is the perfect opportunity for AI that intelligently delivers the best display typography whatever the background is. Google Maps is remains miles ahead here and also respects user dynamic text size and bold text settings which Apple Maps completely ignores.

Transit Improvements
Transit notifications are finally here but in my extensive testing, I found the design to be weird, inconsistent and the notification mechanism is not reliable. First of all Transit directions take over the screen like driving directions but only when set in iPhone but not, Apple Watch. Transfer and destination notifications are non standard app only banners that are also work differently on Apple Watch: they only show when Apple Maps is in the background.

The notification mechanism itself is GPS based and doesn’t work well in subways or big stations like Shinjuku that have notoriously bad GPS reception. Most of the time I get ‘next station disembark’ alerts after the train pulls out of Shinjuku. It’s the same story for Ikebukuro, Tokyo, Shibuya, and other major stations.

Transit directions now includes train car exit information, but real time transit and train crowding information is still missing. All of these have been on Google Maps in Japan for some time and the UI is much more useful for searching transit route options.

One last time
I’ll close out this post and Apple Maps coverage with some final thoughts on the Japan product. Apple Maps reaches the 10 year mark in 2022, the ‘New Maps’ effort will be 4 years old. Things have improved for some regions but the overall level of fit and polish feels the same because the same old iOS 6 era problems lurk under the new candy coated surface. The more I use iOS 15 Apple Maps, the less I like it.

The basic malaise of Apple Maps in Japan is focus. The product team thinks that throwing questionable new features into the mix, the new cartography design, Look Around, etc., make a better product. They don’t. They don’t because each new feature is not best in class and/or doesn’t address the needs of the region. The result is a highly integrated collection of mediocre mini products and services. It doesn’t add up…the total is less than the sum of the parts.

Compare that to the success of the highly focused Apple Pay Japan, Jennifer Bailey’s team built a very strong foundation and improved it from there. Take Look Around for example, Tokyo data is from 2019 and has not been updated since then (as of this writing in October 2021) and it’s a confusing mix where some Tokyo Look Up areas have POI information and some don’t. Tokyo changes quickly but Look Around is not improving or even keeping up and the data collection effort remains very limited compared to America, Europe and Australia. The perplexing Editor Recommendation Guides are in English language only in a Japanese language product. Indoor maps don’t include stations. And so it goes.

Instead of spreading themselves thin, Apple would do better to put new features on hold and rebuild the basic foundation. Because until that happens, Apple Maps Japan, a product that still refuses to name the Sea of Japan, is going nowhere.


iOS 15 Apple Maps User Reaction Gallery


Previous Apple Maps JP coverage:
iOS 15 Apple Maps wish list
Apple ‘Look Around’ Japan launch
iOS 14 Apple Maps wish list

October 23~24 Yamanote Line Inner Circle service suspension detour transfer guidance

Apple Pay Suica or PASMO commuter pass users who need to detour during October 23~24 must not use automatic gates, use the station agent window reader instead

The JR Shibuya station platform and track realignment of the Yamanote Inner Circle line takes place October 23~24 (unless bad weather postpones it to November 20~21). All Yamanote Inner Circle train service between Ikebukuro and Osaki stations is suspended all day, both days.

JR East has posted multilingual information (English, Chinese, Korean) that includes detour transfer guidance to non-JR lines during the line closure. The English wording is fuzzy because the exact distinctions between mag-strip commuter passes, Suica commuter passes and Suica IC transit fare are not always clear to the reader. It’s also important to understand detour transfer rules.

Detour Transfers
Tokyo area transit operators have special detour transfer rules to deal with transit situations when there is an unexpected stoppage and in-transit users suddenly need to use a different transit route from the normal one to reach their destination. Detour transfers have one rule for Suica or PASMO commuter passes, both mobile and plastic: do not use automatic transit gates during the detour portion of the route, go to a station agent window gate instead and use the reader. The station agent checks the validity of the commuter pass and waves you through, the NFC equivalent of visually inspecting printed tickets and passes. Regular non-commuter pass Suica, PASMO and other transit cards are outside of detour transfer rules and are charged normal IC transit fare.

For example, my normal commute route from JR Asagaya to Tokyu Ikegami has a line transfer point at Gotanda. A Gotanda transfer isn’t possible during the service suspension. Instead I plan to transfer at Shibuya to the Tokyu Toyoko line, ride to Jiyugaoka > transfer to Tokyu Ooimachi line > transfer at Hatanodai to Tokyu Ikegami line > exit at Ikegami.

In this case I make 2 automatic gate reads and 2 station agent window reads with my Apple Watch Suica commute pass: the JR Asagaya start point (automatic gate as always), leaving JR Shibuya (JR station agent window reader) transfer to Tokyu Toyoko line (Tokyu station agent window reader), Tokyu Ikegami (automatic gate as always).

This poster at the Tokyu Ikegami station clearly shows the ‘do not use automatic gates during detour rule,’ and which kinds of tickets can be used for detour transfers: Suica and PASMO commuter passes and all mag strip passes and tickets. For Apple Pay Suica and PASMO commuter passes, always use the station agent window reader on the detour portion and you’ll reach your final destination even with a long detour.

My Cousin Apple Pay

So the EU is going ahead with ‘open NFC’ antitrust charges against Apple. As posted back in August 2020, the whole open vs closed debate is not easy to define. It’s probably easier to look at it from the simplistic App Store debate of letting developers bypass Apple’s in-app payment mechanism to avoid paying the ‘Apple Tax’, because that’s the box most people will understand.

We’ve already seen banks and Apple chafing over transactions fees on multiple occasions, the latest being ‘Banks Pressuring Visa to Cut Back on Apple Pay Fees‘ because Apple dared release their own credit card under the Mastercard brand via Goldman Sachs. German banks and Australian banks in particular demand the right to use iPhone NFC in their own payment apps instead of Wallet so they can harvest the user data they can’t get via Apple Pay and drop Apple Pay support all together in favor of their own proprietary payment apps (our exclusive card comes with our exclusive app). But there’s an aspect of the ‘open’ argument that will not be discussed by EU regulators, the banks and credit card companies.

I’ve been watching ‘My Cousin Vinny’ a lot recently. I love the courtroom scenes with Joe Pesci’s Vinny character turning the prosecution arguments upside down. There’s a key scene early on when Vinny uses a pack of cards to convince Ralph Macchio’s character to give Vinny a chance to defend him: ‘the prosecutors are gonna show you bricks with solid straight sides and corners, but they’re going to show them in a very special way’ so that judge and jury see bricks instead of playing cards, which is what ‘open NFC’ arguments are: paper card illusions.

NFC is just hardware, it’s worthless without the software protocols that drive it. NFC also has different definitions. The bank industry defines NFC as NFC A-B ISO/IEC 14443. The NFC Forum defines NFC as NFC A-B-F for device certification. On the protocol side the bank industry defines NFC as EMV because this is their industry standard created and managed by EMVCo (Europay-Mastercard-VISA initially, now collectively owned by American Express, Discover, JCB, Mastercard, UnionPay and Visa).

Are EU regulators going to argue that ‘open NFC’ is defined as NFC A-B-F on the hardware side and EMV, MIFARE, FeliCa protocols on the software side? Of course not. They will narrowly define their Vinny brick as NFC A-B and EMV, and maybe Calypso as the transit protocol is used in France for transit. Why would they do that?

It’s very simple. European banking interests don’t want to pay transaction fees to Apple, the Apple Pay tax. They want to cut out the middle man with their own exclusive apps and harvest user data. They don’t want inconvenient questions such as why there are all those different NFC standards and protocols out there, how this came to be and what really constitutes ‘open’. Why did the ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee choose Phillips NFC-A and Motorola NFC-B while shutting out Sony NFC-F? Was that part of creating an ‘open’ and level NFC playing field on the global marketplace? Of course not, it was about playing favorites while shutting Sony and Japan out of the game. Now they want to do the same to Apple Pay. I still think Junya Suzuki is right: the EU will never demand the same thing of Samsung Pay or Huawei Pay that they are demanding from Apple.

Sawada Sho tweeted a thoughtful question recently regarding the App Store in-app payment controversy. He pointed out that gaming and other platforms charge developers great deal of money for hardware and software access, nobody questions that. Apple offers a lot of access for a very low price, is it fair to demand free passage on the App Store because it is Apple? Sho san thinks the Apple transaction cut is a fair tradeoff. Some tech writers have occasionally asked the same basic question: what’s fair?

EMV, MIFARE and FeliCa all have licensing and certification fees that all customers (developers) pay. Apple has gone to a lot of expense licensing those technologies in addition to licensing a GlobalPlatfrom Secure Element that they build into their own Apple Silicon. Those costs are recouped by Apple Pay transaction fees and fund future developments like digital keys with UWB, ID and other Wallet goodies we’ll get later on in the iOS 15 cycle.

I guess EU regulators want to give those away free to EU banking interests and let them have their way in the interest of ‘open standards’ that they define and end up protecting the home turf. That sounds like a good deal to me.

A very strange Apple Pay Suica outage

The October 5 Apple Pay & Wallet outage that went completely unnoticed outside of Japan and Hong Kong was a very strange one. That’s because it was a very specific outage: ‘truth on the card’ transit cards with a stored value balance. But not all transit cards, only Suica, PASMO and Octopus. Similar transit cards such as Clipper, SmarTrip and TAP were unaffected. The former are FeliCa cards, the latter are MIFARE cards.

Let’s translate the Apple speak from the iCloud System Status page. Some users = FeliCa stored value card users, specifically: Suica, PASMO and Octopus. In addition to the not being able to add, suspend or remove existing cards, users could not recharge them (reload, top up, add money, etc.) but this issue was not listed. The add, suspend or remove existing card label gives us a big clue.

It soon became clear from the cacophony of Japanese tweet complaints that FeliCa credit/debit cards on the iD and QUICPay side were not a problem, only the stored value (SV) recharge, and practically unnoticed, Toyota Wallet iD prepaid card recharge. Meanwhile, Android Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO users didn’t have any problems at all, everything worked fine. Bingo, the outage was an Apple Pay server problem, not caused by Mobile Suica or Mobile PASMO which was mistakenly reported by the Japanese media.

From the get-go Mobile Suica and PASMO support said it only an Apple Pay problem. Octopus Cards Limited, confoundedly coy as usual, didn’t say which ‘top up’ service wasn’t working but we damn well know it was Apple Pay. Overworked Suica, PASMO and Octopus support folk were left to clean up a recharge mess because the Apple Pay outage hit exactly at peak Tokyo morning commute time in the first real commuting week since the State of Emergency was lifted.

There was also another fascinating issue going on that most people didn’t pick up on. Suica and PASMO Apps offer 2 kinds of recharge: Apple Pay and their own direct credit card recharge system. Because Suica App recharge is independent of Apple Pay and deals directly with the Suica SV on the device, similar to adding cash at a station kiosk, it should have worked during the Apple Pay outage…but it did not. Why?

The FeliCa on Apple Pay story is a deep one. To date Apple Pay is the only digital wallet platform that offers all flavors of NFC (A-B-F) with the major transaction protocols that go with them, (EMV, FeliCa and MIFARE) as standard on all Apple NFC (and now also NFC + UWB) devices. The industry scuttlebutt in Japan is that to make this happen, Apple licensed a Mobile FeliCa key server from FeliCa Networks to manage their own Apple Pay devices. This indicates Apple’s commitment but I also believe was setup this way so that Apple Pay can safely backup the FeliCa card SV balance in Wallet if something goes wrong with the device or if some glitch happens during the recharge process from a credit/debit card, either Apple Pay (Wallet) or independent app (Suica, PASMO, Toyota Wallet).

Here is my take of what happened. Apple is preparing to launch 2 new FeliCa SV eMoney cards on Apple Pay very soon, WAON and nanaco. That means they need to reconfigure their FeliCa key server and Apple Pay server so that WAON and nanaco SV card balances are well protected because WAON and nanaco card balances are much bigger than Suica or PASMO, up to Â¥40,000. If anything happens to the device, WAON and nanaco must always appear in the iOS 15 Wallet Previous Cards screen, otherwise users will freakout and won’t touch Apple Pay again. Hence the add, suspend, remove Apple Pay FeliCa SV card outage. It was a server configuration mistake on the Apple Pay side related to WAON and nanaco preparations to make sure those bigger card balances are ironclad protected.

In other words, WAON and nanaco are coming with iOS 15.1.