iOS 14 App Clips unlock the power of NFC background tags

We first got of taste of iOS 14 App Clips with the slick Titanium Apple Card setup that leverages the background NFC background tag read ability of iPhone XR/XS and later. Jennifer Bailey gave a sneak peek of NFC background tag Apple Pay in May 2019 but the pieces weren’t in place for a rollout.

The first problem was the iPhone lineup. iPhone 8 didn’t fit because only A12 Bionic and later support NFC background tag reading. This was solved with the release iPhone SE with A13 Bionic and the deletion of iPhone 8 from the lineup.

The second problem was the clunky ‘launch an app’ or ‘launch Safari’ problem. This has been a problem for NFC tag solution providers like SmartPlate. User interaction needs to reside on the pop-up sheet on the unlocked screen. The new iOS 14 App Clips framework that works hand in hand with iOS 14 Core NFC to load just what is needed to take care of the NFC tag transaction at hand, is the right solution.

The pieces appear to fit very nicely now: the NFC background tag sheet pops-up ‘while the screen is on’, the right code snippets load in the sheet, the user can Sign In with Apple ID if needed, and pay with Apple Pay. Simple, uncluttered action; no apps, no Safari launch. And we have background NFC tag reading on every current iPhone model.

There are a few flies in the ointment:

  • (1) Face ID in the face mask era is not a great unlock or Apple Pay user experience, App Clip powered NFC background tag reading is gonna rock on iPhone SE with Touch ID.
  • (2) a network connection is required, Apple Pay transactions at the NFC reader works without a network connection but App Clips + Apple Pay transactions need a network connection for the obvious reasons of loading app clip content, and because of this…
  • (3) a weak borderline WiFi connection can jam the above process even with WiFi Assist turned on.

The NFC advantage over QR Codes here is that background tag reading automatically pulls up the App Clip sheet ‘while the screen is on’ while QR Code users have to manually pull up the QR reader app to join the fun.

The combination of App Clips, NFC tags and Apple Pay will be extremely disruptive in markets where NFC and QR payment players are very competitive. Places like Japan. PayPay and Line Pay will lose their edge. If they are smart, they can add NFC tag support in their payment apps. And they can bypass Apple Pay if they want to, though it won’t be as slick. Ultimately they are not wedded to QR codes and have always said they would add NFC if customers want it.

App Clips finally unlocks the power of background NFC tag reading and is the other big Apple Pay development, in addition to CarKey, announced at WWDC20. App Clips puts NFC tags on equal footing with QR Codes for the first time with the added edge of the ‘when the screen is on’ background tag read sheet pop-ups. This will be huge.

Advertisements

Dear Starbucks, please give us a NFC Starbucks rewards card

The Starbuck app server was down this morning. Fortunately my daily Starbucks has Suica payments and the staff kindly stamped customer receipts so everybody could get the Starbucks Card refill discount. I posted a silly throwaway tweet about it but received some thoughtful reader feedback that put things in perspective.

On the surface it’s true that Apple controls Wallet NFC card access with PassKit NCF Certificates. However, the Mobile Starbucks Card for Osaifu Keitai came out in March 2014, two years before FeliCa made it into iPhone 7. The mobile card was put out by Starbucks Japan which was not majority owned by Starbucks USA. USA corporate bought out the Japanese business partner at the end of 2014 and brought it under full control. Up until then Starbucks Japan stock was a popular item for the free coffee ticket goodies that came with it. The food was better too. Mobile Starbucks is a relic that will likely be ditched at some point, like the free coffee tickets and good food.

Starbucks USA has never shown any real interest in creating a NFC rewards card. They chose the barcode app route that supports direct bank card registration and recharge. Eventually they added in-app Apple Pay and Google Pay support. Silly market analysts announced that Starbucks app was ‘bigger than Apple Pay’, until they decided that Apple Pay was bigger than apps after all.

Starbucks has put real effort into protecting staff and customers during the COVID crisis. It’s an amazing effort that doesn’t get much attention. Despite this, physical Starbucks Cards are still mag strip cards handed over to staff and swiped at checkout. If Starbucks put out a digital wallet Starbucks Card, how should they do it?

The easiest way on iOS would be an Apple VAS NFC contactless pass. In Japan this is what PONTA and d POINT cards are. Apple VAS is NFC A but it works in combination with any Apple Pay payment protocol, EMV, FeliCa, PBOC, etc. Smart Tap is a similar rewards card NFC method for Google Pay.

This is what customers get when they pay with ‘Apple Pay’ on the Lawsons JP POS system: the reader polls the Wallet default payment card and rewards card, the payment transaction occurs and points are automatically added to the rewards card.

This flexible ‘2 in 1’ contactless payment + rewards package would be very nice to have with Starbucks Card. For app users it would eliminates the ‘open app, pull up barcode, make sure card has enough balance’ nonsense that happens far too often and is easily thwarted by a weak WiFi signal. It would also reduce handling physical cards at checkout.

Unfortunately this requires a POS system that supports NFC contactless, and Starbucks in Japan only supports popular contactless payment cards like Suica and PASMO when the store location is in a station retail area. Starbucks has demonstrated a lot of forward looking business sense in the COVID era so far. I hope they rethink their Japanese POS strategy and incorporate contactless payments and reward cards as standard at all store locations.

PassKit NFC Certificates and the Apple Pay EU antitrust investigation

The EU antitrust investigation of Apple Pay boils down to this: does Apple have the right to be the gatekeeper of its Embedded Secure Element (eSE) in the Apple A/S Series chip, does Apple ‘own’ it? As of iOS 13 any Apple Pay eSE transaction that involves payments, transit, identity cards and contactless passes requires a PassKit NFC Certificate.

Apple has put massive effort and resources into making Apple Pay an easy seamless experience. Users don’t have to think about EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, or NFC flavors. It just works. The price for using this is that 3rd party card and pass developers have to obtain a NDA PassKit NFC Certificate, reside in Wallet, and share a transaction cut with Apple. Apps are free to use iOS 13 Core NFC tag reading enhancements but NFC eSE transactions are not allowed, unless they have inner sanctum NFC Certificate access.

Australian banks fought Apple Pay in 2017 and complained to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), demanding that direct NFC access for their apps is a ‘right’ but lost. The EU antitrust investigation will likely follow a similar path and attempt to force Apple to: 1) allow apps to access the eSE for payment transactions without using Apple Pay or Wallet, 2) lower fees for the 3rd party players who use Apple Pay.

We’ll see how it plays out. We’ll also see if Apple has any iOS 14 Apple Pay changes in store. I agree with Junya Suzuki’s spot take, who’s knowledge of the payments market, the players and the technology is second to none, that the EU would never demand the same thing of Samsung or Huawei that they are demanding from Apple. In other words, politics.

iOS 14 Apple Maps Japan Wish List: filling the blanks

Apple Maps Japan can’t catch a break. Traffic has been available since September 2019 but only got listed on the feature availability page last week, June 2020. Handa International Airport is currently listed for indoor maps but the data isn’t there. And so it goes for the Apple Maps 2.0 reboot. Here is a quick list of missing features along with some new feature requests.

Missing Pieces

There are several iOS 13 Apple Maps features that have not made it to Japan:

Apple Maps 2.0
New maps were rolled out in America in January 2020 with Europe slated next. A rollout for Japan has not been announced but Apple Maps vans and walkers are in the field working on it. Justin O’Beirne posted screenshots of Apple Maps’ cartography evolution from 2013~2019. The basic design language for urban areas hasn’t really changed the entire time. Cartography for Japanese urban areas is already drowning in detail and screams for an overhaul to make it intelligent and easy to use: a more unified cartography that does a better job of incorporating transit instead of useless separate ‘views’.

More accurate detail is welcome but I don’t think Apple can ever get the whole picture by themselves. Google Maps real genius is it’s deft ability to synthesize disparate data suppliers in a seamlessly whole service. Apple Maps biggest single failure, from day one to today, is it’s utter inability to synthesize various data suppliers into a solid service.

It’s a chunky clunky Japanese product, from eternally 3rd rate map data from IPC on down to Foursquare. Top Japanese map data supplier Zenrin is the logical choice especially since Google dropped them, but Apple doesn’t seem inclined to switch, nor could they intelligently integrate it.

Justin O’Beirne: The Evolution of Apple Maps’s Cartography

Look Around
It would be very nice to have this feature in Japan.

Junction View
Navigating complicated elevated expressways in urban areas isn’t just in mainland China, it’s been a fact of Japanese urban driving since the 1960s’. Junction View like navigation has been standard in Japanese navigation systems for a long time, it should be standard in Apple Maps too.

Real-time transit
Another no-brainer transit feature for Japan, but Japan is a low priority and the transit system is complex. There are plenty of transit data suppliers but given Apple Maps limited ability to integrate different transit data sets, I think it will be a long time before we see the addition of real-time transit in Japan, if ever.

There are small tweaks Apple could make to transit directions that would make them much more useful such as transfer station platform numbers and crowd conditions, features that Google and Yahoo Japan have offered for a long time.

New Features

The iOS 14 Apple Maps wish list has some repeats from the 2019 wish list:

  • Adaptive transit times: car and walk navigation is adaptive: if you take a different road the navigation route updates automatically. Transit directions need to be adaptive too.
  • Crowding information: Yahoo Japan offers crowd heat maps for locations, both Yahoo Japan and Google Japan maps offer rudimentary transit crowd information. In the COVID era crowd information for transit and locations is a must have feature.
  • Improved Apple Watch transit integration: Apple Watch turn by turn navigation integration with iPhone is excellent but transit integration is weak and passive. The current iOS 13/watchOS 6 version ‘sits on the wrist’ without alerts, haptic feedback or much interaction, and it’s brain dead after switching to another watch app.
  • Indoor/Underground Station Maps: Last but not least real indoor maps for vital station hubs covering Tokyo, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Osaka, Namba, etc.
  • Offline navigation: Apple Maps turn by turn won’t be completely reliable unless it navigates in expressway tunnels instead of dying.

Transit Gate Evolution: why tap speed matters

As COVID restrictions are eased and the world slowly goes back to work, school and hopefully slightly more normal life, avoiding crowds will be key in keeping COVID from becoming resurgent in the months ahead.

For commuters in Japanese metro areas avoiding crowds is no easy matter. Fortunately the Japanese transit gate infrastructure is a great help. FeliCa based IC transit cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.) with fast transaction speeds combined with open gate flap design maximizes people flow: people walk through gates at normal pace. This is very important for Japanese stations that have to make do with large crowds in limited spaces and smaller gate areas.

It’s wrong however, to think that this only applies to Japan. The benefits of fast tap speed combined with intelligent transit gate design are relevant everywhere and very necessary in this day and age: fast gate tap speed is essential in keeping gate crowding at a minimum. It makes things safer not only for train operation, but also addresses crowd control health concerns in the COVID era.

A reader sent a link to a good discussion of NFC protocols and gate tap speeds that was apparently deleted when YouTube comments were turned off. I retyped the comment below from a screenshot with some light editing for clarity. If I find the author I’ll link to the original. The videos have already appeared in other posts but it’s good have them in one place. A previous installment already covered QR transit code gate issues, this post will focus on NFC.


While transit gates and NFC processors are found worldwide, what makes the Japanese gates different from the rest of the world is they don’t use global standard ISO 14443 (never mind Type A which uses Miller bit coding, the least efficient bit coding method) protocol which is common in many transit and bank cards issued worldwide.

The tap time with ISO 14443 Type A (née Philips) and B (née Motorola) varies greatly: from 200 to 500 milliseconds (ms) with 200 ms only achievable with Type B/Calypso. But it never reaches the short as 100 ms which is only achieved with Felica developed by Sony, also designated NFC-F and NFC Tag Type 3 by the NFC Forum and compatible with ISO 18092 which is commonly found in smartphones and NFC wearables since 2013. In this following video passengers maintain their walking pace but never overshoot and trigger a gate closure nor slow down not even a bit:

It may seem like a minor difference but due to the high volume of passengers per gate and to reduce gate maintenance requirements, tap times really matter.

Companies such as JR East have specified tap time of 200 ms but Suica is actually faster and this allows real life speed tolerances: some passengers tap faster than others due to walking pace, the higher speed tolerances are only possible with the 100 ms tap time of FeliCa. A comparison example of large crowds at gates in Malaysia and Japan below:

Open Loop NFC ticketing in its current form is based on EMVCo Contactless specifications adopted in contactless bank cards issued worldwide including China UnionPay QuickPass which is PBOC derived from the EMVCo Contactless spec. All of these use ISO 14443 Type A at 106 kbps only for 500 ms tap time, which is adopted in cities worldwide such as London, New York, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro where normal walking speed is never supported.

But as seen here, transit cards in Japan such as Suica, PASMO and ICOCA are supported for ultra hight speed and precise account verification and fare processing. Transit cards use offline Stored Fare (SF) which includes the amount of funds stored in the card’s IC smart chip data storage, NOT backend on a server like a bank card, and stored commuter passes. Here are walk flow comparisons for Tokyo and London, and MTA OMNY Open Loop performance:

Japanese IT journalist Junya Suzuki tests OMNY transit gate speed…
and reliability

One hopes the NFC Forum works to increase NFC speeds and global specifications to “improve the overall user experience for NFC users.” We shall see.

With the exception of any Apple Pay news from WWDC20, this will be my last big post for a while. Stay healthy, stay safe and have a great summer.