It’s official: Face ID sucks with face masks

I was disappointed when Daring Fireball finally checked in on the Face ID face mask problem in the iPad Air w/Touch ID power button review. It summed up western tech journalist ignorance and indifference to a big problem that Face ID users in Asia have been dealing with since iPhone X day one. DF’s latest take on the issue in ‘Unlock With Apple Watch’ While Wearing a Face Mask Works in iOS 14.5 is even more disappointing, finally admitting that, “Prior to iOS 14.5, using a Face ID iPhone while wearing a face mask sucked.” This is pure ‘let’s not admit a problem until there’s a fix’ Apple apologia that is all too common on tech sites. DF hasn’t played straight or gotten it right when it comes to the big picture of Face ID. Then again the site is more into politics than tech these days.

Twitter followers pointed out that Apple went with Face ID knowing the trade-offs they were making in Asian markets but it was the right choice. I don’t know how much the Face ID face mask problem was on Apple’s radar during iPhone X development. But there was some arrogant, ‘we can blow off a few Asian customers’ attitude in that choice that Apple is paying for now. Face ID iPhone was quietly removed from how to videos on the Suica•PASMO promotion page in October. Face ID iPhone 12 sales might be driving 5G growth in the USA, but Tsutsumu Ishikawa reports that Touch ID iPhone SE sales in Japan are stalling the 5G transition.

I say this because there was certainly plenty of Apple arrogance when they blew off iPhone X Japanese users suffering from the notorious iPhone X NFC Suica problem. It didn’t matter because it was a iPhone problem…in Japan. It took me 3 exchanges to finally get a NFC problem free iPhone X revision B unit and I was one of the lucky ones. There were, and still are, plenty of iPhone X users fumbling in the dark. To this day iPhone X NFC problem search hits are the #1 hit on this site. Years later I am still outraged by Apple’s secrecy and denial of the issue. There was no excuse hiding the problem so that people would keep buying a defective top of the line product.

So no, I don’t think iOS 14.5 Unlock with Apple Watch is a solution for the Face ID face mask problem. It’s a stop gap until we get an ‘Apple finally figured it out’ iPhone that reviewers will gush over. And it performs like a stop gap: even in iOS 14.5 beta 2, one out of three Face ID with face mask attempts fails for me and performance is often sluggish, particularly glitchy when listening to Apple Music and using Apple Pay Suica transit.

iOS 14.5 Face ID sucks less for Apple Watch users, that’s all. People who make excuses for Apple’s hardware mistakes and missteps aren’t helping people make the right choice before plunking down hard earned money on expensive devices. Nothing is worse than having to live with somebody else’s mistake, except for having to live with somebody else’s deception.

Apple Pay Clipper

UPDATE 4-15: Apple Pay Clipper launched April 15, digital card issue in Wallet and plastic card transfers are supported with matching real-time transit info in Apple Maps. Interesting details: (1) iPhone 8 or later with iOS 14.3, or Apple Watch Series 3 or later with watchOS 7.2 or later, (2) Adult, Youth, Senior, and RTC Clipper cards can be transferred, (3) in order to use Clipper with Apple Pay on SFMTA cable cars and other transit services using handheld card readers, all customers must authenticate with Face ID, Touch ID, or passcode (sounds like those handheld readers need a serious upgrade). Download Clipper App from the App Store.


February 18

Apple announced Clipper Card for Apple Pay today on a special page, Apple Pay Express Transit is finally coming to Apple’s San Francisco Bay Area home turf. Clipper is due to launch on Google Pay the same time. There are few details other than it works on all Bay Area transit and since open loop isn’t a thing there, it will be the same MIFARE card on Apple Pay that we saw with SmarTrip, TAP and HOP.

Unfortunately the Apple Pay Clipper image does not show an ‘Add Money’ button, it’s on a reader after all. Apple carefully crafts images to show card features. To me Apple not including an image showing the ‘Add Money’ button could mean that users reload/recharge the Clipper stored fare card balance with an app, like Apple Pay Ventra and Apple Pay HOP, instead of directly in Wallet like Apple Pay SmarTrip.

This could be a problem for Apple Watch users as they would have to use an iPhone Clipper Card app to reload and basically chains Apple Watch to iPhone. A Clipper app doesn’t exist yet but has to be in place on iOS and Android for a mobile Clipper service.

Some transit agencies stupidly keep the recharge backend locked in their app instead of leveraging the convenience of Apple Pay Wallet reload which makes the digital transit card less flexible and useful than it could be.

Let’s hope for the best launch day outcome. Meanwhile Apple Pay Suica remains the first and best implementation of a native mobile transit card on the Apple Pay platform, the best role model for a transit company to follow.

UPDATE 2-23
Good news. Apple Pay Clipper testers report on Reddit that direct Wallet reload/recharge is supported. Apple Watch transit users can rejoice. Both plastic Clipper card transfer and direct Clipper card creation in Wallet are supported and just like Suica transfer, the plastic card cannot be used afterwards. Could be a iOS Clipper app won’t be necessary for basic housekeeping after all.

UPDATE 2-18
There were a number of interesting and thoughtful Twitter threads in connection with the Apple Pay Clipper announcement.

> lordy if only we had suica in north america

>> Imo, successes like Suica is a testament to solving back-end issues (fare integration, product partnerships beyond transit, UX) and using the front-end tech to unleash full potential…Apple/Google Pay for local transit cards in the US is just not that level of breakthrough

> Yeah, exactly; the frontend technology can only be as useful as the backend system allows.

Thread

It’s heartening to discover comments that ‘get it’, that is a great mobile transit platform leverages a great front-end to unleash the potential of back-end while adding new services and product partnerships beyond transit. If only North America had Suica indeed, folks would really enjoy Apple Pay Express Transit for purchases too.

I know you’re on the closed loop side of this but imo it depends on relative power of transit vs. credit cards. In Japan CCs are not as popular so Suica was ready to take over contactless (and back integrating into CC top-up. In London both are popular so they got both…but most in US don’t use transit enough to justify a top-up card, so I’d prefer NY’s open loop over SF asking frequent travelers to switch from Clipper to Apple Pay Clipper, despite all the limitations in riding experience.

Reply

Popularity doesn’t matter, solutions matter. For years London TfL used EMV open loop in an attempt to get rid of Oyster cards but open-loop cannot replace closed-loop cards, only complement them. So now we have open-loop 2.0: EMV closed-loop cards that hide the slow and dumb limitations of a EMV front-end with a beefed up back-end. This is the Cubic + Mastercard transit solution coming to Cubic managed transit fare systems near you. Enjoy.

End of the line for Suica and the native Japan Transit IC smartcard standard?

There is a consistent theme among some Japanese tech journalists: the native Japan Transit IC smartcard system is obsolete and destined for that fabled junk heap, the Galapagos island of over-engineered irrelevant Japanese technology. The arguments always boil down to cited higher costs of maintaining the ‘over-spec’ proprietary FeliCa based inflexible transit IC architecture in face of ‘flexible, lower cost’ proprietary EMV contactless bank payment tap cards and smartphone digital wallets used for open loop transit. Is Suica really ‘over-spec’ or is it clever stealth marketing sponsorship from EMVCo members and the bank industry disguised as journalism? Logically the same argument applies to proprietary MIFARE smartcard transit systems as well but is never mentioned, presumably because it was invented in Europe instead of Japan.

Despite all the digital ink on the subject I have yet to see a single article where said costs are actually shown and compared. Smartcard deposit fees are a standard way to offset plastic issue costs and Japanese transit companies like to earn interest off the float of card deposits and unused stored value. But this is never discussed nor the fact that digital wallet issue is free of hardware costs.

Bank payment cards and smartcards have very different business models. EMVCo members and their card issuers can hide associated hardware and licensing costs in bank transaction fees that NXP, FeliCa Networks and other smartcard technology solution providers cannot. Without hard numbers we can only take journalist claims at face value, that transit smartcards are not smart at all, but expensive obstacles to lower cost open loop centralization nirvana.

I don’t buy the ‘one solution fits all’ argument and neither should you. One constant issue in our internet era is that too much centralization is not only a technology monoculture security risk, cloud services fail, and cloud centralization is abused to limit human rights. As speech is censored on SNS platforms and online profiling is used to limit freedom of travel with politically biased no fly lists, it is inevitable that face recognition transit gates will be used to track people and implement ‘no ride’ or ‘limited ride’ policies. These are issues that people must be aware of in the relentless rush towards online centralization of transit payments and services.

Nevertheless there are articles with valid criticisms well worth reading. I ran across one recently by Masanoya Sano on Nikkei that asks a good question: ‘Does taking 14 years to deliver Mobile PASMO mean the transit IC card foundation is crumbling? While I don’t agree with everything Sano san says he makes a good case that Japan Transit IC association members are failing in the face of a hydra-headed crisis: declining population with less ridership, competition from other payment services such as PayPay and EMV based VISA Touch, and ridership killing COVID lockdowns. He argues that transit companies must fix some basic problems if the Japan IC Transit standard is to survive:

  • Increase coverage: get all transit on the Transit IC card service map
  • Go mobile: for all transit cards
  • Improve the transit IC card architecture: improve compatibility and loosen up current restrictions for cross region transit, and the ¥20,000 stored fare limit

I believe most, if not all of these can be addressed with next generation FeliCa + 2 in 1 Suica (aka Super Suica) launching this year and deeper payment infrastructure sharing between transit companies. Nothing is guaranteed of course but here’s a look at each category and possible solutions.

Coverage
The transit IC coverage gap is the biggest failure of Japanese transit companies and there are big gaps. Suica only covers major population areas in Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai, roughly half of the stations on JR East are not wired for Suica. A similar situation applies to the other JR Group companies. JR East has promised to get their entire rail network on Suica with a simplified lower cost cloud based Suica in the 2020 fiscal year ending March 2021 but has yet to announce any details (they are specifically referenced in the new Suica Terms and Conditions effective March 27).

On the plus side JR West is expanding ICOCA coverage with a light rail approach of incorporating NFC readers installed in the train car for tap in/tap out for unmanned stations. No wires. SMBC and VISA use the same strategy for their VISA Touch transit boutique marketing program. It’s a practical low cost strategy for lightly traveled rural lines that reduces the hard wire requirement. Only stations that need it get wired and even those installations can use the lower cost JR East cloud based system.

JR West ICOCA area expansion includes on train NFC readers starting March 13, 2020

All major transit companies need to install these lower cost solutions to fill the transit IC gaps and integrate remaining isolated regions. VISA Touch transit boutiques are marketed as a solution for inbound and casual users, but these EMV only installation leave those transit areas off the transit IC grid for regular users and don’t work for wider area travel.

Mobile
Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO combined represent 80% of the current transit IC card market. Mobile ICOCA (JR West) is due to launch in 2023. There is no word yet about mobile for TOICA (JR Central), manaca (Nagoya City Transit rail/bus), PiTaPa (Kansai region private rail/bus), Kitaca (JR Hokkaido), Sugoca (JR Kyushu), nimoca (Nishitestsu), Hayaken (Fukuoka City Transit). This is a big challenge but the borrowed Suica infrastructure used for Mobile PASMO is a strategy that can be applied to the other major cards.

Improving Transit IC
JR East is releasing the 2 in 1 Suica card architecture that incorporates new FeliCa OS features the most important being the “2 cards in 1” Extended Overlap Service. New regional transit card using this new FeliCa OS and Suica format are launching this month in Aomori, Iwate and Utsunomiya. The next challenge for JR East is expanding 2 in 1 Suica to existing and important region transit cards inside the JR East transit region such Niigata Kotsu Ryuto and Sendai City Transportation Bureau icsca. The JR Group has cooperated to deliver cross region commuter passes which started in

The ultimate long term success of the Japanese Transit IC systems depends on infrastructure sharing and integration. For this to happen other JR Group companies and private rail outside of the JR East regions have to incorporate the 2 in 1 Suica format and improvements for their own cards and regions. Only when all Transit IC Mutual Use Association members are using the new format can they link and combine services in new ways, and add new features such as raising the stored fare card value above the current ¥20,000 limit.

Will it be enough? I have no idea. Immediately I see problems for the Kansai region PiTaPa card association companies (Hankyu, Hanshin, Keihan, Kintetsu, Nankai) as they have to make fundamental changes to use the new card format. I don’t see a Mobile PiTaPA in its current incarnation and this is why SMBC (who run PiTaPa card accounts) and VISA are targeting the Kansai area for VISA Touch transit: non-JR Kansai transit companies have their backs against the wall and no way easy forward to mobile except for going all in with JR West Mobile ICOCA, or taking what SMBC offers them.

Open Loop competition
Kansai area private rail companies never managed to create the equivalent of PASMO. PiTaPa is a postpay card that has credit card issue checks and cannot be purchased at station kiosks like all other transit cards for casual use. Issue is limited, so Kansai transit companies issue JR West ICOCA commuter passes for people who can’t use credit cards. This is the context surrounding the SMBC VISA Touch transit for Nankai announcement that got lots of press attention as the first major test deployment of open loop on a Japan Transit IC card system.

Junya Suzuki’s latest Pay Attention installment has a deep dive on the VISA Touch Japanese open loop transit system solution powered by QUADRAC Q-CORE server technology. It is the solution also used for the Okinawa Yui Rail monorail fare system that integrates Suica/Transit IC and QR support. He argues that open loop EMV is good enough because, (1) we don’t need the over-spec FeliCa 200 millisecond (ms) transaction speed (it’s actually faster, between 100~150 ms), (2) it has a leg up on future MaaS and cloud integration. Holding onto Suica local transaction performance as ‘faster/better’ is a myth holding back progress.

I have tremendous respect for Suzuki san and his work but his arguments fall down for me here. He completely ignores the white elephant in the room: closed loop is here to stay because the open loop model cannot support all fare options. Even on the open loop systems that he champions, Oyster and Opal for example, closed loop cards are still essential and are transitioning to a closed loop EMV model for digital wallet issue. The only change is the closed loop card transition from MIFARE to EMV because bank partners are running the transit system account system backend instead of the transit company. In other words it has nothing to do with technology at all, it is bank system convenience. Bank convenience is what it all boils down to.

Making the right technology choices are essential in our era of limited resources, ride the right horse and you succeed. I want to believe the cloud holds the promise to extend transit IC to low transit volume rural areas that don’t have it now, but every time I use a slow cloud based stera payment terminal I’m reminded how impractical that approach is for stations with high transit volume.

Does it make cost sense to replace the current transit IC system and re-create it with EMV open loop when Opal, Oyster and OMNY systems will always need closed loop cards? The practical thing is leveraging a good system already in use. Upgrade the Japan Transit IC system we have now, spend precious resources that fix current limitations and extend it with new technologies like UWB Touchless.

The strength and weakness of the Japan Transit IC standard is that it’s not top down but based on mutual cooperation. It’s not one entity but association members have to move forward as if they are one. JR East has been the technology leader and is working to improve and share it at lower cost. 2021 is not the make or break year for Japan Transit IC, but it will be an important and challenging one that will set its future direction.

Related post: The 2 in 1 Suica Region Affiliate Card

The good old Japan Transit IC card mutual use map, all the little one way arrows marked with the ‘IC’ logo pointing outside the main IC area indicate transit system compatibility.

JR Central EX-Press Reserve eTicket upgrade ditches Shinkansen IC cards for Transit IC cards (Updated)

EX-Press Reserve service upgrade, no more double card tap

EX-Press Reserve (also called EX-Press Ride) is the sister service of smartEX that uses the same EX app and system with deeper discounts aimed at Japanese business travelers. It also comes with a special EX Transit IC card just for Shinkansen gates with a unique ‘double card’ tap (EX IC card + regular Transit IC card). Mobile Suica and Apple Pay Suica users with a View card also have the unique and slightly different Express View service by registering for EX-Press Reserve in Suica App for JR Central Shinkansen eTicket travel EX Transit IC.

Fortunately JR Central is streamlining the complex service to bring it in line with the simple smartEX approach: instead of the special IC card for Shinkansen gates, members register a plain old Transit IC card (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, Toica, etc.) and use that. Shinkansen IC cards can still be used of course but most people will probably just use Transit IC cards, including Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO.

For Apple Pay Suica users this means Suica App Ex-Press Reserve service ends March 6, which also means a Suica App update that removes the menu item should be landing soon. From that date Apple Pay PASMO users can register their card number for EX-Press Reserve use. Keep in mind that EX-Press Reserve membership costs ¥1,100 a year and is limited to JR Central/JR West issue Express Card, JR East View Card, and certain Japanese issue credit cards.

Other EX-Press Reserve system improvements on March 6 include group ticket purchases for Transit IC card use instead of paper, and the ability to change reservations via the EX App or web site in case of Shinkansen delays.


UPDATE
EX App v6 was released March 6 with Transit IC card support and QR options. EX-Press Reserve members have the option of setting a EX-IC or Transit IC card for Shinkansen boarding and can add up to 5 Transit IC cards to the account for group ticket use. Both EX-Press Reserve and SmartEX JP members have a QR Pick-up code option for paper ticket pickup at ticket vending machines. Inbound SmartEx account holders have the extra QR Code boarding option at QR marked Shinkansen gates, though JR Central recommends printing it out as one-time passcode entry is required to display it on the smartphone screen. For inbound transit users Apple Pay Suica • PASMO is the easiest single card option for Tokkaido Shinkansen + regular transit.

Suica off peak commute campaign misses the mark

The COVID crisis has changed many things, none more than public transit. As companies transition away from daily work commutes to teleworking at home with occasional trips to the office, transit companies are forced to come up with incentives that entice people to use public transit. To that end JR East announced the off peak JRE POINT reward campaign back in November and released details this week for their Suica off peak commuting and repeat transit JRE POINT campaign.

The off peak campaign runs from March 15, 2021 ~ March 31, 2022, the repeat transit campaign starts March 1 and is open ended. It looks complex at first but is simply a matter of registering and keeping an eye on your commute start time.

Off Peak Commute Point Campaign
This campaign is for Suica commute pass/commute plan users. Limitations: (1) limited to a greater Tokyo area commute zone, (2) limited to ‘early’ and ‘late’ commute times that are different for each station, (3) limited to Suica commute plans (Mobile Suica or Apple Pay Suica) and Suica commuter passes (plastic) registered for JRE POINT (4) users must also take the extra step of signing up for the off peak campaign via the JRE POINT web site.

The off peak commute region shown above covers JR East lines in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama. The tricky part is that you must start your commute and enter the gate during the designated off peak time that is different for each station, split in 2 separate ‘early’ (15 point) and ‘late’ (20 point) hour blocks. An example for the Chuo line: Hachioji station off peak hours are ‘early’ 5:35~6:35 and ‘late’ 8:05~9:05. For Chuo line Asagaya the hours are ‘early’ 6:20~7:20 and ‘late’ 8:50~9:50. Off Peak times will be posted at each station, JR East also released a PDF that lists all off peak station times.

Repeat Transit Point Campaign
This campaign is geared for working folks who use Suica to go to the office but don’t commute enough to invest in a pass. Ride the same route 10 times a month and earn a free ride. If you ride the same route more than 10 times in the same month, each transit earns 10% of the transit fare in JRE POINT.

The repeat transit region is much larger than the off peak campaign one and covers all Suica fare JR East lines, all stations with Suica gates in greater Kanto, Niigata and Sendai. There is nothing transit users need to do other than have their Suica registered for JRE POINT. If you have already done that it’s all automatic. Think of it as a Suica replacement of paper ticket booklets, the reliable ‘buy ten and get one free’ transit institution that has been around forever but is quickly disappearing.

Not nearly enough
Frankly I think these JR East campaigns are not nearly enough, though they are better than nothing. There are many innovative things JR East should be doing: leverage Suica smarts for a accumulated mileage calculated reward point campaign tailored for each user, offer a yearly commuter pass at a half year price that corporate customers would eagerly snap up, repurpose empty JR East hotels at Shinkansen friendly regional stations for telework satellite offices that help build regional business.

Instead of innovation however, we get stale stingy ‘Tonosama’ business style marketing campaigns from a big old stodgy company used to having its way with customers. The big COVID era transit crisis demands big bold ideas. Japanese transit companies must truly innovate to make transit essential and safe again. Anything less is a waste of time and infrastructure, use it or lose it.


Resources
The first step is registering your Suica in JRE POINT. For repeat transit points there is nothing more to do, JRE POINT are added automatically if you make the same trip 10 times in the same month. For off peak points you must have a JRE POINT registered commuter pass/commute plan Suica that is also entered for the off peak campaign, and start the commute during designated station off peak times.