The truth is in the tap

The Nankai Visa Touch test launch launched endless Twitter discussions about slow EMV contactless tap speeds and performance issues compared with Suica and other Transit IC cards. EMV contactless transit in Japan is novel so this is expected. But suddenly people are also referencing Junya Suzuki’s 2016 pre-Apple Pay Suica launch era ‘Is Suica Over-spec?’ piece. This has long been a favorite theme in Japanese tech media: Suica is more than we need, EMV contactless is ‘good enough’ so let’s do everything with one card, life is more convenient that way. Be careful what you wish for.

The 2016 launch of Apple Pay Suica was a great success of course, that changed the Japanese payments market and opened the door for the proliferation of QR payment services you see everywhere now. The one card must do it all concept is old hat but Tokyo Olympics sponsors Visa Japan and SMBC are trying very hard to convince Japan that Visa Touch cards are the transit future.

My position was and remains that one size never fits all. It doesn’t have to be a EMV or nothing choice portrayed in tech media, nor should it. Different technologies complement each other for a better user experience. Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica combines the convenience of EMV cards on the recharge backend with the speed and reliability of FeliCa based Suica cards on the NFC front-end, for a best of breed closed loop transit user experience. One interesting thing I pointed out in my retweet of Suzuki san’s Nakai open loop launch piece was that QR Nankai Digital Ticket gate performance in the his video is faster than Visa Touch because it’s closed loop.

The comment touched off an odd but interesting set of tweets from Suzuki san and his followers about gate design, reader performance and walk flow that boils down to this: if the reader transaction speed is slow, increase the distance between the reader and gate flap to keep people walking instead of stopping.

His follow up piece deconstructs ‘FeliCa is faster’ as half misunderstanding transit gate antenna design and RF communication distance because EMVCo reader certification dictates a smaller RF distance, the result of using the EMV contactless supermarket checkout spec on transit gates it was never intended for. All I can say is the truth is in the tap. In theory all NFC flavors and protocols offer the same performance but in real transit use they don’t. Better to get next generation Ultra Wideband Touchless gates in service and dispense with the ‘redesign transit gates for slow EMV contactless/QR transit’ debate nonsense. Design things for the future not the past.

The current Transit IC local stored fare model does have weak points as suggested in FeliCa Dude’s tweet: discount ticketing, rebates and refunds. If you purchase a Mobile Suica commuter pass, you can easily get a refund back to the bank payment card used to purchase the commuter pass. This is because Suica extras like commuter passes and Green Seat upgrades are supplemental attached services that don’t use the SF purse.

Rebates and refunds via the SF (stored fare) purse are a bottleneck. Suica App has a mechanism for dealing with some of this called ‘Suica Pocket’ for JRE POINT exchanges and refunds back to the SF purse. Mobile Suica card refunds are another matter and can only be refunded to a Japanese bank account. Octopus Cards Ltd. (OCL) has a special Octopus App for Tourists that refunds a card balance back to original credit card used for the initial digital card issue. OCL also charges tourist users an arm and a leg for Octopus Wallet recharge and refunding. It would be nice if JR East could do the same…without the outrageous OCL surcharges.

For inbound discount ticketing JR East has adopted a similar approach they use for Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets: discount plans attached to plastic Suica cards. This is the whole purpose of the Welcome Suica + reference paper proving validity for inbound discount plan purchases at station kiosks. It would be great if JR East figures out a way to do the same thing on Mobile Suica.

Domestic discount ticketing and passes are still the glorious, mostly paper ticket mess that is Eki-Net and similar services. Eki-Net itself is still in a slow motion transition towards a Transit IC/Mobile Suica orbit with some things transitioning to QR paper ticketing that replaces expensive mag-strip paper. Eki-Net App is still limited to Shinkansen eTickets and ticketless express train seat purchases. The Eki-Net web site is where you access all the bells and whistles although the experience feels like navigating the Transit IC interoperability chart. Discounts are starting to change somewhat with Suica 2 in 1, totra is the first Suica for disabled users but exclusive to the totra fare region. Hopefully Extended Overlap will see wider use not only for Suica but across all Transit IC cards for more special, and interoperable, discount services.

Is Suica ‘all-in-one’ possible?

Now that Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate transit cards are out, it’s time to examine the question that Yanik Magnan posed in his limitless possibility podcast: is Suica all-in-one possible? He defines it as follows: “All-in-one in my case would mean all Transit IC and local area transit members sharing the same physical card as a common container for their data, I’m assuming (maybe incorrectly?) that Suica + PASMO on the same card would be possible through whatever totra is doing.”

In my initial Super Suica coverage I outlined all-in-one possibilities beyond the Suica 2 in 1 Region card program and called it ‘Super Suica’ to capture that idea. Unfortunately, and as Yanik points out, I forgot an important aspect: Suica and sister Transit IC cards all use the same FeliCa technology but have their own data formats. That was an oversight. Nevertheless I think we agree, so I’m retiring Super Suica in favor of Yanik’s Suica ‘all-in-one’ moniker. Here is a grab bag of various pieces that hopefully add up to an quick overview, with Suica all-in-one as a platform of technologies that others can build off of, instead of a specific transit card.

FeliCa Enhancements
Since November 2020 we’ve seen a number of FeliCa enhancements: (1) FeliCa Standard SD2, (2) Mobile FeliCa Multiple Secure Element Domains that support non-FeliCa protocols and, (3) Mobile FeliCa Ultra Wideband Touchless. The most important of these right now is SD2 because it’s a real shipping product with Extended Overlap Service and Value-Limited Purse Service. TagInfo scans of the newly released totra 2 in 1 Suica Region Affiliate transit card reveal Extended Overlap in action. The card itself shows 2 issue numbers on the back, one from JR East who own the SF (stored fare) purse and one for the region operator who own the overall card. That JR East owns the Suica 2 in 1 card SF and float is…interesting and offers a clue as to what’s going on behind the scenes.

FeliCa Standard SD2 powered totra Suica has 2 card numbers

Float Gloat
Who owns the SF purse float, how it works on the reader side and as a business model are the big issues. Here’s an example: I suspect SD2 Extended Overlap might also be used in the new Suica-TOICA-ICOCA cross region commuter passes as those cannot be issued on current plastic and require an upgrade trip to the nearest JR station. We won’t know for sure until we get a TagInfo scan of the new physical card but let’s pretend for a bit.

Say a TOICA user purchases a cross region commuter pass from Numazu (TOICA) to Odawara (Suica) for regular non-Shinkansen transit. In this case the cross region solution is easy and acceptable to all JR companies because each transit card issuer owns the SF purse, in this case JR Central. The same applies to JR East when issuing the same commute pass route for Suica. The same scenario would likely be acceptable to all Transit IC companies, sharing a common physical card as a common container for their data, but only if the SF purse ownership was clearly defined as it is in totra Suica so it works on the reader side: this is Suica SF, this is a ICOCA SF, etc., otherwise the reader doesn’t know which one to use.

In other words, let’s 2 in 1 and all-in-one for the shared resources like points, commuter passes and special discount fares for elderly and disabled users, but the SF purse is not shared for 2 in 1 or anything else. Common data format, yes. Common shared SF purse, no. At the end of the day you can’t have a Suica and a PASMO on the same card as the reader won’t know which one to use. We’ll see if Extended Overlap and Value-Limited Purse solves this wanna have cake and eat it too Transit IC dilemma. Sony is now shipping FeliCa Standard SD2 antenna module chips for the reader side of the equation so readers will be getting smarter and evolve too. That’s how I see it for Suica all-in-one, Transit IC and mobile, a gradual evolution.

Mobile hardware barriers
On the mobile front we have a smartphone hardware barrier: the Mobile PASMO Osaifu Keitai Type 1, Type 2, Type 3, mess landed on Mobile Suica with addition of multiple Mobile Suica cards on March 21. Only Osaifu Keitai Type 1 devices can handle multiple Suica and PASMO cards.

This has implications for Mobile FeliCa features such as the Japanese Government My Number Digital Card and UWB Touchless digital car keys. Mobile FeliCa 4.0 and later on Pixel devices indicate the ability to upgrade FeliCa JAVA Card applets and even Mobile FeliCa itself. Whether Android device makers will actually use this OTA ability is a mystery. To date the standard industry practice has been if you want new features, you buy a new device.

And then there is Apple. iPhone 7 JP models that support Suica do not support PASMO, UWB is only available on iPhone 11 and later, and so on. There is no guarantee that Apple will update, say iPhone 11 models, for UWB Touchless, Mobile FeliCa My Number Digital cards or even Suica 2 in 1, if and when the format comes to Mobile Suica.

We’ll see what FeliCa Dude has to say about the all-in-one subject, hopefully in a future Reddit post. It may take a while but worth the wait.

UPDATE
I’m sticking with Super Suica. Yanik’s All-in-one take is a great name focused on the 2 in 1 card architecture that fits all of Transit IC on a single card. My Super Suica take is a wider set of developing platform initiatives. Yanik’s feedback was valuable in forcing me to review my posts and define Super Suica as a platform, I thank him for it.

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.