It was just a year ago when iOS 13.5 introduced a small Face ID UI tweak that bypassed Face ID and went straight to the passcode entry screen but over time I did not find it very useful. Face ID took longer and longer to bring up the passcode entry screen, as if it was trying to look past the mask. While it was good that Apple finally acknowledged Face ID shortcomings with face masks after ignoring complaints from Asian users, it took a health crises to force Apple to do something about it. In the end it didn’t change anything.
And now we have iOS 14.5 with Face ID ‘Unlock with Apple Watch’, another stop-gap until Apple delivers a real solution. It will never work with Apple Pay, which it should not though many will wish for it fumbling with iPhone Face ID authorization in the checkout line. It’s probably most helpful when digging for point reward QR Code apps that don’t use Face ID for sign in. Will it help sell Apple Watches? Perhaps, but it also might dampen future iPhone upgrades with improved Face ID.
Some first impressions…it feels like what it is: a clever hack but a hack nevertheless, to do something Face ID wasn’t designed to do that re-routes the ‘chain of trust’ from one way to two way. This makes things much more complicated. Already there are complaints of Face ID unlock with Apple Watch not working when Apple Pay Octopus users are in transit. I also find it unreliable especially during Suica transit. Overall 1 out of 3 times it strikes out. I know the feature is beta 1, but I already get that iPhone X NFC problem vibe: deep down this feature isn’t going to work reliably…ever.
A reader asked a very good question: what’s the point of an Apple Pay My Suica? Can’t you already migrate a normal ‘unregistered’ Suica to another device if you loose your device?
There are 3 basic Suica plastic card categories: unregistered, registered (My Suica) and commuter. PASMO and all other major Transit IC card are the same. An unregistered Suica card just spits out of the station kiosk after putting money in and you are on your way, but it cannot be replaced or re-issued if lost. Buy a new one, end of story.
With a registered My Suica card, the customer registers a name and other information on the kiosk touchscreen and if the card is lost it can be re-issued for a fee with the original stored balance intact. It’s Suica insurance. Same deal for Commuter Suica which is registered Suica with a commute plan attached.
Mobile Suica uses the same 3 category card model but Apple Pay Suica changed the game considerably. When a user transfers any flavor of plastic Suica to Apple Pay, the card is permanently linked to the user Apple ID. When a user creates a Suica card in Wallet it creates a My Suica card also attached to Apple ID. Apple Pay Suica cards also seem to be ‘ghost’ registered to Mobile Suica even when the user does not have a Mobile Suica account. Only the Apple Pay and Mobile Suica system elves really know what is going on.
The upside for Apple Pay users is that Apple Pay and Mobile Suica preserve Suica card information so the user can safely remove Suica from Wallet, re-add it, or transfer it to another device at any time. It’s free insurance without the hassle of registering a Mobile Suica account. All Suica card types are treated the same. The downside is that if you want to migrate to Android you have to delete your Mobile Suica account and refund the card, then create a new card and Mobile Suica account for Google Pay Suica. It’s the same deal going migrating the other way.
To answer the reader question regarding the point of Apple Pay My Suica, the point is this: commute plans, auto-charge, Green Car seat purchase. The point of Apple Pay Registered PASMO is similar: commute plans and auto-charge. All this is done via Suica App or PASMO App. If you don’t want those extra services, a plain unregistered Suica or PASMO is all you need.
Apple Pay Ventra finally launched October 26, 2020, a very long wait after the March 25, 2019 Apple Event announcement. I wrote about the delay blaming it on open loop when the Washington SmarTrip and LA TAP cards landed on Apple Pay first.
Arguably it’s a good thing that the Ventra prepaid debit card is going the way of the dinosaur. The debit card function debuted with a long list of fees that had the potential to siphon of much of the money stored on the card, including:
A $1.50 ATM withdrawal fee A $2 fee to speak to someone about the retail debit account. A $6.00 fee for closing out the debit balance A $2 fee for a paper statement A $2.95 fee to add money to the debit account using a personal credit card A $10 per hour fee for “account research’’ to resolve account discrepancies
“These fees were probably not any different than other bank cards offered by Money Network or Meta Bank or other predatory banks,” says Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance, who reported on the issue at the time. “But it was shameful for the CTA to be aligned with that.”
After a backlash, most of these fees were reduced or eliminated, but CTA retail outlets were still allowed to charge Ventra card holders a fee of up to $4.95 to load cash on the debit sides of their cards. So maybe it is for the best that the CTA is getting out of the bank card business.
Getting Ventra out of the bank card business is easier said than done when the whole system is designed around open loop. Mastercard stopped issuing Ventra branded prepaid debit cards in 2017 but they have managed Ventra account services all this time. The Ventra plastic card is MIFARE DESFire EV1 which fits the standard Cubic Transportation Systems management style: all of the various transit card systems they manage around the world were designed and built with MIFARE stored value cards at the core. These include Chicago Ventra, London Oyster, Sydney Opal, Washington SmarTrip, LA TAP, etc.
An Apple Pay Ventra Wallet screenshot from a Japanese Twitter user revealed a fascinating bit of information. Apple Pay transit cards like Suica, SmarTrip and TAP all show a stored value card balance. Apple Pay Ventra does not, it shows a card number like a Wallet credit card. This means Apple Pay Ventra is a reincarnated Mastercard prepaid debit card, but this time it’s disguised as a mobile transit card with Mastercard running card account services.
Apple Pay Ventra: the closed loop EMV transit card Tech blog coverage of the Apple Pay Ventra launch only mentioned Express Transit but there are important limitations:
Ventra Card on iPhone 6S and later / Apple Watch Series 1 and later, can only be used on the CTA and Pace bus services, but not Metra or Pace Paratransit. RTA and Student Reduced Fare cards, including U-Pass cards, and free ride Ventra Cards cannot be added to Apple Wallet yet. (from StreetsBlog Chicago)
Direct reload/recharge in Wallet is not supported because the EMV format itself does not support local stored value. You have to reload the card in Ventra App. This really sucks for Apple Watch Ventra users. In the United States only Apple Pay TAP and Apple Pay SmarTrip support Wallet recharge, interestingly those systems are closed loop.
We have the following pieces: open loop, Cubic fare system management, Mastercard managed Ventra account services, MIFARE for plastic cards, EMV for mobile digital cards with a closed reload/recharge model that limits everything from card issue and recharge to Ventra App, and slow tap speeds.
The result is a centralized account processing mishmash of open loop and closed loop parts, ‘heavy’ in every performance aspect that pales in comparison to the local stored value process speed and flexibility of a user friendly Apple Pay Suica•PASMO that works across subway, bus and rail, for both fixed and distance fares.
The mishmash only works for CTA fixed fares and transit fare readers ‘live’ in the system. Distance based METRA fare are outside of the system with one time ticket purchases shown to the train conductor. Because everything is centralized account processing, all Ventra housekeeping must be done in the Ventra app unlike Apple Pay Suica•PASMO users who can live without an app or account: everything from recharge to card creation can be done in Wallet.
Simply put, Apple Pay Ventra is the digital rebirth of the problematic open loop based Mastercard Ventra prepaid debit card that is closed and only works on the Ventra system. The Sydney Opal card is about to enter digital wallet tests with Mastercard running the show with a similar set of Ventra pieces: Mastercard EMV issue for mobile, MIFARE plastic cards, Cubic management, etc. Expect similar results.
EMV transit cards: next installment of the Contactless Payment Turf Wars If nothing else Apple Pay Ventra reveals how flimsy the ‘open loop is open’ argument really is: the Apple Pay Ventra prepaid debit card as transit card can only be used on the Ventra system. How open is that? All they did was swap MIFARE for EMV, neither of which are open standards. And tap speeds are slower than ever with EMV, aka the supermarket checkout protocol.
It’s fake debate. The real debate is online centralized fare processing where everybody is forced to have a mobile account whether they need it or want it or not, versus offline local fare processing where mobile accounts are optional. Guess which model delivers faster tap speeds while doing a better job of protecting your online privacy.
The lesson here is that when transit agencies let banks and card companies run the transit fare concession, they will never be free of them: there’s just too much private money to be made off of running the backend services attached to public infrastructure. And the bank card industry has no interest in improving their slow EMV supermarket checkout card spec for transit. Nobody in Sydney will bother asking who ends up getting the float interest from Opal cards when Mastercard runs the account backend. Card issuers like it that way.
The only question remaining is this: now that we know the Ventra EMV Mastercard prepaid debit card as mobile digital transit card is same one for mobile Opal…will it be the same for MTA mobile OMNY and TfL mobile Oyster? I suspect so: this is the new Cubic mobile transit card business model with NXP MIFARE the loser in this latest installment of the contactless payment turf wars.
A reader was kind enough to scan his Apple Pay Ventra card with a NFC tag reading app. Results confirmed what I outline above: Apple Pay Ventra is a EMV Mastercard prepaid debit disguised as a transit card. This officially marks a migration away from stored value MIFARE transit cards to stored in the cloud EMV prepaid debit cards for mobile digital transit card systems managed by Cubic.
Specifically it means the local stored value information that was held by the MIFARE plastic card has been migrated to an online Mastercard managed account for Apple Pay Ventra as the EMV credit card format wasn’t designed for local stored value. Just like the title says: Apple Pay Ventra is a closed open loop card.
Gruber finally clocked in on the Face ID with face mask issue in his iPad Air review:
Will this Touch ID sensor in the power button ever make its way to iPhones? I think not…adding Touch ID to the iPhone power button doesn’t really make a lot of sense.
Yes, across the world, many of us are wearing face masks whenever we venture outside the home, and Face ID doesn’t work with masked faces. (Some people report that it does work, sometimes, but it never works for me, and definitely is not officially supported.) But how would a Touch ID sensor on the power button work with an iPhone in a case? Most people use cases, and most cases cover the power button. That’s such a dealbreaker that I think the whole debate might end there. But even putting the issue of button-covering cases aside, how would Touch ID work alongside Face ID?
Practically speaking it would be nice to have Touch ID while wearing a face mask — trust me, I know — but conceptually it seems a bit mushy to have both Touch ID and Face ID on the same device. I think we’re more likely to see a better Face ID system that can identify us while we wear masks covering our mouths and noses than iPhones that have Touch ID sensors on the power button. If we, as humans, can recognize people we know while they’re wearing face masks, computers can do it too.
Gruber is somewhat sensible up to this point but then adds:
Touch ID that somehow works through the display, not the power button — that seems like an option worth pursuing, conceptual mushiness of dual biometric systems be damned.
Conceptual mush my ass. It’s too bad Gruber has never experienced Apple Pay Suica Express Transit, it would give him a better perspective and clarity on how big and important the Face ID vs Touch ID issue is for many iPhone users in Asian markets. As a regular Tokyo commuter I’m fortunate that Apple Pay Express Transit Suica makes Apple Pay on a Face ID iPhone tolerable when wearing a face mask, but the majority of Apple Pay users in Japan do the face mask passcode move.
Apple Pay launched after Touch ID for a reason: Apple Pay + Face ID/Touch ID is one complete thing. Apple Pay with passcodes is far more frustrating than a regular passcode unlock because it short circuits the entire Apple Pay experience and catches you at the worst moment when you least expect it, usually at checkout with the wrong Wallet card selected and people behind you. It’s so bad you want to go back to plastic.
There are no easy choices. An iPhone that does Face ID and Touch ID (in screen or button) would be expensive, risky, problematic and juggling both technologies will very likely suck UI performance-wise. We don’t need a repeat of the 3D Touch misstep because of cost and/or not panning out because Apple didn’t think things through.
Apple needs to see Face ID through, and it can, but developing it will take time. Even so there is a large installed base of Face ID devices now that will never work with face masks, users are going to be dealing with that issue for a long time. The real interesting thing for me is what Apple is telling customers on its own web pages. For example the Apple Pay Japan page for PASMO and Suica only shows Touch ID. It used to show Face ID too but that was removed with the Apple Pay PASMO launch refresh. Apple fully recognizes that Face ID is a marketing obstacle for Apple Pay in Japan.
Computers already recognize face masks, NEC face recognition technology does it very well. And we have Touchless Apple Pay on the horizon. The bottom line is…until Apple develops and delivers its own insanely great Face ID with x-ray vision, or licenses NEC face recognition technology, and delivers Apple Pay Touchless, Apple Pay on Apple Watch is the way to go.
Transit gate tappers are endlessly fascinating to watch: feather touchers, slappers, pocket fumblers, precision marchers, schlep slumpers. The daily routine is never routine.
Apple Watch transit-gating has a different set of challenges compared to plastic transit cards and smartphones, and a different set of circumstances: left wrist vs right wrist, transit gate reader position and NFC antenna read sensitivity with the much smaller Apple Watch NFC device.
There is also the crucial wrist twist. Apple recommends a quick wrist twist so Apple Watch faces down to the reader for better NFC reception, best shown in the Apple Pay Octopus Ride and Buy video:
Twitter user S posted a fascinating take on the subject. S wears his Apple Watch Suica on the right and keeps it facing up on the reader, not down. Apple Watch Journal has a great video showing this in action. The Apple Watch face up trick works on JR East gates but not so well on PASMO gates. Why? JR East gate readers are manufactured by JREM. PASMO gates are a mix of Omron, Toshiba and Nippon Signal.
I notice PASMO gate difference with Apple Watch Suica, some gates work great face up, others not. When you use the same stations everyday you develop a natural sense of the best gates. The differences are tiny but noticeable if you pay attention. Even so I am not a face up Apple Watch Suica user, I go sideways and it works everywhere.