Smart Octopus Offline Until Further Notice

Octopus Cards Limited has suspended Smart Octopus ‘temporarily’. It sounds like Smart Octopus backend services are offline (for adding cards, credit card recharge, etc.) but not blocked at the gates (hard but not impossible to do with hotlist management). OCL wants to keep transit users tied to cash recharge machines that can be turned off by area or station as needed, and have done before to stop protesters (dictated by Hong Kong police?).

Under the current situation I don’t think Apple Pay Octopus will appear this year but that’s not important right now. It feels like Hong Kong is under a lock down. Stay safe.

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Hands Free Suica

After iOS 13.2 hit the final beta I migrated my Suica from iPhone to Apple Watch to give watchOS 6 Apple Pay Suica a proper shake down. Even after only a few days I can already say that Apple Pay Suica performance on watchOS 6 is far better than any version of watchOS 5. Not only does it feel more responsive, Suica Express Transit seems more sensitive further away from the gate reader hit area, crazy as that sounds.

Going back to Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch also brings back a great feature I missed on iPhone: hands free Suica. Incredible as it sounds, Apple Watch is still the only wearable device for Suica, the only choice for hands free Suica. Once you get used to hands free Suica Express Transit with Suica Auto Recharge, it spoils you for any other kind of cashless payment. Hands free shopping and transit is a breeze that makes everything else feel like a huge step backwards.

Apple should be marketing the hell out of it in Japan but don’t. What a waste of a huge and exclusive marketing opportunity. When Apple Pay Octopus finally, finally, finally launches, I expect Hong Kong Apple Watch users will really appreciate hands free Octopus.

No global NFC evolution for Pixel 4?

iFixit posted a teardown of the Pixel 4 and we have a new NFC chip: STMicroelectronics ST54J NFC controller. This replaces the NXP PN81 used in Pixel 3 but still has a embedded secure element (eSE) that supports all the global NFC technologies: NFC A-B-F/EMV/FeliCa/MIFARE.

NFC Forum device certification requires NFC A-B-F hardware support, but Google went the cheap route again with the extra step of not installing FeliCa transaction keys in non-JP Pixel 4 models. This means only Pixel JP models are global NFC devices, users with non JP models cannot add and use the Japanese Suica transit card or Hong Kong Octopus. iPhone and Apple Watch have global NFC as a standard feature on all worldwide models since iPhone 8/X and Apple Watch Series 3.

Pixel 3 was step towards global NFC with the Japanese models. The Pixel 3 Global NFC Evolution post examined the possibility of Google creating their own ‘in house’ embedded secure element (eSE) for all NFC transactions technologies implemented on their own Secure Enclave Pixel platform. I was wrong and made some bad assumptions:

  • Apple was already doing global NFC transactions on the A/S Series Secure Enclave, so Google would try to do the same with their Titan chip.
  • The Pixel Phone hardware page states: if you purchased your Pixel 4, 3a or 3 phone in Japan, a FeliCa chip is located in the same area as the NFC. The wording suggests a separate FeliCa chip for JP Pixel models but this is not the case.

FeliCa Dude was very considerate of my Pixel global NFC fantasy even though it made no sense at all cost-wise or software-wise having an extra NFC FeliCa chip and multiple eSE just for JP models. He extensively tested a Pixel 3 JP model, a single global NFC NXP PN81B chip was the only answer.

The iFixit teardown confirms that Pixel 4 simply repeats last year’s Pixel 3 strategy of having global NFC hardware but only buying FeliCa transaction keys for JP models. It’s a weird strategy because the whole point of the NXP PN81 and ST54J chips is to provide customers with a convenient off the shelf global NFC package with all the hardware (NFC A-B-F) and software (EMV/FeliCa/MIFARE) ready to go.

The Pixel 4 looks like a great device but the NFC story angle remains a disappointment. As I have said before, the Android equivalent of global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch has yet to appear.

UPDATE
FeliCa Dude posted a deep dive into the Pixel 4 ST54J NFC chip and comes up with some fascinating analysis. He points out there were three model classes for Pixel 3:

  • Devices with eSIM functionality and without Mobile FeliCa
  • Devices without eSIM functionality and without Mobile FeliCa: the carrier-neutered model with a locked bootloader.
  • Devices without eSIM functionality and with Mobile FeliCa (the G013B/G013D models)

Pixel 4 delivers eSIM and FeliCa together to the Japanese market for the first time and this appears to be a reason behind Google choosing the ST54J that has eSIM + global NFC eSE on a single die. FeliCa Dude does not have a Pixel 4 yet so there is more analysis to do, but the important point is this:

if the Japanese SKUs of the Pixel 4 are indeed based on the ST54J, then there should be no technical reason why such <Mobile FeliCa> functionality can’t be delivered OTA <over the air update> to the ROW <rest of world> SKUs should Google desire to provide that service

The Pixel 4, the ST54J and Mobile FeliCa

It would be nice indeed if Google left the door open for adding Mobile FeliCa later to all non JP Pixel 4 models with a software update, especially for markets like Hong Kong that can use it. Whether Google will actually do that is another matter entirely.

Suica and Octopus Compared

Hong Kong’s Octopus is coming to Apple Pay soon, it shares the same FeliCa technology base with Suica but there are some interesting differences.

Branding
The mobile version of Suica is Mobile Suica across 3 different payment platforms: Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay and Google Pay. The current mobile version of Octopus is called Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay but it’s not clear yet if the Smart Octopus branding will stay with Samsung Pay or be set free.

Deposits
Mobile Suica does not have deposits. Plastic Suica cards have a ¥500 deposit but is automatically returned to the stored value (SV) balance when transferred to Apple Pay or Google Pay. Octopus has a HK$50 deposit on both plastic and mobile versions. An interesting difference is that the Octopus deposit will be used temporarily if the SV balance is insufficient to pay transit fare at the exit gate.

Stored Value Balance Limits
Suica has a SV balance limit of ¥20,000. Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) just raised the Octopus SV balance limit for cards issued after October 1, 2019 from HK$1,000 to HK$3,000. In JPY this is roughly double the current Suica limit, about ¥40,000 which puts it inline with other Japanese e-money card balance limits like WAON. Suica balance limits will likely be doubled when the next generation ‘Super Suica’ card architecture arrives in April 2021.

Number of Cards
Smart Octopus is limited to a single card per Samsung Pay user account. Mobile Suica/Apple Pay Suica can have the multiple Suica cards up to the device Wallet limit.

Recharge Fees
One of the many innovations that Apple Pay Suica brought was elimination of the annual Mobile Suica ¥1,050 ‘membership fee’, Google Pay got the same deal and Mobile Suica membership fees are disappearing altogether next year. Mobile Suica does not charge any upfront fee for recharges, but Smart Octopus does: 2.5% a pop for the luxury of recharging in Samsung Pay with Visa and Mastercard card brands although Union Pay cards are apparently free.

The differences in this last section are interesting. JR East charges nothing for recharging Mobile Suica, while OCL does for Smart Octopus. Mobile Suica has been around far longer and JR East has many more online services, such as EkiNet, to offset cloud expenses. Smart Octopus only started in December 2017 and the footprint of Samsung Pay devices compared with everything else is probably small and doesn’t drive enough transaction volume to offset Smart Octopus cloud startup costs. Apple Pay will growth the transaction size of Smart Octopus considerably, hopefully enough for OCL to reduce or eliminate the Add Value Service Fee at some point.

I look forward to digging through service details when Octopus finally launches on Apple Pay.

Apple Pay Octopus close to launch…or maybe not

In the on, off, on again Octopus Cards Limited relationship with Apple Pay, predicting a service launch is risky business. The last reliable statement was from Octopus Cards Limited CEO Sunny Cheung on September 19 saying that Apple Pay Octopus would not launch on iOS 13 release day, but would “start as soon as possible within the year.”

Take it for what it is worth but a reliable source tweeted the following leak from beta testers to me today:

According to an internal note leaked by beta testers, Octopus Customer Service has yet to receive training for Octopus on Apple Pay, and they are advised not to call the hotline before the project goes online officially. The note was released on 11/10. However, a subsequent email sent to beta testers says that the official launch is coming “very soon”. Considering that the project has been “coming soon” since July, I’m not sure what to make of this “very soon” wording.

I also hear from other sources that OCL is cracking down on Apple Pay Octopus beta test leaks by limiting access and shutting out some testers, unsuccessfully I might add. There have been so many leaks the only thing we don’t know is the launch date. The beta tester crackdown may be OCL’s way of keeping the launch date under wraps so that the press event launch still has a surprise or two.

To use a Donald Rumsfeldian turn of phrase, do we have a known known or an unknown known? Well, we do have iOS 13.2 due on October 30 but at this point any iOS point release has nothing to do with an Apple Pay Octopus launch. The leak is almost 2 weeks old, hopefully Octopus Customer Service staff is being trained for the launch. Other than that all we have is… a known unknown.