While the screen is on: Background Tags and Apple NFC Evolution

Background NFC tags work when the iPhone screen is on

NFC background tag support that allows users to scan NFC tags without an app arrived with A12 Bionic iPhone XS/XR and iOS 12, but the feature is only becoming truly useful with the enhanced NFC tag support in iOS 13 Core NFC. The Japanese and UK governments have already announced ID card NFC tag support for iOS 13, Jennifer Bailey previewed a new NFC tag Apple Pay feature in May, and the iOS 13 Shortcuts app lets users deploy NFC tags to create their own HomeKit automations. These are exciting developments that are just the start of new powerful and innovative NFC services on the Apple platform.

Apple’s strong point is the tight integration of software services across different devices that no other platform can match. Apple Pay Suica works on iPhone and Apple Watch, but the latter combination of technology, function and size makes it a completely different and beguiling experience. Apple Pay on Apple Watch is its own special thing.

A Temporary Split in the NFC Evolution Line?
The evolution of Apple NFC on both iPhone and Apple Watch was in lockstep up until the arrival of A12 Bionic in 2018. The A12 Bionic NFC powered background tag and Express Transit power reserve features only work on iPhone XS/XR. Apple Watch Series 4 does not support these NFC features, nor does watchOS support the Core NFC framework, this means that NFC tag Apple Pay on Apple Watch is out of the question.

Is the feature split temporary or does it represent a different line of NFC evolution for Apple Watch? The absence of Core NFC makes sense because watchOS does not support 3rd party apps, at least not yet. Express Transit power reserve however, would be a great feature to have on Apple Watch as iOS 13/watchOS 6 Apple Pay Transit rolls out to Chicago Ventra, Brisbane myki and Hong Kong Octopus.

Getting that feature on Apple Watch depends on how quickly Johny Srouji’s A team can implement the A12 Bionic Secure Enclave design that handles basic Apple Pay transactions directly and bypasses the OS, on the S Series chip. I cannot believe they are not pushing hard to deliver the goods as soon as possible, perhaps even with Apple Watch Series 5 featuring a S5 Bionic chip.

Delivering a S5 Bionic would get Express Transit power reserve on Apple Watch with NFC performance gains as well. It would also give Apple the option to add NFC background tag reading later on as watchOS becomes more powerful and independent.

The iPhone 7 FeliCa Question
There is one fuzzy area of iOS 13 Core NFC and it is iPhone 7 FeliCa support. At WWDC19 Apple announced that all devices, iPhone 7 and above, would support the enhanced NFC tag lineup: NDEF, FeliCa, MIFARE, ISO 7816, ISO 15693, VAS. But this does not match up with Apple’s own device specs for adding a FeliCa Suica card to Apple Pay:

Apple is telling developers that all iPhone 7 models are good for FeliCa but telling customers that only iPhone 7 JP models are good for FeliCa. This means we get one of two scenarios:

  • iOS 13 retroactively adds FeliCa support to all non-JP iPhone 7 models. Apple can do this by adding device specific FeliCa keys as iPhone 7 NFC hardware is the same for all models worldwide.
  • iOS 13 Core NFC FeliCa tags work but non-JP iPhone 7 models (without FeliCa keys) do not work for FeliCa transactions at the terminal.

The latter ‘FeliCa keys vs. No FeliCa keys’ scenario is illustrated in a comment post by Reddit user FelicaDude, if I understand correctly, that without device specific FeliCa keys iPhone 7 only works in basic Read/Write mode without encryption, with FeliCa keys iPhone 7 works in Read/Write encryption mode necessary for local offline processing with payment terminals (i.e. Suica):

The international iPhone 7s can do basic FeliCa read/write without encryption, because they embed a FeliCa-capable CLF <contactless frontend>. Apple has chosen not to provision them with Osaifu-Keitai keys, probably to avoid paying royalties to FeliCa Networks for each device.

FelicaDude Reddit

The initial iOS 13 beta 3 release build (17A5522f) did not support iPhone 7 but the revised build (17A5522g) released yesterday does. I am intrigued that something is going on with iOS 13 and iPhone 7. I hope, probably in vain, that it could be connected with the upcoming Apple Pay Octopus transit card launch which requires a FeliCa capable device. It makes sense for Apple to launch the service with a wide footprint of supported devices. Let’s keep fingers crossed that iOS 13 adds full FeliCa support to all iPhone 7 models and transforms them to the global FeliCa iPhone devices they deserve to be.

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QR Codes and Big Data

After the 7pay QR Code launch and security meltdown, Twitter is full of Japanese tweets asking ‘why do we need QR when we already have fast secure FeliCa services like Apple Pay Suica?’

It’s a very good question. Finding the reasons behind the manufactured QR Code in Japan mania is not easy. On the surface it looks like a strange retro attempt to replicate the success of AliPay and WeChat Pay in the Japanese market and lower operating costs are certainly part of the allure. A close examination of actual QR use boils down to LinePay and using LinePay points to buy stuff on the Line Store (stickers, coins, etc.).

So why is 7-Eleven aiming to trash their FeliCa nanaco card and push their user base to 7pay QR, and why are all the other convenience store chains doing the same? IT journalist Junya Suzuki, Japan’s top reporter covering all things cashless has posted a great explanation: Big Data.

If you have lived in Japan for any length of time you are probably familiar with the T-Point card. A few years ago Doutor, FamilyMart and many other business were pushing T-Points. Now they are not. Doutor dropped T-Point for Docomo d POINT in June, and the arrival of QR FamiPay is FamilyMart kissing T-Point goodbye.

As Suzuki san points out, from the convenience store point of view, the problem with customers using Suica, nanaco or T-Point is that they don’t have personal data attached to them. Anybody can buy a Suica card at a JR station or a nanaco card at 7-Eleven and use it on the spot. The only piece of data going into the system is the card id#. They can’t get your name, phone, etc. and profile the customer.

With QR Code apps and an account signup/sign in, QR Code platform operators get the information they want to profile customers and plug it into Big Data. The customer ends up being the product. It’s not about offering better service or technology. How useful QR Code payment apps are in the long run, or how much they actually end up being used, is anybody’s guess.

Unfortunately the current messy situation is only going to get worse as Japanese bank QR Code platforms start launching this fall. Smartphone users will have to find their own way through a growing maze of QR payment apps and different UIs, each one vying for attention with campaign booty. The freebie startup campaigns will eventually end, The inevitable consolidation process will be painful. There is no doubt however that the 7pay startup fiasco is a tipping point, the reevaluation process has begun.

Reminder: JR East Suica System Downtime July 6 9pm~5am

Just a friendly reminder that the first of JR East’s major Suica system maintenance downtimes starts Saturday July 6 at 9pm and runs to 5am. Mobile Suica and JR East station Suica ticket machine services are going offline.

During the offline period you can still use plastic Suica and Apple Pay Suica for transit and purchases as usual, but Apple Pay Suica Recharge will be limited to cash only from 1am~4am. Remember that you can always cash recharge Apple Pay Suica at any convenience store cash register or 7-Eleven ATM machine. 

All other operations such as adding Suica to Wallet and all Suica App functions, and corresponding services at JR East station Suica ticket machines, will be offline for the entire maintenance window.

Be prepared and check your Suica balance and recharge before 9pm. The next major maintenance downtime is scheduled for Saturday July 20 9pm~5am.

iOS 13 Apple Pay Suica: Move along folks there’s nothing to see here…

As I wrote previously, “if you are using iOS 12.3, you are already using iOS 13 Apple Pay Wallet.” The major under the hood Wallet changes of iOS 12.3~4 were completed ahead of iOS 13 for the Apple Card rollout that is coming very soon. For Apple Pay Suica users, and Express Transit users everywhere, the solid Express Transit performance of iOS 12.3~ iOS 12.4 and the UI, are exactly what you get in iOS 13. There is nothing new, a good thing.

The only changes are Suica Notifications which have lost 3D Touch shortcuts for Recharge and Commute Plan Renewal. Since 3D Touch is on the chopping block in iOS 13, this is not unexpected, but it is unfortunate: the recharge shortcut was handy and finally useful with the robust iOS 12.3 Suica Recharge performance. Suica Notifications are still a work in progress however, witness the useless ‘In Transit’ Suica notification, hopefully shortcuts will reappear in some form before the final release.

The Apple Card rollout remains a real head scratcher. There are lots of things Apple Card will be able to do in iOS 12.4 Wallet that other cards, as yet, cannot do. And Apple has not offered anything in iOS 13 PassKit or Wallet for developers to do those dynamic card UI things that Apple Card does. I wonder how well that will go down with developers after Apple Card finally ships.

NTT Docomo Celebrates Osaifu Keitai 15th Anniversary

It all started today, July 1, 2004, when NTT Docomo launched the iMode FeliCa mobile wallet, called Osaifu Keitai in Japanese. It was the world’s first mobile payment platform, a tremendous achievement and forerunner to the Apple Pay and Google Pay services we have today. To celebrate the anniversary Docomo has lined up a bunch of point campaigns for all the Osaifu Keitai payment networks: Mobile Suica, iD, QUICPay, WAON, nanaco, Edy. Unfortunately Apple Pay users are only eligible for iD and QUICPay (details will be available later).

Docomo also has a nifty anniversary page highlighting all the Osaifu Keitai payment networks, when you tap or click the payment icon it plays the feedback sound you hear at the register. The Suica sound is the original one we heard way back in 2006, which you don’t hear anymore. It’s a fun way to celebrate the trailblazing mobile payment platform that Docomo and Sony invented.