As COVID restrictions are eased and the world slowly goes back to work, school and hopefully slightly more normal life, avoiding crowds will be key in keeping COVID from becoming resurgent in the months ahead.
For commuters in Japanese metro areas avoiding crowds is no easy matter. Fortunately the Japanese transit gate infrastructure is a great help. FeliCa based IC transit cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.) with fast transaction speeds combined with open gate flap design maximizes people flow: people walk through gates at normal pace. This is very important for Japanese stations that have to make do with large crowds in limited spaces and smaller gate areas.
It’s wrong however, to think that this only applies to Japan. The benefits of fast tap speed combined with intelligent transit gate design are relevant everywhere and very necessary in this day and age: fast gate tap speed is essential in keeping gate crowding at a minimum. It makes things safer not only for train operation, but also addresses crowd control health concerns in the COVID era.
A reader sent a link to a good discussion of NFC protocols and gate tap speeds that was apparently deleted when YouTube comments were turned off. I retyped the comment below from a screenshot with some light editing for clarity. If I find the author I’ll link to the original. The videos have already appeared in other posts but it’s good have them in one place. A previous installment already covered QR transit code gate issues, this post will focus on NFC.
While transit gates and NFC processors are found worldwide, what makes the Japanese gates different from the rest of the world is they don’t use global standard ISO 14443 (never mind Type A which uses Miller bit coding, the least efficient bit coding method) protocol which is common in many transit and bank cards issued worldwide.
The tap time with ISO 14443 Type A (née Philips) and B (née Motorola) varies greatly: from 200 to 500 milliseconds (ms) with 200 ms only achievable with Type B/Calypso. But it never reaches the short as 100 ms which is only achieved with Felica developed by Sony, also designated NFC-F and NFC Tag Type 3 by the NFC Forum and compatible with ISO 18092 which is commonly found in smartphones and NFC wearables since 2013. In this following video passengers maintain their walking pace but never overshoot and trigger a gate closure nor slow down not even a bit:
It may seem like a minor difference but due to the high volume of passengers per gate and to reduce gate maintenance requirements, tap times really matter.
Companies such as JR East have specified tap time of 200 ms but Suica is actually faster and this allows real life speed tolerances: some passengers tap faster than others due to walking pace, the higher speed tolerances are only possible with the 100 ms tap time of FeliCa. A comparison example of large crowds at gates in Malaysia and Japan below:
Open Loop NFC ticketing in its current form is based on EMVCo Contactless specifications adopted in contactless bank cards issued worldwide including China UnionPay QuickPass which is PBOC derived from the EMVCo Contactless spec. All of these use ISO 14443 Type A at 106 kbps only for 500 ms tap time, which is adopted in cities worldwide such as London, New York, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro where normal walking speed is never supported.
But as seen here, transit cards in Japan such as Suica, PASMO and ICOCA are supported for ultra hight speed and precise account verification and fare processing. Transit cards use offline Stored Fare (SF) which includes the amount of funds stored in the card’s IC smart chip data storage, NOT backend on a server like a bank card, and stored commuter passes. Here are walk flow comparisons for Tokyo and London, and MTA OMNY Open Loop performance:
Apple Pay Octopus has been in service for a week so I asked for some Apple Watch field impressions on Twitter. Overall, users seem pretty impressed:
I am using it daily and it is really out of this world. I use it on my watch and now I can literally go out for a jog or hike with just wearing the watch.
It works perfectly on my AW so far. But from I’ve heard on LIHKG, there some users facing the difficulties on the express mode. Mostly are requiring passcode when going through the gate.
It’s mostly positive. However there’re times where the reader isn’t sensitive enough and need to linger the watch longer. Also going to work first thing in the morning but forgetting to enter pass code in the apple watch is frustrating since it doesn’t inform you need to unlock.
Been using AW Octopus everyday. Use cases include MTR, tram, ferry, 7-11, eating meals at all sorts of restaurants like Tai Hing, Ki’s Roasted Goose, Pret etc. Octopus on Apple Pay drastically improved HK’s cashless experience. It’s definitely okay for me to go out with only AW. Not even with my phone. Feels really good. The speed of payment is also very remarkable. However, the reader in Tai Hing seems to need an extra second to detect my AW, not sure why. Plus AW users might want to wear it on the right wrist, which makes passing MTR gates easier.
Using it everywhere. All good and same speed as physical card, expect bus and some small shops were like a heartbeat slower. Also twice there was no “ping” confirmation sound. Tried AW on my right for mtr, its only good for that, imo left is more comfy for other occasions…
… after so many years of waiting, finally an apple pay suica experience in HK.
You can follow the Twitter thread here. I have noticed a few small gate lag hiccups on my Apple Watch Suica since upgrading to watchOS 6.2.5/6.2.6. The lag is especially noticeable if a workout is in progress. The passcode request at the gate could indicate that Express Transit is deactivated somewhere along the way, either by a loose band activating the wrist detector into thinking Apple Watch was taken off the wrist, or it could be something else.
My Apple Watch insisted that I create a 6 digit passcode recently and disabled the 4 digit passcode option for a few days. Who knows, the passcode requests that some HK users are seeing could be a watchOS bug or an Octopus reader side issue that can be addressed with a firmware update.
Apple Watch is still prone to OS version performance issues that disappeared from iPhone with A12 Bionic and Express Transit with power reserve. Apple Pay transactions on A12 Bionic and later bypass most of the iOS layer and are directly handled in the A12/A13 Bionic Secure Enclave and Secure Element. It makes a big performance difference for Suica and Octopus.
Hopefully the next watchOS update will improve Suica and Octopus performance. Better yet let’s hope that Apple Watch 6 introduces a Apple S6 chip with Express Transit with power reserve. That would solve the watchOS version NFC performance issues for good, just like it did for iPhone.
A reader asked me about using face masks with Express Transit. The great thing about Express Transit with Suica and Octopus is that the user doesn’t need Face ID or Touch ID to use transit or buy stuff. It’s very convenient to have, especially in our face mask era. iOS 13.5 added a small Face ID tweak for easier passcode entry when wearing a face mask. It helps with the basic unlock but for me regular Apple Pay authentication is still a pain.
The reader wanted to know if the iOS 13.5 Face ID tweak affected Express Transit. It does not. You don’t need Face ID to use Apple Pay Express Transit. But Face ID needs to be ‘on’ in order for Express Transit to work and finding the right information on Apple support pages is a little confusing. The reference page you want is If Face ID isn’t working on your iPhone or iPad Pro>If you need to enter your passcode:
The key sentences are outlined in red. Wearing a face mask is not a problem with Express Transit and Face ID turned on. However, “five unsuccessful attempts to match a face,” turns off Face ID and Express Transit. You need to enter your passcode to turn on Face ID and Express Transit again.
Unfortunately turning off Face ID wearing a face mask with five unsuccessful attempts without realizing it is easy to do and trips up a lot of Express Transit users who are not aware of it. That’s why I suggest turning off the ‘Raise to Wake’ option in Settings > Display & Brightness. Doing so reduces the chance of ‘five strikes’ and makes Face ID with face mask life a little easier.
Good news for long suffering Hong Kong iPhone users: press invitations labeled ‘Redefining Mobile Payments’ that went out to local media outlets on May 28 signaled Octopus for Apple Pay would finally launch on June 2, which it did in tandem with Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit directions just before 1 am June 2 local Hong Kong time. The press event took place at 12:30 pm.
OCL teased everyone when it first announced Apple Pay Octopus as ‘coming soon’ in July 2019, then ‘as soon as possible’ in September, finally postponing it in December for ‘later in 2020’ without explanation. This despite endless beta test leaks that indicated everything was ready to roll and endless launch rumors that never panned out. The Apple Pay Octopus Wait for Godot was a very bumpy journey. A timeline:
September 2017: Apple releases global NFC iPhone 8/X and Apple Watch Series 3 setting the stage for Octopus support
December 2017: OCL launches Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay
Global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch Apple Pay Octopus is just like Apple Pay Suica with Express Transit. It can be used on iPhone 8 and later with iOS 13.5, and Apple Watch Series 3 and later with watchOS 6.2.5. Apple devices from anywhere can add and use Octopus thanks to Apple global NFC support but practical use is limited to having a Hong Kong issue Mastercard, Visa or UnionPay bank card already in Wallet.
iPhone 11 Pro/11/XR/XS have the A12/A13 Bionic exclusive Express Transit with power reserve feature that gives users an additional 5 hours of Express Transit use when iPhone is in low battery power reserve mode. A12/A13 Bionic powered transit card performance is also much improved over previous iPhone models because the Bionic Secure Element directly handles transactions that eliminate iOS overhead. If Octopus on iPhone X doesn’t work well, check this support post.
Apple Watch is the first time Octopus has landed on a smartwatch. As a long time Apple Pay Suica user I can tell you that it’s the Apple Watch killer app. Octopus users will really enjoy the experience on Apple Watch especially when hooked up with auto recharge/Automatic Add Value Service (AAVS).
Similarities with Suica Octopus is based on the same FeliCa technology that powers Suica, both cards are very similar in scope and use for fast transit and contactless payments of all kinds. According to Wikipedia over 33 million Octopus cards were in circulation as of 2018 used by 99 per cent of Hong Kong residents. The ubiquity of Octopus with Express Transit for transit and purchases will drive Apple Pay use in Hong Kong far more than regular credit/debit cards.
Apple Pay Octopus and Apple Pay Suica both have the same fast Express Transit performance that no other Express Transit cards can match with faster gate performance than the recently added Apple Pay China T-Union mainland transit cards.
New virtual Octopus cards can be created directly in Wallet just like Apple Pay Suica cards or added via the Octopus app (v6). Plastic Octopus cards can also be transferred to Wallet but cannot be used after transfer.
Some attached services are not supported. Be sure to check Important Notes to Customers before transferring a plastic Octopus. Another issue to be aware of is that the Octopus card number changes when transferred which can cause problems with some card ID# linked services.
Not Inbound Friendly OCL limits Apple Pay Octopus card creation and recharge to having Hong Kong issue Mastercard, UnionPay and Visa cards already added in Wallet. It’s clearly not geared for inbound visitors. This is a shame because Apple supports global NFC on all devices which Samsung and Android devices do not, a key difference.
In practice this means any iPhone 8 and later from anywhere can use Apple Pay Octopus but only when a Hong Kong issue bank payment card is already loaded in Wallet. Suica is very different in this regard: it can be created and recharged in Wallet with any Apple Pay loaded card no matter the brand or country of issue, all without service fees. It’s a very inbound friendly deal for Japan visitors with iPhone.
Unfortunately OCL was limited by restrictive Hong Kong bank agreements and didn’t offer any Apple Pay inbound friendly solutions at the press event. Hopefully they will expand inbound bank card support down the road as banks realize the value of enticing tourists to use Hong Kong transit.
Octopus was the first real transit platform (contactless transit and eMoney) that had a tremendous impact on the development of other transit card fare systems around the world such as Transport for London Oyster. However, OCL needs to aggressively expand Octopus services on other mobile digital wallets like Google Pay especially as MTR moves to add QR Code payment Open Loop support.
Apple Maps Transit Integration Hong Kong Apple Maps Transit directions launched in tandem with Apple Pay Octopus. It makes sense for Apple to offer both services as an integrated package as they did for the Apple Pay Suica. In Japan, Google Maps transit directions offer more detail and a better UI than Apple Maps Transit even though they use the same data suppliers. Your milage may vary but Google Maps transit directions for Hong Kong has been in place for some time and offers extras like crowding info. Another limitation shared with Apple Maps in Japan: no indoor station mapping.
Greater Bay Area Apple Pay Transit Compatibility Apple Pay Octopus is the last piece of the transit puzzle that delivers Express Transit convenience to Greater Bay Area iPhone/Apple Watch users who, up until iOS 13.4.1, were limited to China Union Pay (CUP) cards without Express Transit and plastic Octopus cards.
The recently released Apple Pay China T-Union transit cards are interoperable transit cards that work across the country, some 257 mainland cities, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO. China T-Union uses the PBOC 2.0/3.0 protocol, the Chinese variant of EMV with the slowest NFC transaction speeds, they are limited to UnionPay issue credit/debit cards for recharge and cannot be used for purchases. Octopus uses the faster FeliCa protocol and offers an open Apple Pay recharge backend for Hong Kong issue cards.
The advantage for wide area travelers is that they can now add both Apple Pay Octopus and China T-Union cards in Wallet. Having 2 different Apple Pay transit cards in Wallet may not be exactly the same as the dual mode Sold Octopus•Lingnan Pass but it should be close. It will be interesting to hear what the Apple Pay Greater Bay Area transit experience is like using both services.
Why the long wait? There has been endless speculation regarding the reasons for the Apple Pay Octopus delay. Technically it could have launched on iOS 12 but was held back for an unbelievably long test period over 2 major iOS versions, running from December 2018 and iOS 12 all the way to May 2020 and iOS 13.5, the last major release before iOS 14.
Why? Personally I always felt the unexplained November 2019 Smart Octopus service outage was an ominous sign that OCL plans were under political pressure, though many will disagree. Other possible delay reasons include Apple Pay recharge card support and fee negotiations, and lining up Apple Map transit data. There’s no question that the go-slow OCL approach with constant tweaking of mobile and O! ePay services was not helped by the ever-deteriorating political situation.
The Apple Pay Octopus launch story was a long winding road with many ups and letdowns in the very difficult year of 2019. 2020 is also a very difficult year in a different way, though I hope it can still turn out to be a time of recovery.
I’d like to thank all the readers who shared Octopus tips and comments that let me report a complex, ever changing situation. I learned many things, the most important of which is that Hong Kong people are very kind and very smart. Wish you all a safe, healthy and happy transit wherever you go.
June 3 8:00 JST: Octopus issues apology, “Due to the overwhelming response to the launch of Octopus on iPhone and Apple Watch, some customers could not add their Octopus between 11:30 am and 12:19 pm on 2 June,” and compensating some Octopus users June 2 12:00 JST: Octopus Card Limited site updated for Apple Pay Octopus and a press release June 2 09:00 JST: Apple Pay Octopus page added to Hong Kong Apple site with instructions for creating, transferring and topping up Octopus cards in Apple Pay June 2 03:20 JST: Octopus App v6 update released June 2 01:50 JST: Apple Pay Octopus has launched, rollout expanding in stages June 2 00:46 JST: Apple Pay Transit directions for Hong Kong appearing in advance of the Apple Pay Octopus
Outside of the Rakuten Pay app is confusing: red Rakuten Suica is only seen in Rakuten Pay but everywhere else it looks and acts like a regular green Suica (in Google Wallet, Mobile Suica, Osaifu Keitai app). But the Rakuten Point earning recharge is limited to Rakuten Pay app recharge which only sees the red Rakuten Suica and nothing else. Whew. Details are outlined clear as mud in the Rakuten Suica English press release.
Plugging Suica into the Rakuten Point empire is the whole point of the JR East/Rakuten tie-up but the current implementation is still missing an important point: free Suica recharges with Rakuten Points. This is promised in a future update. Up until now JR East has kept free Suica recharge exclusively for their own JRE POINT system where registered users earn JRE POINT with Suica then use points for free Suica recharge and Green Seat upgrades. The advantage for JR East is that Rakuten Point users outside of JR East’s transit region now have an incentive to use Suica for purchases and local transit as part of the Rakuten Payment experience.
There is no reason why Rakuten Suica couldn’t also work on Apple Pay but Rakuten probably wants to keep their branded Suica in their own app which is not allowed by Apple. Rakuten Suica would have to reside in Wallet just like the Mizuho Suica that recharges via its own app or Apple Pay. If Rakuten can live with that, Rakuten Suica has an Apple Pay future. For now, iOS users can earn Rakuten Points when recharging Suica with a Rakuten credit card but the sign-up process is convoluted and only good for 30 days before you have to sign up again.