iOS 12 Apple Pay Wallet pulled a MIFARE and nobody noticed

The Apple Wallet Ponta card launch at LAWSON presents another dilemma: just what exactly is Apple using for iOS 12/watchOS 5 Apple Wallet Passes and Student ID cards? Student ID cards and Apple Wallet Ponta have the same device eligibility specs: iOS 12/watch OS 5 running on iPhone 6 and later/Apple Watch Series 1 and later.

You might assume that Apple Wallet Ponta is FeliCa but the eligible device list tells a different story. You might also assume that everything in Japan is FeliCa but this is also not the case. Doutor Coffee shops sell a handy little Doutor pre-paid card that is MIFARE and it works flawlessly side by side with FeliCa flavored Apple Pay Suica on the same NFC reader.

Altogether we have an interesting spec list for Student ID and Mobile Ponta cards.

  • The same eligible device specs that only support NFC A-B across all devices
  • Stored value
  • iOS 12 PassKIT NFC Certificates
  • Express Card capable
  • Local offline transactions

I’m calling it (again): the only technology that fits this profile (for Student ID cards but not Ponta) is MIFARE iOS 12 PassKIT Wallet passes are simply MIFARE. Only Apple could pull this kind of ‘under the hood thing’ off in iOS 12 without anybody suspecting and it neatly puts all the major NFC technology pieces on Apple Pay: EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE and China Transit.

Blackboard supplies the technology and backend services for Student ID cards on iOS 12. I contacted Blackboard PR to confirm if the card technology was FeliCa or MIFARE but did not receive an answer. However I did run across an interesting Blackboard press release from 2015 Blackboard and NXP Semiconductors Collaborate to Strengthen Campus Card Technology:

Blackboards’ push to adopt NFC in addition to their existing MIFARE-based solutions, back in 2012 showed incredible insight into the potential of this technology. The security, convenience and flexibility that NXPs NFC and MIFARE solutions bring truly reflect the student lifestyle. Now access to campus services can be simply enabled via a smart watch or smart phone.

Based on this and the fact that it came 2 years after a FeliCa demo of Blackboard Student ID cards with a rumored migration from FeliCa to MIFARE, plus the eligible device specs, my conclusion is that Student ID cards on iOS 12 are MIFARE HCE (Host Card Emulation) which is NFC-A.

Apple Wallet Ponta cards on iOS 12 are VAS protocol contactless passes outlined at WWDC18 , WWDC16, and in the Contactless Passes section of the iOS Security Guide:

Wallet supports the value added service (VAS) protocol for transmitting data from supported passes to compatible NFC terminals. The VAS protocol can be implemented on contactless terminals and uses NFC to communicate with supported Apple devices.

This is also NFC-A. Contactless passes have been around for a while on iOS but adoption has been slow. With iOS 12 PASSKit, Apple is encouraging developers to migrate from QR Codes to NFC contactless passes and hopefully lowering the NFC Certificate requirement bar a little. Part of the reason for the slow uptake is poor NFC reader support. LAWSON has a new POS system built around Panasonic JT-R600CR readers which are Apple Pay savvy and Apple Wallet Ponta cards only work correctly when you tell the LAWSON cashier to use “Apple Pay”.

Update: A highly trusted NFC engineering source contacted me that I got it partly wrong. The correction edit above explains that Wallet Ponta cards are Apple’s implementation of the VAS protocol and not MIFARE. Student ID cards are almost certainly MIFARE/PASSKit NFC Certificate Host Card Emulation (HCE), Apple has not publicly announced MIFARE support but it is the only technology compatible with Blackboard IC card formats that could power the express card features of iOS 12 student ID cards across all eligible devices. Research and confirmation efforts are ongoing.

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Apple Wallet Ponta contactless rewards card at LAWSON

Ponta Apple Pay launches at LAWSON
Ponta Apple Pay launches at LAWSON with 4X points for Apple Pay Purchases

The Ponta rewards card for Apple Wallet launched at LAWSON Japan right on schedule and without a hitch.  iOS 12/watch OS 5 users with any Apple Pay capable device: iPhone 6 and later, Apple Watch Series 1 and later can add the Ponta rewards card operated by the Recruit Group to Apple Wallet and automatically earn Ponta points with Apple Pay purchases at LAWSON without having to use an app or show a bar code. Apple Pay purchases earn 4X Ponta points during the launch campaign running through March 6, 2019. You can also make purchases with Apple Wallet Ponta points.

NFC Apple Wallet passes are a new feature of iOS 12/watchOS 5. Apple is encouraging developers to use NFC instead of QR or bar codes for Apple Wallet passes, and has been showcasing contactless NFC passes at recent Apple Events. Ponta Apple Wallet hopefully marks the beginning of other NFC enabled reward cards such as JRE POINT joining Apple Wallet.

Create a digital Ponta card with iOS Ponta Card App then add it to Apple Wallet as shown here and in the above screenshots. Say “Apple Pay” to the LAWSON cashier and use Face ID/Touch ID with the card you want to use. Ponta automatic points don’t register with Suica Express Cards, iD or QUICPay, be sure to say “Apple Pay”. The reader does a double read, first for Ponta then for Apple Pay, so hold iPhone to the reader until it gives you a transaction complete sound, the linked Tweet video below gives you the idea. It’s slower than a regular FeliCa transaction because of the double read and the poky Ponta NCF-A protocol.

With a successful Apple Pay transaction the Ponta logo flashes briefly confirming purchase reward points, shown in the GIF Tweet, followed by a Ponta Wallet point summary notification. If you pay close attention to the GIF you’ll notice that LAWSON accepts NFC Pay in addition to FeliCa, iOS NFC switching in action again as Apple Wallet Ponta uses NFC-A. Whatever the NFC flavor is Apple Pay takes care of it, just as it should be.

Update: the LAWSON POS is built around Panasonic JT-R600CR readers which are Apple Pay savvy and Apple Wallet Ponta cards only work correctly when you tell the LAWSON cashier to use “Apple Pay”. Apple Wallet Ponta is Apple’s implementation of the VAS protocal for contactless NFC passes, reward cards, etc. and is NFC A. The Panasonic reader reads Ponta then selects the correct FeliCa payment method (Suica, iD, QUICPay). Users are complaining that LAWSON did not train store staff well but are getting up to speed quickly.

PAYGATE Station Android based smart payment reader

It’s rather unusual that a company would hold a press conference for a payment terminal but Daiwa House Group subsidiary Royal Gate Inc did just that last week for their new PAYGATE Station smart reader. Japanese IT journalist Satoshi Tanaka covered the rollout for IT Media.

The ‘thin client’ mobile Android based smart reader handles every payment protocol there is.

Contactless: EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE
Hardware: EMV IC, Magnetic stripe
QR Codes: D-Harai, Pay Pay, Line Pay, Ali Pay, WeChat Pay, Origami Pay, Rakuten Pay
Reward Cards: D-Point, Ponta, Rakuten

GMO Payment Gateway provides the payments processing backend for Royal Gate and Daiwa House Financial handles the business client support side. The product video shows the business target: small cafes, restaurants, boutiques. With the ever-widening rollout of EMV contactless and QR Code payments, Japan is turning into a very interesting and unique intersection point of Western EMV payments, home-grown FeliCa and China market driven QR Code payment schemes.

I don’t think having home grown QR Code payment systems around is a bad thing even though most Japanese don’t use them. The value is that it gives Japanese banks and companies a bargaining tool to use with Apple, Google, Amazon, Alibaba Group and WeChat. Never get in a sword fight without a sword.

Tokyo Disneyland goes FeliCa…Finally

Tokyo Disneyland goes FeliCa today accepting Suica, iD and QUICPay payments at shops, restaurants and hotels. Apple Pay Japanese users can now keep wallets closed and still get fleeced.

It nice that Tokyo Disneyland finally accepts FeliCa payments in addition to EMV, but why did it take so long?

Apple Pay Suica Express Card Performance Timelines

Express Cards on iOS/watchOS have a special place on the Apple Pay platform. First of all there are only 3:

Express cards share common features:

  • they are stored value
  • they can be recharged with Apple Pay credit cards or cash
  • they don’t require Apple Pay authentication
  • they are multi-purpose and are used for purchase, transit and opening door locks

Apple Pay credit/debit cards in both EMV or FeliCa flavors use middleware to work the transaction magic but Express Cards like Suica and Student ID don’t use middleware. They are pure card emulation residing in the super exclusive PassKit-NCF Certificate Nirvana zone where they can do anything they want.

There is a weakness on pre-Bionic architecture however: iOS/watchOS has to babysit all the card emulation and is a somewhat fragile. Changes in the OS affect performance and reliability. Here is a timeline of my experiences with iOS 10 Apple Pay Suica Express cards on the iPhone 7 JP model.

iOS Suica Express Performance Timeline

Apple Pay Express Card performance on pre-Bionic hardware tends to be cyclical: each new iOS has unstable performance at first but improves with later updates. It happened with iOS 11 and the rocky Apple Pay Cash start. And it’s happening again with iOS 12 and iOS 12.1 both of which have Express Card performance issues.

iOS Suica Express Performance Timeline 2

That is why A12 Bionic and Express Cards with reserve power are a big deal. Express Cards with power reserve are the latest Apple Pay Wallet feature to arrive with A12 Bionic on iPhone XS and iPhone XR. Express Cards with reserve power operate without iOS up and running and bypass iOS for basic operations even when it is running. This removes a huge layer of potential problems. My experience with ‘bulletproof’ Apple Pay Suica Express cards on iPhone XS simply blows everything else away.

At some point this feature will be standard across iOS and watchOS. The reliability benefits are huge, as is peace of mind in a power pinch.

And finally there is iPhone X Suica Express Card performance which is in a dog league all its own. Taken together with the iOS 11~iOS 12 timeline, it illustrates how complicated and confusing the current iOS 12 situation is for iPhone X Japanese users. Until Apple comes clean and provides some guidance for iPhone X devices with defective NFC, I don’t see things improving for these users. I’m glad to be out of it but cringe reading iPhone X user experiences and feel for the users as I’ve been there myself.

Suica Express Card performance and iPhone X production timelines compared
iPhone X only had 6 months of defective free NFC production. Until Apple goes public with the iPhone X NFC problem, many users will never know they have a defective device. Taken together with the iOS 12 performance issues, it’s a perfect storm of confusion.