iOS 12 update woes: one step back after one step forward for iPhone X Suica users

Poor iPhone X Suica users. No sooner did they finally fix iPhone X Suica hardware problems by getting a Revision B iPhone exchange when the iOS 12 update set them back. Here we go again.

This time it really is software with iPhone X Apple Pay Suica Express Card sometimes unresponsive and Apple Pay demanding a Passcode/Face ID unlock at transit gates, or just good old error flicker. Users with Rev-B iPhone X devices say they didn’t have these problems with iOS 11.4.1.

This kind of thing has happened before: the Apple Pay Japan debut iOS 10.1 release for iPhone 7 had transit gate teething problems and the iOS 11.1 Apple Pay Cash debut release made life miserable for all Apple Pay Suica users regardless of iPhone model.

After dealing with Suica hardware problems for so long iPhone X users are very sensitive and, understandably, easily upset given that Apple knows about the iPhone X Suica problem but refuses to acknowledge it publicly, putting users through the Apple Support runaround game. I suspect iPhone 8 users are experiencing the same iOS 12 Suica issues but are less vocal about it.

This kind of Suica, “iOS loves me, iOS loves me not” version by version game is a consequence of Apple requiring iOS to operate Suica on pre-A12 Bionic devices. As my iPhone XS review makes clear, essential Suica operations run on A12 Bionic without iOS. This makes iPhone XS and iPhone XR Apple Pay Suica ‘bulletproof’ to any given iOS version. It just works, even when the battery runs down.

As one Japanese user complained on Twitter last night, “Is this (iOS 12 Suica) problem just an Apple ploy to get us to upgrade to iPhone XS?”

That’s not exactly the sound of a satisfied Apple customer eager to upgrade to a new iPhone. This years iPhone launch day was very quiet in Japan. Apple had better get cracking on fixing problems here if they value Japanese customers and want to keep them. These days Apple seems to take Japan completely for granted.

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Global FeliCa iPhone XS, iPhone XR, Apple Watch Series 4

Update Apple Pay Suica specs
Updated Apple Pay Suica specs are for iPhone 8 and later, Apple Watch Series 3 and later

Apple updated Apple Pay eligible device information and Suica information with the release of iPhone XS today. It’s really boring to know that iPhone XS, iPhone XR and Apple Watch Series 4 are Global FeliCa just like previous generation devices, boring in a nice predictable way. They have to be in order to work with those FeliCa powered Student ID Cards for iOS 12 and watchOS 5. It’s really just Apple Pay. It just works, that’s all customers need to know.

I suspect A12 Bionic powered Express Cards with power reserve will work better on FeliCa Suica than the forever beta China Transit cards. We’ll find out soon enough.

A12 Bionic Powered NFC
A12 Bionic is powering some very interesting new NFC features on iPhone XS and iPhone XR

Express Cards with power reserve reveal Apple global FeliCa strategy

Westerns were a little perplexed in 2016 when Apple unveiled FeliCa Apple Pay but only on the Japanese model iPhone 7 and Apple Watch Series 2. Industry experts assumed that the credit card consortium created EMV contactless standard would conquer everything NFC and that FeliCa was non-standard and headed for oblivion. Why would Apple go to all that trouble if FeliCa was headed for the scrape heap?

In 2017 Apple quietly incorporated global FeliCa into all iPhone 8, iPhone X and Apple Watch Series 3 models. Anybody with those devices could add Suica to Apple Pay and enjoy cutting edge contactless transit and payments while visiting Japan. Global FeliCa is something that Android still hasn’t come up with.

And now in 2018 Apple has added Express Cards with power reserve that work with Apple Pay Transit Express cards in Japan and China, and Student ID Cards in America. The interesting thing is that outside of China, all Express cards with power reserve are FeliCa NFC-F. An unexpected twist in an unexpected story. Blackboard is working with Apple to deliver Contactless Student ID Cards to Duke, Oklahoma, Alabama, John Hopkins and Temple.

What I find fascinating is how Apple lists the new A12 Bionic powered Express Card feature. At first Apple limited mention of Express Cards with reserve power to iPhone XS/XR spec pages in just a few countries but later updated it to pretty much every market (Apple Canada for some reason omits it for XS but lists it for XR, a glitch?). Apple didn’t do that for the 2017 global FeliCa rollout. It only mentioned the feature on their Japan site.

If Express Cards with power reserve can only be used in China, Japan and a few universities in America, why list the feature everywhere? Is it just marketing, or is it something else? I’ll go with something else. Maybe not now, or even this year, but more Express Cards with power reserve for transit and ID cards are coming to more places.

Apple obviously saw more strategic long-term value in adding the FeliCa middleware stack to iOS first rather than MIFARE which powers a lot of transit card systems around the world. TfL Oyster may be big but Suica is Godzilla with e-money attached. Add China Transit into the mix and Apple’s strategy is clear: transaction volume. Apple Pay credit cards recharging all those stored value Express Cards in China, Japan and American universities is what Apple is really after. It’s a well-defined and enriching technology bundle that Apple can spread to other markets and segments, an intriguing mix of transit and higher education.

Apple’s global vision is also unmatched by the competition. Samsung Pay for example isn’t available in Japan simply because Samsung want to make more money selling Galaxy as a JP carrier locked Osaifu-Keitai premium device. The Google Pay Japan flop was also because Google wants to promote Android as a premium JP carrier locked device. Samsung and Google strangle their own children for money and market share.

Apple’s focused long-term strategy and global vision for Apple Pay and all things NFC remains a very intriguing one. I think it’s going to be another interesting year.

Why iPhone XS/XR have Express Cards with power reserve and Apple Watch Series 4 does not

Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XS and Apple Watch Series 4 are a little different

Have you noticed that iPhone XS and iPhone XR have proper tech spec pages and Apple Watch Series 4 does not? There are lots of pretty pictures though. Apple is not hiding anything but there are some unflattering comparisons: Apple Watch Series 4 does not have Express Cards with power reserve. Why not? The simple answer: A12 Bionic powered NFC. Apple Watch 4 doesn’t have it.

A12 Bionic looks amazing and I really look forward to testing Apple Pay Suica Express Card with power reserve performance on iPhone XS. Apple Watch 4 looks amazing too but there was probably no way the stellar Apple Chip design team could fit A12 into the Apple Watch 4 constraints. At least not yet.

Express Cards with power reserve would be lovely to have on Apple Watch but it is a very different device than iPhone with a very different battery use profile. A dead battery ‘call security so I can get back into the college dorm’ scenario is less likely with Student ID Cards on Apple Watch than it is with iPhone. A dead iPhone battery is the bigger concern. It’s a good reason for iPhone getting Express Cards with power reserve first.

‘The ID card works without the power on’ is a great sales pitch for iPhone XS even though Express Cards are just so much more natural on Apple Watch. I wonder how many college kids will use it to get mom and dad to pop for both devices?

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All Twelves: A12 Bionic Powered NFC on iOS 12

A12 Bionic Powered NFC
A12 Bionic is powering some very interesting new NFC features on iPhone XS and iPhone XR

Many people were disappointed at WWDC18 when Apple did not announce any changes to Core NFC. What people really wanted was all 3 NFC Forum defined NFC Modes: Card Emulation, Reader/Writer and Peer to Peer. iOS Apple Pay supports Card Emulation and Reader/Writer but severely limits Secure Element access necessary for Card Emulation. Core NFC is just a limited Reader/Writer Mode sub-set. Only developers with hard to get Apple issued NFC Certificates could do more.

Suica App is a good example of an extremely rare 3rd party app with NFC Certificate access to the A-Series Secure Enclave (SE) because Apple implemented a ‘virtual FeliCa SE’ in the Apple A-Series chip. This allows Suica App to recharge Suica card directly without going through Wallet, one of the very few apps that can. But there are limitations to this virtual approach: iOS has to be up and running for virtual FeliCa to work and Apple Pay Suica cannot do what FeliCa does on Android which is still work on transit gates when the device is off.

There are limitations of case-by-case NFC Certificate special access: slow expansion of new NFC service partners. The lack of established public frameworks is one reason native transit card support in Apple Pay has been expanding so slowly with big established NFC Middleware players such as MIFARE still missing from the Apple Pay platform.

One new thing that did come out of WWDC18 was NFC Certificate powered NFC Wallet Passes for iOS 12. Apple previewed the feature to media and guests entering the Steve Jobs Theater at the September 12 event. NFC Certificate enabled technology is being used for Student ID Cards, NFC Tickets, NFC Rewards Cards and more. If Apple is allowing more developers to get PassKit NFC Certificates with the iOS 12 release, I hope we’ll see new updated Apple Pay pages highlighting these new NFC features and partners.

A12 Bionic NFC
One of the fascinating aspects unveiled on September 12 are new NFC features that A12 Bionic enables on iPhone XS and iPhone XR: Express Cards with power reserve for transit and Student ID Cards and Core NFC Background Tag Reading.

FeliCa Reserve Power Express Transit has been on Android Osaifu-Keitai smartphones forever and Japanese feature phones before that. This feature mimics a physical smartcard so that users can make it through transit gates with the smartphone off. As long as there is just a little residual current left in the battery, it works.

Super Powered Apple Pay Suica
As explained in the iOS 12 Security Guide, A12 Bionic has a special new residual low power state that allows virtual FeliCa implemented in the A12 Bionic Secure Enclave to support transactions without iOS up and running, similar to what exists on Android Osaifu-Keitai: no fancy stuff but enough to get the FeliCa Networks keys out of the FeliCa SE in A12 Secure Enclave and get you through the transit gate.

This ability of A12 Bionic to handle SE transactions without iOS running sets Global FeliCa on iPhone XS and iPhone XR apart from Global FeliCa on iPhone 8, iPhone X and Apple Watch Series 3/4. Apple Global FeliCa finally matches the performance of the Japanese Osaifu-Keitai standard with dedicated Sony FeliCa chips, on Apple hardware.

This ability of A12 Bionic Secure Enclave to function without iOS has other benefits as well: much better Apple Pay Suica performance. Apple Pay Suica on pre-A12 devices works great but never quite achieves the magic bulletproof performance of a plastic Suica card on transit gates. With Suica essentials running on A12 Bionic with no iOS overhead, Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XS really shines and is finally bulletproof. iPhone XS puts the disgraceful scandalous iPhone X NFC problem device where it belongs, the trash bin of Apple shame history alongside the Apple III.

FeliCa for Student ID Cards
The iOS 12 Security Guide also makes clear that Student ID Cards are Express Cards with power reserve just like Suica transit stored value (SV) cards that open door locks instead of transit gates. Blackboard is using FeliCa technology to power those and are running the backend system that handles account SV ‘recharge’ from Apple Pay, similar to what Mobile Suica cloud does. Apple has not licensed MIFARE yet, though the same technique can be accomplished with other Middleware stacks that support it.

A12 Bionic is also powering the new Core NFC Background Tag Reading feature. I suspect Apple’s aim here is similar: they don’t want people to be locked out their smart home just like they don’t want students with NFC Student ID Cards to be locked out of the dorm when iPhone runs out of battery. It’s all about capturing what is great about smartcards on a smartphone: they don’t need a battery to work. It’s also a strategic win for Apple Wallet in the contactless turf wars as A12 Bionic NFC effectively destroys all rational for QR Codes, especially for transit, as they are less secure and can never work without power and a network connection.

It will be interesting to see what developers do with the new A12 Bionic powered NFC features.

Update
An earlier edit suggested MIFARE based cards for UK and Taiwan transit were coming to Apple Pay. Apple initially limited mention of ‘Express Cards with power reserve’ to iPhone XS and iPhone XR specs in certain countries. Apple has updated spec pages worldwide to include ‘Express Cards with power reserve’. This confirms that iPhone XS and iPhone XR sold anywhere can use Apple Pay Express Transit Cards with power reserve in Japan and China. I have yet to find out if this also means that Apple Pay is adding support for more transit systems that can use Express Cards with power reserve in other countries.

Update 2
The updated iOS 12 Security Guide confirms that Student ID Cards are Express Cards with power reserve just like Suica transit stored value cards that open door locks.

Update 3
Confirmed that Blackboard is using FeliCa for Apple NFC Student ID Cards for Duke, Oklahoma, Alabama, John Hopkins, Santa Clara and Temple.

Update 4
Apple updated Apple Pay eligible device information confirming global FeliCa for iPhone XS, iPhone XR and Apple Watch Series 4.

Update 5
Quick review of iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica with Express Card power reserve that does more than just transit.