Reader Question: what’s the point of Apple Pay My Suica?

A reader asked a very good question: what’s the point of an Apple Pay My Suica? Can’t you already migrate a normal ‘unregistered’ Suica to another device if you loose your device?

There are 3 basic Suica plastic card categories: unregistered, registered (My Suica) and commuter. PASMO and all other major Transit IC card are the same. An unregistered Suica card just spits out of the station kiosk after putting money in and you are on your way, but it cannot be replaced or re-issued if lost. Buy a new one, end of story.

With a registered My Suica card, the customer registers a name and other information on the kiosk touchscreen and if the card is lost it can be re-issued for a fee with the original stored balance intact. It’s Suica insurance. Same deal for Commuter Suica which is registered Suica with a commute plan attached.

Mobile Suica uses the same 3 category card model but Apple Pay Suica changed the game considerably. When a user transfers any flavor of plastic Suica to Apple Pay, the card is permanently linked to the user Apple ID. When a user creates a Suica card in Wallet it creates a My Suica card also attached to Apple ID. Apple Pay Suica cards also seem to be ‘ghost’ registered to Mobile Suica even when the user does not have a Mobile Suica account. Only the Apple Pay and Mobile Suica system elves really know what is going on.

The upside for Apple Pay users is that Apple Pay and Mobile Suica preserve Suica card information so the user can safely remove Suica from Wallet, re-add it, or transfer it to another device at any time. It’s free insurance without the hassle of registering a Mobile Suica account. All Suica card types are treated the same. The downside is that if you want to migrate to Android you have to delete your Mobile Suica account and refund the card, then create a new card and Mobile Suica account for Google Pay Suica. It’s the same deal going migrating the other way.

To answer the reader question regarding the point of Apple Pay My Suica, the point is this: commute plans, auto-charge, Green Car seat purchase. The point of Apple Pay Registered PASMO is similar: commute plans and auto-charge. All this is done via Suica App or PASMO App. If you don’t want those extra services, a plain unregistered Suica or PASMO is all you need.

Apple Pay Ventra: the closed open loop card

Apple Pay Ventra finally launched October 26, 2020, a very long wait after the March 25, 2019 Apple Event announcement. I wrote about the delay blaming it on open loop when the Washington SmarTrip and LA TAP cards landed on Apple Pay first.

Ventra has a long glitchy open loop history from its debut with the ill-fated Mastercard debit Ventra. Streets Blog had this to say about it in 2017.

Arguably it’s a good thing that the Ventra prepaid debit card is going the way of the dinosaur. The debit card function debuted with a long list of fees that had the potential to siphon of much of the money stored on the card, including:

A $1.50 ATM withdrawal fee
A $2 fee to speak to someone about the retail debit account.
A $6.00 fee for closing out the debit balance
A $2 fee for a paper statement
A $2.95 fee to add money to the debit account using a personal credit card
A $10 per hour fee for “account research’’ to resolve account discrepancies

“These fees were probably not any different than other bank cards offered by Money Network or Meta Bank or other predatory banks,” says Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance, who reported on the issue at the time. “But it was shameful for the CTA to be aligned with that.”

After a backlash, most of these fees were reduced or eliminated, but CTA retail outlets were still allowed to charge Ventra card holders a fee of up to $4.95 to load cash on the debit sides of their cards. So maybe it is for the best that the CTA is getting out of the bank card business.

StreetsBlog Chicago December 2017

Getting Ventra out of the bank card business is easier said than done when the whole system is designed around open loop. Mastercard may have stopped issuing Ventra branded prepaid debit cards but they have managed Ventra account services all this time. The Ventra plastic card is MIFARE DESFire EV1 which fits with the tried and true Cubic Transportation Systems management style. All of the various transit card systems they manage around the world are designed around MIFARE stored value cards: Chicago Ventra, London Oyster, Sydney Opal, Washington SmarTrip, LA TAP, etc.

An Apple Pay Ventra in Wallet screenshot from a Japanese Twitter user revealed a fascinating bit of information. Apple Pay transit cards like Suica, SmarTrip and TAP all show a stored value card balance. Apple Pay Ventra does not, it shows a card number like a Wallet credit card. This means Apple Pay Ventra is a reincarnated Mastercard prepaid debit card, only this time disguised as a mobile transit card with Mastercard running the card account services.

Apple Pay Ventra: the closed open loop transit card
Most tech blog coverage of the Apple Pay Ventra launch only mentioned Express Transit but there are important limitations:

  1. Ventra Card on iPhone 6S and later / Apple Watch Series 1 and later, can only be used on the CTA and Pace bus services, but not Metra or Pace Paratransit. RTA and Student Reduced Fare cards, including U-Pass cards, and free ride Ventra Cards cannot be added to Apple Wallet yet. (from StreetsBlog Chicago)
  2. Reload/Recharge in Wallet is not supported, you have to do it in Ventra App. This really sucks for Apple Watch Ventra users. Currently only Apple Pay TAP and Apple Pay SmarTrip support Wallet recharge, interestingly those systems are closed loop.

So, we have the following pieces: open loop, Cubic system management, Mastercard managed Ventra card accounts, MIFARE for plastic cards, EMV prepaid debit for mobile digital cards with a closed reload/recharge model that limits everything from card issue and recharge to the app, oh and slow tap speed.

The end result is a centralized processing system model mishmash of open loop and closed loop parts, ‘heavy’ in every performance aspect, that pales in comparison to stored value local processing lightness of a user friendly Apple Pay Suica•PASMO with fast tap speeds that lets users do everything from recharge to card creation in Wallet without an account or app. In short Apple Pay Ventra is a bank card without the credit checks for transit use.

The Sydney Opal card is about to enter digital wallet tests with Mastercard running the show with a similar set of Ventra pieces: Mastercard EMV issue for mobile, MIFARE plastic cards, Cubic management, etc. Expect similar results.

EMV transit cards: next installment of the Contactless Payment Turf Wars
If nothing else Apple Pay Ventra reveals how flimsy the ‘open loop is open’ argument really is: The Apple Pay Ventra prepaid debit card as transit card can only be used on the Ventra system. How open is that? All they did was swap MIFARE for EMV, neither of which are open. And tap speeds will be slower than ever with EMV, aka the supermarket checkout protocol.

The lesson here is that when transit agencies let banks and card companies run their transit fare concession, they will never be free of them: there’s just too much private money to be made off of running the backend services attached to public infrastructure. And the bank card industry has no interest in improving their slow EMV supermarket checkout card spec for transit. Nobody in Sydney will bother asking who ends up getting the float interest from Opal cards when Mastercard runs the account backend. I’m sure the bank card issuers like it that way.

The only question remaining is this: now that we know the Ventra EMV Mastercard prepaid debit card as mobile digital transit card is same one for mobile Opal…is it going to be the same deal for MTA mobile OMNY and TfL mobile Oyster? I suspect so: this is the new Cubic mobile transit card business model with NXP MIFARE the loser in this latest installment of the contactless payment turf wars.

UPDATE

A reader was kind enough to scan a Apple Pay Ventra card with a NFC tag reading app. Results confirmed what I outline above: Apple Pay Ventra is a EMV Mastercard prepaid debit disguised as a transit card. This officially marks a migration away from stored value MIFARE transit cards to stored in the cloud EMV prepaid debit cards for mobile digital transit card systems managed by Cubic. Specifically it means the local stored value information that was held by the MIFARE plastic card has been migrated to an online Mastercard account for Apple Pay Ventra as the EMV credit card format wasn’t designed for stored value. Just like the title says: Apple Pay Ventra is a closed open loop card.

The Return of Touch ID…or maybe not

Gruber finally clocked in on the Face ID vs Touch ID in the face mask era issue in his iPad Air review:

Will this Touch ID sensor in the power button ever make its way to iPhones? I think not…adding Touch ID to the iPhone power button doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

Yes, across the world, many of us are wearing face masks whenever we venture outside the home, and Face ID doesn’t work with masked faces. (Some people report that it does work, sometimes, but it never works for me, and definitely is not officially supported.) But how would a Touch ID sensor on the power button work with an iPhone in a case? Most people use cases, and most cases cover the power button. That’s such a dealbreaker that I think the whole debate might end there. But even putting the issue of button-covering cases aside, how would Touch ID work alongside Face ID?

Practically speaking it would be nice to have Touch ID while wearing a face mask — trust me, I know — but conceptually it seems a bit mushy to have both Touch ID and Face ID on the same device. I think we’re more likely to see a better Face ID system that can identify us while we wear masks covering our mouths and noses than iPhones that have Touch ID sensors on the power button. If we, as humans, can recognize people we know while they’re wearing face masks, computers can do it too.

Gruber is somewhat sensible up to this point but then adds:

Touch ID that somehow works through the display, not the power button — that seems like an option worth pursuing, conceptual mushiness of dual biometric systems be damned.

Conceptual mush my ass. It’s too bad Gruber has never experienced Apple Pay Suica Express Transit, it would give him a better perspective and clarity on how big and important the Face ID vs Touch ID issue is for many iPhone users in Asian markets. As a regular Tokyo commuter I’m fortunate that Apple Pay Express Transit Suica makes Apple Pay on a Face ID iPhone tolerable when wearing a face mask, but the majority of Apple Pay users in Japan do the face mask passcode move.

Apple Pay launched after Touch ID for a reason: Apple Pay + Face ID/Touch ID is one complete thing. Apple Pay with passcodes is far more frustrating than a regular passcode unlock because it short circuits the entire Apple Pay experience and catches you at the worst moment when you least expect it, usually at checkout with the wrong Wallet card selected and people behind you. It’s so bad you want to go back to plastic.

There are no easy choices. An iPhone that does Face ID and Touch ID (in screen or button) would be expensive, risky, problematic and juggling both technologies will very likely suck UI performance-wise. We don’t need a repeat of the 3D Touch misstep because of cost and/or not panning out because Apple didn’t think things through.

Apple needs to see Face ID through, and it can, but developing it will take time. Even so there is a large installed base of Face ID devices now that will never work with face masks, users are going to be dealing with that issue for a long time. The real interesting thing for me is what Apple is telling customers on its own web pages. For example the Apple Pay Japan page for PASMO and Suica only shows Touch ID. It used to show Face ID too but that was removed with the Apple Pay PASMO launch refresh. Apple fully recognizes that Face ID is a marketing obstacle for Apple Pay in Japan.

Computers already recognize face masks, NEC face recognition technology does it very well. And we have Touchless Apple Pay on the horizon. The bottom line is…until Apple develops and delivers its own insanely great Face ID with x-ray vision, or licenses NEC face recognition technology, and delivers Apple Pay Touchless, Apple Pay on Apple Watch is the way to go.

Sorry Steve I’m not upgrading to iPhone 12

Japanese iPhone haters cira 2008, Wired updates to the original piece are hilarious btw. Photo by Danny Choo (dannychoo.com)

I’ve upgraded my iPhone every year since the Japanese debut. Yes, that infamous Brian X Chen ‘Why Japanese Hate the iPhone‘ 2008 Japan launch when a huge line ran from the Omotesando SoftBank store, past Yoyogi Park all the way to Shibuya. This year, for the first time, I am not upgrading.

This is not because of any iPhone 12 Pro shortcoming. It looks like a great device and I’d love the camera upgrade, but things have changed: Face ID sucks in COVID era Tokyo commuting, Japanese carrier subsidies dried up in 2018. We live in an unbundled world so I switched to a 3 year Docomo plan for iPhone 11 and Docomo stopped offering an upgrade program. Oh, and Yahoo Japan Auction went to the dogs long ago. Too many shady Chinese buyers with questionable Yahoo Japan mail accounts asking for direct deals and international shipping. None of this is allowed by Yahoo Japan Auction rules but if you ignore those pesky rule breaking requests they trash your Yahoo Japan Auction rating. It’s not worth the bother.

It used to work like this: 2 year subsidized iPhone contract, upgrade to the newest iPhone, unlock the old iPhone SIM and sell it on Yahoo Japan Auction, use the proceeds to pay off the remaining installment payments on the old iPhone. Rinse, repeat. That was then, this is now. I’ll wait until iPhone Face ID is joined with an iPad Air-like Touch ID side button. That is my iPhone upgrade criteria now because face masks in public are here to stay. It won’t come soon or cheap, but I can wait.

So my apologies to the iPhone guy in the sky. I’ve enjoyed the yearly iPhone upgrade routine over the years. My favorite remains the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone that really made the Japan market, a fun time. We’ll meet again at iPhone 14…or 15.

2 NFC Antennas for iPhone 12

New iPhone specs are always fun to compare and analyze. On the NFC front we have a few changes in iPhone 12. NFC is now listed twice, first in the Cellular and Wireless section as “NFC with reader mode,” and again the MacSafe section as “Accessory Identification NFC.”

The keynote also shows NFC twice: once using iPhone 12 to unlock a door and again in the MagSafe section as a ‘single-turn coil NFC.’ So there we have it: the good old Apple Pay NFC antenna with embedded Secure Element for transactions where it has always been on the top of iPhone, and a new MagSafe NFC antenna for tag reading MagSafe accessories on the back that doesn’t need a secure element for card emulation transactions and might incorporate the NFC Forum Wireless Charging Specification. Hopefully Apple will release MagSafe developer documentation later on so we can find out. Some users wondered if the new MacSafe NFC would interfere with 3rd party card cases and using Apple Pay, but this doesn’t seem to be the case, no pun intended.

The NFC Forum Specification includes wireless charging but it’s not clear if MagSafe includes it.

What about ‘NFC with reader mode’? This is just the new name for Background NFC tag reading which was listed in previous models that have all been updated to the new name. Another welcome addition is the return of Suica (removed in the iPhone SE Apple Pay section) along with the just released Apple Pay PASMO mention in the iPhone 12 JP Apple Pay specs.