5G Contactless Payments Part 1: Fast QR vs Ultra Wide Band enhanced FeliCa and MIFARE

Payment empire players envision a brave new world of 5G enhanced contactless payment solutions, seen in recent moves by JR East and other major Japanese transit companies to replace expensive legacy mag strip ticketing with lower cost QR Code ticketing. 5G flavored QR Code and ‘Touchless’ Ultra Wide Band (UWB) Mobile FeliCa solutions were also on display at last months Docomo Open House 2020. How can it be that Docomo is developing Ultra Wide Band Mobile FeliCa and QR Code solutions?

The endless push pull of ‘this contactless payment works great for me’ that drives somebody else crazy is endless fascinating. We have more choices than ever: digital wallets, plastic cards, face recognition, NFC, QR Codes, etc. 5G and UWB promise to mix things up even more.

Ultra Wide Band enhanced FeliCa and MIFARE Apple CarKey?
The evolution of EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE and other similar protocols as they transition from plastic smartcards to digital wallets devices opens up opportunities to include other radio technologies like Ultra Wide Band and Bluetooth in addition to NFC. Ultra Wide Band Touchless FeliCa on display at the Docomo Open House was all about cars, not Touchless walkthrough transit gates that will appear in a few years.

Touchless FeliCa makes great sense as a ‘NFC car key’ that utilizes UWB for operation at greater distance and better accuracy when needed. Touchless makes even more sense as a ‘keep phone in pocket’ touchless payment method for drive thru purchases. The addition of UWB into the mix makes smartcard protocols much more useful than just NFC. I would certainly welcome a smartphone UWB powered Touchless FeliCa replacement that ditches the need for automobile ETC cards and readers on Japanese expressways.

How UWB enhanced FeliCa would fit with Apple’s new CarKey feature said to be coming with iOS 13.4 is unknown but iPhone already supports FeliCa. UWB touchless support for iPhone 11 and later models is a logical evolution. Sony and Docomo are developing the technology with NXP which certainly means that MIFARE will also support UWB enhancements. The long history of FeliCa and MIFARE as keycard solution providers is a natural fit with Apple CarKey. NFC is the only protocol that has been discovered in iOS 13.4 beta CarKey framework so far but I would not be surprised if UWB code references turn up at some point.

5G Cloud vs Local Processing
The Docomo Open House also showcased a QR Code transit gate with 200 millisecond (ms) transaction processing but the real star was the speed of 5G. 5G powered cloud processing promises to upend the current advantage of locally processed prepaid stored value cards…cards like Suica.

The basic promise of 5G is that IT system designers finally achieve a nirvana of everywhere, always available, big pipe central processing without wires, the big cloud. The original Suica card design effort back in the 1980’s had to leverage local processing because central processing wasn’t up to the task of handling massive transaction volumes of a Tokyo-Shinjuku-Ikebukuro station at peak rush hour. This is why Suica cards are stored value by design, the FeliCa technology behind the card design delivers 200 ms and faster transaction times for local processing at the transit gate. What happens when 5G promises, in theory, to deliver 200 ms central processing?

Kill mag strip paper tickets first then Suica?
As Junya Suzuki points out in his article ‘Is QR the future of Suica?‘, transit QR Codes on the complex Japanese transit network only need be a unique local passkey with everything else, verification, transaction, etc., done in the 5G cloud. The same concept applies for facial recognition systems where the registered face is the unique local passkey. With the power and speed of 5G, Suzuki san argues that the need for Suica-like local processing falls away. In his scenario all Suica needs to be is a unique passkey that can lose stored value functions.

I understand his point, Suzuki san comes from an IT system background, as a journalist he has covered JP transit payment system developments for a long time. For low traffic stations a Suica-lite 5G cloud based network makes sense and does away with the expensive hard wired transit gates. Just one year ago JR East said they are building a cloud networked Suica to cover all non-Suica areas.

However the old Tokyo-Shinjuku-Ikebukuro station peak rush hour central processing crunch problem remains. I’m not convinced super fast 5G enabled cloud processing is going to solve that problem any better or cheaper than Suica does now, and reliability is a complete unknown. We also have the next generation ‘Super Suica’ format and FeliCa OS coming in the next 12 months, the design goals here include a flexible, modular cloud friendly architecture and lower costs. Next generation Suica coupled with a flexible local processing~cloud processing backend may be a compelling solution that finally delivers a practical inexpensive Suica infrastructure to the little end of the line station which only gets a few trains or buses a day.

New JR East Suica / QR Code transit gate for Takanawa Gateway station

JR East, Hanshin and Osaka Metro are testing QR Codes and facial recognition ID ticketing to replace mag strip paper. As Junya Suzuki points out, mechanical paper ticket transit gates are more expensive to install and maintain than IC transit card gates but the real expense is mag strip paper recycling costs. Mundane but not surprising. The more important long term question is this: do transit companies keep the current more expensive cash base paper ticket fare vs less expensive IC card fare structures in place, or do away with it when QR Codes replace mag strip tickets? I don’t think we’ll see an answer to that question for a few years.

There is no doubt that 5G will enable new payment possibilities, and a lot of debate. But I don’t see 5G cloud completely upending and replacing the need for local processing and stored value cards. Both are evolving, both have their place. It doesn’t have to be, and should not be a one size fits all solution. Each approach has strengths that can be complementary and build a better stronger system.

For me it comes down to one simple thing. My Apple Watch can be buried under multiple sleeve layers but Apple Pay Suica works great going through rush hour transit gates every time. It’s the best argument for UWB enhanced FeliCa and MIFARE touchless transit gates and stored value local processing I can think of. QR can never match that, nor can face recognition…think face masks during an epidemic or pollen season.

In the next installment I hope to explore 5G and the evolution of digital wallets.

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What will Apple do about the 10% iPhone sales drop in Japan?

The writing was on the wall when Docomo dropped the price of iPhone XR shortly after it went on sale. Shortly after that Tim Cook explained the Japanese market situation in the 1Q 2019 earnings call:

In Japan, iPhone purchases were traditionally subsidized, bundled with carrier contracts. Today, local regulations have significantly restricted those subsidies as well as related competition. We estimate less than half of iPhones sold in Japan in Q1 this year were sold via subsidy.

One year later Apple announced record earnings for Q1 2020 but Japan iPhone sales with down 10% y/y. Luca Maestri only explained the situation at the end of the earnings call, answering the very last analyst question:

So Japan was down 10 percent during the December quarter. It was primarily due to iPhone performance, which was challenged because there were some regulatory changes that took effect on the 1st of October, where essentially the regulators decoupled the mobile phone pricing from the two year contracts and they’re capping the maximum amount of carrier discounts that can can be made. At the same time, I would say that within a more difficult macro environment, iPhone did incredibly well during the quarter. Six of the top seven selling smartphone models in Japan during the December quarter were iPhones. So it was a very strong performance by iPhone in a difficult environment. Also in Japan, we had very strong double digit growth from services, stronger than company average, and very strong double digit growth in wearables, also stronger than company average. So we feel very good. You know, Japan is is a country where historically we’ve had great success. The customers are very loyal and very engaged. And we have a very strong position there and we feel we have a very good momentum.

Six Colors

I don’t think Japanese iPhone customers will stay loyal and engaged if Apple sticks with the same old sales strategies now that the era of carrier bundling is over. A new approach is needed. Maestri alluded to one clear advantage remaining for Apple in the Japanese market: Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch, an advantage no other device manufacturer has matched yet. That advantage along with the golden opportunity of the Tokyo Olympics this year are market opportunities which Apple is not taking advantage of.

I said it before: Apple Pay Suica on global NFC iPhone/Apple Watch is a great way for inbound visitors to get around town during the Tokyo Olympic games this summer and Google Pay Suica is still not available for inbound Android users. It’s weird Apple isn’t marketing that.

Location aware Apple Pay Suica fixes the region setting problem

Changing the iPhone region to add Apple Pay Suica confuses a lot of users. Many are not familiar with region settings and what they do, and it’s far too easy to think that a Japan region setting is a requirement to use Apple Pay Suica, which is not the case. When it comes to iOS 13 Apple Pay and NFC switching, the region is a simple filter so that user only sees Apple Pay card options for a given region, not the whole Apple Pay world. In this situation region setting becomes a stumbling block, most inbound iPhone users are probably not even aware that they can add and use a deeply useful Japanese contactless digital transit card with a few finger flicks.

This is a problem because the current iOS Region preference setting mixes 2 different job functions. Twitter user Zetton neatly explained the issue: the iOS Region setting defines the cultural space the user lives in and how iPhone treats some data, but Apple Pay uses regions in a different way to show available location options. It is this user cultural space vs current location option dichotomy force fitted into a single region setting, that confuses users. This is why JR East created the one time use SuicaEng app that completely dispenses with region settings for adding Suica to Apple Pay. iOS 13 rolled direct Suica card creation into Wallet, look ma no apps, but the ‘change region setting to Japan’ to add Suica downside was still there. Until now.

There are signs that Apple is working around the region problem by presenting location aware ‘add Suica’ Wallet notifications. It’s not universal and impossible to test if you already have Suica, but it seems the separate ‘add Suica’ option also appears in Wallet based on user location in Japan, regardless of region setting.

I suspect the add Apple Pay Suica location prompt is a backend feature in testing phase. It’s a smart move because Apple Pay Suica on global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch is going to be the best way for inbound visitors to get around town during the Tokyo Olympic games this summer and Google Pay Suica is still not available for inbound Android users. Ditto the recently announced Android only Mobile PASMO. Apple has a golden marketing opportunity in Japan that won’t happen again, they should make the best of it. The sooner Apple completely retires the ‘device region set to Japan‘ requirement for adding Suica, the better

The Global NFC + Background Tag Reading iPhone SE2

The on again, off again iPhone SE2 is on again now that Delphic oracle analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has checked in. As I wrote before, the iPhone/Apple Watch 2019 lineup is now entirely global NFC. The price cuts are great but there needs to be a lower priced entry model below the iPhone XR with:

  • NFC background tag reading in place for new Apple Pay features going forward.
  • Touch ID that removes the Face ID face mask problem in markets like China and Japan. This issue is a constant blind spot in the western tech press ‘In-screen Touch ID vs Face ID’ debate.
  • A13 Bionic for superior battery performance and Express Card with power reserve
  • Cheaper battery friendly Haptic Touch instead of the more expensive battery hungry iPhone 8 3D Touch.

There kind of device is perfect for the Japan and Hong Kong markets:

The rumored A12 chip iPhone SE2 may well be pie in the sky, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t market appeal for an inexpensive global NFC iPhone for places like Japan and Hong Kong. Those markets have highly integrated transit networks coupled with highly evolved transit card systems like Suica and Octopus. With both of these on Apple Pay there’s a good opening for a small SE size inexpensive global NFC iPhone, it would do very well.

I imagine the iPhone SE2 could do well in a lot of markets.

Tokyo Cashless 2020: Are Apple Maps and Siri really Apple Pay level ready for the Tokyo Olympics?

1️⃣ Dear JR East, we need a new Suica Charge App
2️⃣ Consumption tax relief with the CASHLESS rebate program
3️⃣ >Are Apple Maps and Siri really Apple Pay level ready for the Tokyo Olympics?
4️⃣ Blame the Japan Cashless Payments mess on VISA and EMVCo, not FeliCa

Tokyo Cashless 2020 is a series covering all things cashless as Japan gears up for the big event. If there is a topic that you’d like covered tweet me @Kanjo


iOS 13 is not a software release. It’s a mission statement of what Apple hopes to achieve by the end of the iOS 13 life cycle. iOS 13 will be peaking out just as the Tokyo Olympics take place between 24 July – 9 August 2020. There will be a huge influx of inbound smartphones using all kinds of apps for transit, navigation and payments. Apple has told Japanese journalists that Apple services will be ready. How will peak iOS 13 Apple Pay, Apple Maps and Siri stack up with the competition? How useful will they really be? Let’s find out, starting with the strongest contender.

Apple Pay
Apple has put a tremendous effort into creating a global NFC platform that incorporates all the key NFC technologies (EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, etc.) into one seamless package sold worldwide. This is still unique and unmatched. Inbound visitors with iPhone have the option of adding Suica to Wallet and instantly gaining all the benefits of using Japan’s famous tap and go transit and making contactless payments nationwide.

Apple Pay with Suica makes iPhone a great transit and payment solution for the Tokyo Olympics and Apple Pay Suica will be the inbound star player for all things transit and payments. iPhone and Apple Watch are so perfectly matched for using contactless payments in Japan during the Olympics that I can only wonder if Apple has been planning for this opportunity all along. Make no mistake, Apple Pay is going for the gold.

In addition to Suica support, merchant support is growing for inbound Apple Pay cards as well

Apple Maps
Apple Maps Japan is one of those players with great unfulfilled potential that is never realized. Apple has vowed that Maps will be ready for the Tokyo Olympics. This means that Apple Maps 2.0 for Japan will be ready with new detailed maps, Look Around, and, one hopes, indoor maps that include stations, not just airports and shopping malls.

The biggest use case for Apple Maps during the Olympics is transit directions and local walking area navigation in station areas. Apple Maps is still a very ‘America centric’ app in that default map views and the UI are geared for driving, not transit and walking. iOS Google Maps has a more intelligent approach that layers transit over the current map view that eliminates the transit view/map view UI toggling of the chunky Apple Maps UI. Google Maps is a much more smoothly integrated collection of services.

Even with the addition of better map detail of Apple Maps 2.0 and Look Around however, Apple Maps must absolutely clean up and completely revamp its cluttered cartography and Point of Interest (POI) layers and remove the bolted on transit functions with improved integration to be a serious contender in the Tokyo Olympics Navigation contest. I don’t see that happening: there’s no way 7 years of bad habits and ‘Where’s Wally’ can be magically fixed in the 10 month run up to the Olympics.

Siri
Bringing up the rear, Siri is the ‘Cool Runnings’ contender in the wrong Olympics. With Google Maps you can ask Google Assistant “when’s the next train to Shinjuku” and Google Maps will give you a list of transit options. Google Maps Transit also gives you platform guidance, optimum car positions for the destination station, and ground truth yellow exit numbers:

Siri and Apple Maps offer none of this. In fact Siri is not even programmed at this point to provide transit information and politely declines all such requests (and when did Japanese Siri’s speaking rate speed become so SLOOOOOW?). Even a manual Apple Maps Transit search does not provide the same level of Google Transit information: no platform guidance, no car positions, no crowd conditions, etc. Meanwhile JR East just announced an agreement with Google to offer Google Assistant Shinkansen transit information. This isn’t even a contest.

Quick Summary and Tokyo Olympics iPhone Guidance
Given the current state of Apple Pay, Apple Maps and Siri, I offer the following suggestions.

  • For iPhone 8/Apple Watch Series 3 and later inbound visitors from countries with Apple Pay availability:
    • Add Suica to your iPhone and recharge it with your Apple Pay card from home
    • Use Google Maps and Google Assistant for navigation and transit
  • For iPhone 8/Apple Watch Series 3 and later inbound visitors from countries without Apple Pay availability:
    • Purchase a regular plastic Suica card from a JR East station kiosk and transfer it to your iPhone (Welcome Suica cards cannot be transferred), you cannot recharge it with a credit card but Apple Pay Suica can recharged with cash at any convenience store checkout register, any 7 Eleven ATM, or JR station smart kiosk. The advantage of Apple Pay Suica over plastic Suica is that you always know what the balance is and when it needs recharging. You can avoid long queues at station recharge kiosks.
    • Use Google Maps and Google Assistant for navigation and transit