The Return of Touch ID…or maybe not

Gruber finally clocked in on the Face ID with face mask 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.

Dear Jane, we fucked up, sincerely MTA

The piecemeal MTA OMNY rollout is a lesson how not to do a transition from old system to new system. A case where poor design, poor management choices and unanticipated user interaction, each insignificant in isolation, snowball into a nagging long term problem.

The problem goes like this:

(1) Apple Pay Express Transit is opted in by default and iPhone users don’t always know it’s on. They don’t care about using Apple Pay credit cards on OMNY anyway because fare options are limited and OMNY isn’t installed everywhere and won’t be until at least the end of next year. They use good old MetroCard and put iPhone away in the right pocket or purse carried on the right shoulder.

(2) When the user gets to a OMNY fare gate they swipe MetroCard with its peculiar forward swipe motion on the reader which is located above and behind the OMNY NFC reader, which is positioned low and angled at pocket level. As “MetroCard sucks, it may take several (forward) swipes to enter”, the user leans into the gate while doing this and boom: OMNY reader activates iPhone Express Transit and charges fare without the user knowing it.

Default opt in Express Transit has been with us ever since Apple Pay Suica arrived in 2016. But transit cards are not credit cards and everything was fine. Things got sticky when iOS 12.3 introduced EMV Express Transit that uses bank issued credit/debit/prepaid cards for transit on Apple certified open loop systems. Currently these are Portland HOP, NYC OMNY and London TfL.

HOP and TfL don’t have problems with Express Transit. Both systems use contactless exclusively. HOP has stand alone validators, not gates. TfL gates have the NFC reader located on the top. OMNY on the other hand will have MetroCard swipe cards around for years to come: the OMNY transit card replacement is still in development with no release date. With the slow transition pace and current gate design expect the OMNY Express Transit problem to be around until MetroCard is dead, and OMNY is complete with the new tap only card.

In retrospect MTA should have done it this way: (1) rollout out the OMNY card MetroCard replacement first and add open loop support as the very last thing, (2) design better OMNY gates in two kinds, dual mode NFC + swipe, and single mode NFC only. This way MTA stations could do what JR East stations do: start with single mode tap only express gates on the edges and dual mode gates in the middle. As the transition progresses the dual mode gates get fewer and pushed to the sides with single mode gates taking over.

Apple could help by keeping automatic Express Transit opt in only for native transit cards (Suica, SmarTrip etc.). EMV Express Transit should always be a manual opt in. I understand Apple’s perspective: they want to present Apple Pay Express Transit as a seamless one flavor service, not good/better/best Express Transit flavors. The reality however is that the current technology powering EMV open loop fare systems isn’t up to native transit card standards. Apple can’t fix that.

Unfortunately MTA has taken the dumb path of blaming Apple instead of fixing their own problems. New York deserves a world class modern transit system, OMNY is an important step in building one. MTA management performance so far doesn’t inspire much confidence. Let’s hope they focus on the rollout and deliver it without more delays or problems.


iPhone SE too popular in Japan?

Yes, as crazy as that sounds, but according to Kenta Yamaguchi’s piece on ASCII that’s exactly what is happening. The point of his story is that starting today, second brand carriers Y! mobile and UQ Mobile are selling iPhone SE instead of iPhone 8. Until yesterday they only offered the budget Apple Pay Suica capable iPhone 7 and normally they would offer iPhone 8, but iPhone 8 is nowhere to be seen in the budget lineup. Instead they are offering iPhone SE only 4 months after it went on sale at first tier carriers.

The big loser here is Rakuten Mobile who do not offer iPhone SE. Apple fully understands the ‘Face ID sucks in the face mask COVID era’ market opportunity, aka unfortunate success, that is the A13 Touch ID powered iPhone SE. Apple also wants many background NFC tag reading capable iPhones out there for iOS 14 App clips, so iPhone SE is going on sale everywhere.

Yamaguchi san says the SE is so popular that major carriers are bitching it will slowdown the 5G migration in Japan…while still selling as many iPhone SE units as they can. 5G will just have to wait until Apple comes up with a budget 5G Touch ID iPhone SE.