VISA Japan and Apple still at odds over VISA Touch debit cards

Mastercard but no VISA

The April 19 launch of SBI Neobank Mastercard debit card support for Apple Pay was a bit unique: the first time that a plastic issue Japanese debit card came to Apple Pay and the first Apple Pay Japan debit card supporting the FeliCa iD payment network. Another interesting aspect is that only the Mastercard version supports Apple Pay, the VISA version is plastic only with VISA Touch (EMV contactless) support.

There are plenty of bank app issue digital only debit cards from JCB, Mizuho, MUFG and others on Apple Pay. These all work on JCB’s QUICPay (FeliCa) and J/Speedy(EMV) payment networks. Apple Pay Japan supports many different mobile payment network cards thanks to Mobile FeliCa support, by far the largest selection of Apple Pay payment networks in the world: EMV (VISA, Mastercard, AMEX, JCB), iD, QUICPay, Suica, PASMO, nanaco, WAON. But VISA issue debit cards are not supported even though there are many, not a single one on Apple Pay.

Wasn’t this taken care of by the May 2021 Apple and VISA JP agreement? For credit cards yes, one year later they are still at odds over FeliCa support in debit cards. VISA Japan brand debit cards are VISA Touch EMV contactless exclusive, single mode cards. VISA JP credit cards are dual mode EMV/FeliCa for plastic and smartphones, but not debit cards. We don’t know the reason but debit cards deifintely fit the budget customer category while credit cards come with credit checks, perks and card membership fees for upscale cards.

As an easily available budget card, VISA cuts costs by dumping the dual mode EMV/FeliCa IC chip and transaction fees for the convenience of using FeliCa iD/QUICPay payment networks. In other words VISA keeps all transaction fees for themselves while marketing the shit out of VISA Touch as the greatest thing since…whenever.

All of the other card brands in Japan have dual mode NFC as standard. Not VISA, they’re playing the long game of eliminating FeliCa payment network competition. This stupid polarizing single flavor NFC position only served to give QR Code payment networks (PayPay, Line Pay, etc.) a huge opportunity that they smartly played. End result: more payment network competition than ever before.

Apple on the other hand has a very simple rule for all Apple Pay Japanese issue cards: they must support FeliCa and all EMV cards are global NFC dual mode. Was this the price for adding FeliCa support to Apple Pay? Perhaps, I think it’s more to do with the Apple Pay vision of removing complex and confusing hardware choices, the Google Pay Japan mess, for standard ‘just works everywhere’ NFC. Has this been successful? Very...just ask Suica.

USA transit fare system evolution

Reece Martin posted an interesting video, So you built the wrong transit system, that examines the American penchant for building cheap light rail systems that don’t make long term sense. Public transit is a waste of money to Americans with money, so cheap is only way to fund and build public transit infrastructure. The problem is this cheap short term thinking costs more money in the long run. It’s a ‘one size fits all’ mentality.

But as Reece points out, systems can evolve from humble beginnings. Many private Japanese rail lines started out as street trams (that evolved from horse trams) but evolved into the heavy duty regional rail lines we have today. Fare system have evolved too, from paper, to mag strip, to IC smartcard and now mobile devices.

Transit fare systems in America suffer from the same short term cheap thinking, on full display on the MTA OMNY system, the world’s first EMV only open + closed loop fare system. When it’s completed in 2023, barring more delays, MTA will have farmed out every aspect of their fare collection and OMNY transit card issue to banks.

Not to rehash points I already made about OMNY, but Reece’s wrong transit system analogy struck a chord. And unlike rail system evolution, once the transit fare system in locked into the bank payment card infrastructure, from technology (EMV) to payment network processing (VISA, mastercard, AMEX, etc.), it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible to change anything later on.

But why is America so short sighted when it comes to public transit, never investing in a long term self-sustaining viable business model? I ran across an interesting take that explains it neatly. The USA will never have a transit platform business because public transit is a welfare and jobs program, not a self-sustaining business model:

Public transportation in the US is generally very bad and very heavily subsidized. It’s cheap because extremely little service is being run, and the government picks up most of the bill.

Public transportation in the US is less of a way normal people get around, and more of a welfare program and jobs program. Even in places where public transportation is a way normal people get around, e.g., NYC, it is run more like a jobs program than an essential public service.

Reddit user Sassywhat

Open loop fare systems are also vulnerable in new ways nobody predicted: imagine the mess if payment networks go down in a cyberwar, à la the Moscow metro when digital wallets and bank payment card networks were suddenly and omniously turned off. In the case of OMNY where, unlike Moscow metro, everything is EMV payment networked…there is no backup in-house payment settlement system, there is no plan b.

In other words not only is OMNY EMV one size fits all. it’s all or nothing.

The digital wallet service suspension front line

That was quick. When I made the above table for mobile wallet chokepoint, there was no indication we’d get EMV confirmation so quickly. Many were quick to applaud sanctions against Russia to stop the war with Ukraine, and while stopping war is always the right thing to do, hurting citizens is never the right thing to do. Turning off basic digital wallet services should give people pause. What is easily done in one place can be easily done anywhere.

It’s also not clear cut how it is being done. Is Apple turning off select Russian bank services in Wallet or turning off select payment applets in the Apple Pay secure element, or turning off Wallet for Russian Apple ID users? Most likely the first but there’s no way to be sure and there is no way that Apple or Google will ever tell us.

Long lines at Moscow Metro transit gates are not so clear cut either. Open loop isn’t standard on all transit gates, most them being Troika transit card only, and according to a Twitter follower, physical Troika card only, not Google Pay/Samsung Pay Troika which only rolled out recently. If so this suggests the (so far only one) picture of long lines could be due to Troika system issues instead of Apple Pay/Google Pay/Samsung Pay, hacking, or something else.

VISA and mastercard soon followed and cut their services in Russia. Many people in Japan noted how easily all this happened and expressed their distrust, saying they would think twice about using digital wallet services from Apple and Google. Many also noted the importance of Japan having it’s own FeliCa technology and FeliCa based e-Money payment network

The value of non-EMV native payment networks controlled and operated by native companies should be clear to everyone by this point. Always, always have a backup plan. One thing is certain, warfare that attacks basic public service infrastructure like transit and digital wallets, far and away from any front line, is the new ugly reality.

Japan mobile payment survey results

I gave the Twitter survey function a workout and asked 2 questions:

  • Which Japanese mobile payment do you use most?
  • Which Japanese reward points do you use most?

The results are not surprising but come with many caveats: the survey sampling was puny, in English and pretty much limited to a small group of Twitter followers, which means they are pretty much already invested in Mobile Suica. Also it is important to remember that mobile payment use profiles in Japan are highly regional, what’s convenient in Tokyo isn’t necessarily convenient in other areas. That said, there are some interesting and fun takeaways.

Japanese mobile payment takeaways and feedback

  • The 55% Suica/PASMO figure expresses the power of Apple Pay Express Transit (and similar for Osaifu Keitai) for store purchases in the COVID induced face mask era without the hassle of Face ID. It’s important to remember that the ballyhooed Unlock with Apple Watch Face ID feature introduced with iOS 14.5 is useless for Apple Pay authorization. Remember too that Mobile Suica has good support on wearables: Apple Watch, Garmin, fitbit, etc., the widest mobile payment platform in Japan.
  • Despite the heavy marketing VISA Touch from VISA Japan, the majority of users have been using Apple Pay and Osaifu Keitai for iD and QUICPay, etc. I suspect EMV ‘Touch’ (Visa, MC, AMEX, JCB) probably appeals more to plastic card users as VISA is pushing EMV only plastic cards vs. digital wallet dual mode Apple Pay.
  • QR Code payment apps (PayPay, dBarai, LinePay, etc.) are not as popular as you might think and are probably feeling the pain of recent bank account linking security problems, and the recent revelations of user transaction records being stored outside of Japan.

Changes quite a lot. Recently using EMV touch a lot because of SMCC 15% back campaign and Amex 20% at FamilyMart. Otherwise probably a little bit of everything just to get maximum reward. (Tokyo)

I don’t ride trains so I have no real use for Suica. Using it to pay in shops is too much of a PITA since you have to constantly recharge it. (Kagoshima, note that Suica Auto-charge only works in JR East transit region)

I do iD for the point rewards (none in JP CC recharge of Suica) otherwise Express Transit is perfect. (Tokyo)

Mostly Suica (via Garmin Pay), but I’ve been using au Pay (QR or barcode) a lot more recently. (Hiroshima)

Japanese reward point takeaway
Results are complicated. Twitter surveys are limited to 4 choices, I lumped the Japanese carrier reward point systems for docomo, au and SoftBank (dPoint, au•PONTA, T-POINT) into one category, the top choice at 43%. However if we break down the carrier number by carrier marketshare ratio we get the following:

  1. 21% JRE POINT
  2. 28% Rakuten POINT
  3. 19% dPOINT
  4. 14% au•PONTA POINT
  5. 10% T-POINT
  6. 8% V POINT

The key takeaway for reward points is the power of the Rakuten ‘Economic Zone’, i.e. where all the Rakuten pieces including shopping, banking/credit card/payments, transit (Rakuten Suica), mobile, stock trading, travel, etc., are glued together by Rakuten POINT and feed off each other. The Rakuten Economic Zone is the model that others will have to successfully emulate if they are going to be serious long term competitors. NTT docomo announced a tie-up with MUFG this month, the digital banking wars are just getting started.

UWB Touchless Express Transit and Apple Pay for iOS 15?

A recent sudden surge of hits from Hong Kong accessing my December 2019 UWB Touchless Mobile FeliCa post seemed odd. I dug around and it appears that Hong Kong MTR, like JR East, is making noises about incorporating UWB technology in next generation transit gates.

iOS 14.5 added a new PassKit call for Bluetooth and the U1 chip integration since iPhone 11 and Apple Watch 6, coupled with global FeliCa support certainly puts Apple ahead of the game. I have no idea what WWDC21 will deliver but more UWB integration is a given.

Apple only mentioned UWB Touchless at WWDC20 in connection with digital car key without showing anything because the Car Connectivity Consortium Digital Key 3.0 spec was a work in progress. Now that the spec is in-place with BMW said to deliver car models incorporating UWB Touchless this year, will Apple show it in action? I think it’s highly likely, but since Car Key is a ‘Wallet Card’, and Wallet app Express Cards come is 3 types: Transit, Student ID, and Car Key, the more interesting question is…will Apple also show Touchless Transit and Student ID Express Cards? And what about Apple Pay?

People think Touchless is a completely new thing for ‘keep smartphone in pocket’ transactions, and they worry about security. You can’t blame them because marketers are selling the in-pocket payment experience. However, Touchless is simply long distance NFC without NFC. All UWB Touchless does is describe the frequency to use Bluetooth instead of NFC. The background stuff, secure element and so on, is exactly the same. This means user interaction is the same. For walking through transit gates and security doors, or unlocking your car, the convenience of Touchless is easy to understand: no more NFC tapping, just keep moving.

What about Express Card payments? The current Apple Pay Suica payment checkout experience: the user taps Suica on a touchscreen, or tells the clerk “Suica” then holds the device to the reader. The user has to give consent before the transaction is activated by checkout staff or the self checkout reader. For Apple Pay EMV transactions users have the extra step of confirming a transaction by Face ID/Touch ID to complete it.

Realistically however, in what situations does Touchless make store checkout more convenient and faster? Drive thru certainly, supermarkets…maybe, but most stores will probably not want to invest in Touchless without a good reason when the NFC readers they already have installed get the job done. There is one more interesting role that Apple has planned for UWB however, one that promises to improve the entire Apple Pay and Wallet experience: communicating with the reader before transaction to select the right Wallet card for the job, at a distance, for a truly smart Wallet app. With national ID cards, passports and more coming to Wallet at some point, UWB could be the Wallet reboot we really need.

And then there is EMVCo. The problems with UWB Touchless for EMVCo are that: (1) Touchless only works with devices with batteries, á la AirTag, and doesn’t work with the current plastic card model, (2) UWB + Bluetooth level the digital playing field with FeliCa and MIFARE, no more ‘real’ vs ‘who cares’ NFC hardware flavors to split hairs over. The plastic card NFC limitation is probably a bitter pill for everybody but especially for EMVCo members and issuers as plastic card issue is big business, and many customers are more comfortable with plastic cards. For those reasons I think EMVCo will be the last to support UWB Touchless, if they do at all. On the plus side Touchless does give digital wallet platforms an edge to create smart aware wallets, digital does NFC and Touchless, plastic only does NFC. We’ll find out about Apple’s UWB Touchless roadmap at WWDC21.