The Self Checkout Barcode Reader Dilemma

Reach out and touch is not something we want to be doing right now. Along with wrangling face masks and Face ID iPhone Apple Pay in the Covid-19 era, we also face another hurdle: self checkout barcode readers. Any volunteers out there who like fondling public plastic? I didn’t think so.

Convenience store self checkout all have the same deal: scan with barcode reader, tap some choices on the checkout touchscreen, scan a rewards card and pay with Apple Pay Suica, etc. The stationary barcode readers at JR East station NewDays are slightly better but you still have the touchscreen to deal with.

Barcode app and plastic variety reward cards were already a pain in the ass before all the fun started and are worse now. Apple VAS and Google Pay Smart Tap for NFC contactless reward cards has been in place for some time but uptake in Japan has been slow and small. So far only 3 contactless NFC point cards exist: Docomo dPOINT, T-Point and PONTA, and only 2 places use them: LAWSON (dPOINT and PONTA) and Tsutaya (T-Point). Part of the problem is that VAS/Smart Tap support depends on 2 factors: the reader and the POS system.

Most modern NFC readers support Apple and Google protocols but POS system support is another matter. Pre-packaged POS system providers like AirPay and J-Mups that are popular with smaller merchants don’t support them yet. This means that only big retailers with deep POS development resources like LAWSON (Mitsubishi Corp group) have added NFC contactless reward card support so far.

Apple Pay Japan supports dPOINT and PONTA cards but there are subtle differences: PONTA card requires Face/Touch ID authentication, dPOINT does not. I have not fully tested dPOINT for point payment but suspect authentication is not required for getting points but required for paying with points. One hopes that with the Covid-19 crisis in full swing, retailers and card empires (JRE Card, etc.) have the incentive to provide customers with the safest contactless experience for both payments and reward cards.

dPoint card can be accessed without Face/Touch ID, PONTA requires authentication

The Contactless Tipping Point, Face ID Apple Pay and iPhone SE Reviews

Back in the different era of 2019, many journalists, both Japanese and gaijin, fretted about the Japanese fondness for hard cash and how things might change with the CASHLESS Rebate government program and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. There were signs that things might be changing. But none of this matters anymore. Forget it.

Everything changed the moment the Japanese Government requested school closure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on February 27, 2020. In Japan, as in the rest of the world, social distance, face masks and rigorous hand washing are now mandatory daily routine. Anything we touch is suspect. This includes money. This is why the COVID-19 crisis will rearrange the contactless payments landscape in Japan very quickly. Nobody wants to risk becoming sick from handling money or tapping public touch screens when they can pay without touching anything.

When living condition baselines changes overnight, it takes time for our brains to adapt. For iPhone users in the new era, Apple Pay has gone from convenience to necessity. Unfortunately Face ID doesn’t work with Apple Pay in this new face mask era. Actually it sucks. Snazzy technology turned albatross, Face ID was ultimately the wrong tech bet to make.

Fortunately for Apple they made a very smart move with the new iPhone SE that incorporates the A13 Bionic with Touch ID. For customers in Japan iPhone SE with Touch ID Apple Pay is the device that perfectly fits current conditions offering the best Apple Pay and Suica experience with Express Transit power reserve plus other good features, at a budget price. For many in Japan, and likely everywhere, Apple Pay use with face masks is a very important decision factor for purchasing a new device. It will likely be a factor in Apple’s bottom line the rest of the fiscal year.

Unfortunately most tech reviewers are still living in the past era of 3 months ago. This is understandable, but good reviewers should take everything into account. That’s why we read them. That’s why I was disappointed when John Gruber, who usually writes great stuff, completely blew it for me with his iPhone SE analysis/review/think piece that does not mention the face mask Face ID vs Touch ID issue at all. That’s the baseline purchasing decision point now. If Gruber needs to think about the issue, fine, but Face ID vs Touch ID in the face mask era is a huge factor buying any iPhone now and he didn’t cover it, any iPhone SE review that doesn’t cover that is worthless.

UPDATE
Gruber’s official iPhone SE review is out. He finally addresses the Face ID with face mask problem…way down in the footnotes:

I must point out here that Touch ID works just fine while wearing a face mask, and Face ID doesn’t work at all. That’s been a consideration for medical professionals and citizens of countries with a culture of face-mask-wearing ever since Apple introduced Face ID with the iPhone X in 2017. Now it’s a consideration for literally billions of us around the world. That’s not enough to even vaguely make me, personally, consider switching to the SE as my personal phone. But your mileage may vary, especially if the nature of your work requires you to wear a face mask all day, not just while out of the house on brief excursions. (But such jobs might also require gloves.)

A culture of face mask wearing eh? While not a snub, it sure feels flippantly dismissive. The footnote escape is a classic way of avoiding serious discussion, or taking the time to investigate the issue deeply for the benefit of his readers, or how it plays out here on regarding iPhone design and technology. iPhone SE is the most important product Apple is releasing this year. The reasons behind it’s unfortunate success deserve proper review and analysis.

All the top US tech iPhone SE reviews are similar and don’t go deep on it, in other words have fun with Face ID Apple Pay with face masks folks. Meanwhile here in Tokyo, stores are refusing entry for customers without face masks.

iPhone SE: Unfortunate Success

iPhone SE is here and perfectly matches the essential points outlined in October:

  • 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 has been constant blind spot in the western tech press, until now.
  • 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.

And the budget price. The iPhone market position in Japan stalled with iPhone XS/XR as government pressure took away carrier rebates that had driven iPhone sales. The Japan market, like markets everywhere, was ripe for an updated entry level iPhone, but the Touch ID plus A13 Bionic combination is especially potent right now because of the face mask situation in the COVID-19 crisis, and social distancing driving people away from hard cash towards contactless payment use. Touch ID is still the best and stress free experience for using Apple Pay on iPhone. The secret sauce is A13 Bionic that delivers superior Suica Express Transit performance along with power reserve, and much more.

So what kind of user is the new iPhone SE aimed at? The Apple Store trade-in page suggests a big divide at the iPhone 7 Plus point, there is more resale demand for Apple Pay Japan compatible devices.

The challenge for Apple and carriers in Japan is getting pre-Apple Pay Japan iPhone users to upgrade. Many iPhone 6/6S users took the opportunity to get a cheap battery upgrade from Apple during the iPhone performance throttling brouhaha. A big reason why these users have been hesitant to upgrade is the Face ID with face mask issue. This is the dominate issue now for Face ID iPhone users, my own observation is that many people in Japan just turn it off and use passcodes.

Now that iPhone SE solves that problem with top tier Apple Pay Japan features and performance it will be very interesting to see how it plays out. We are already seeing signs that contactless payment use is growing in Japan because of COVID-19 social distance issues. As Tomo Hagiwara of Aquabit Spirals puts it…unfortunate success, behavioral transformation in action. This could be the most important Apple product launch in 2020.

iPhone SE will be a very big unfortunate success.

Catching up with Apple Watch Suica

Like most people staying at home I’m trying to put downtime to good use, catching up on review videos. I came across the Apple Watch Journal channel on YouTube and highly recommend it to any Apple Watch user with some Japanese ability. It covers all kinds of tips and functions with a keen focus on smart efficient use. The delivery is tight, simple, well organized and wonderfully narrated. Videos covering Japan only services like Suica, Line and dPoint are well worth the time investment.

The standout is the Apple Watch Suica video, rightly called ‘the killer Apple Watch app.’ I cannot agree more especially in these COVID-19 social distancing times. Suica on Apple Watch is stress free without the hassle of using Face ID Apple Pay with face masks. I even learned a few new things like Suica auto charge works without a network connection. It’s hard to believe that after all these years the competition has yet to match Suica on Apple Watch. Apple Watch Octopus will be a killer app for Hong Kong users when it arrives there, hopefully soon. The 12 minute video covers:

0:46 Apple Watch版「Suica」の基本的な使い方 (Apple Watch Suica Basics)
2:27 Apple WatchとiPhoneで併用する際の注意点 (Gotchas using Suica on both iPhone/Apple Watch)
4:16 Apple Watchがロック状態、Suicaは使える?(Using Suica when Apple Watch is off wrist)
6:46 Suicaは画面側でタッチしなくても使える!(Apple Watch Suica and wrist positions)
7:45 Apple Watch単体(オフライン)でも使える!(Apple Watch Suica works without network)
8:45 JR東日本の新型改札、Apple Watchの使い勝手は?(Using Apple Watch Suica on the new JR gate)
11:08 Apple Watchを「右手」で使う方法 (Using Apple Watch on the right wrist)

The new JR gate section is particularly interesting and fully covers what is sure to be a sore point with many left wrist Apple Watch users: the reader is on the right hand side and the slanted position makes it impossible to comfortably reach over with the left wrist. After running through many left wrist use cases, the narrator simply concludes, ‘let’s learn to wear Apple Watch on right wrist, it’s not that hard,’ and devotes the last section with some right wrist tips.

Another video does an excellent job of covering the recent Wallet addition of dPoint contactless point card. All the Lawson POS systems options are explained with some very helpful tips dealing with dPoint and PONTA point cards on Apple Pay Apple Watch.

UPDATE
For the very first time ever Apple Watch Suica could be in for some serious competition next month with the planned release of Garmin Pay Suica. If you need any proof that Suica is the smartwatch killer app for Japan, this is it. Any smartwatch without it is a nonstarter. It’s an encouraging sign that Garmin is advertising Google Pay for the Garmin Suica recharge backend for linked Android devices and suggests they might have larger FeliCa ambitions than Japan. We’ll see if the competition is truly catching up to Apple Watch Suica in May.

Rethinking Face ID in the Face Mask Touchless Era (Updated)

When iPhone X came out in November 2017, IT journalist Tsutsumu Ishikawa named Suica the Apple Pay winner. What he really meant to say was that Suica Express Transit was the only easy way to use Face ID Apple Pay. It took me a long time to get used to Face ID Apple Pay but now with the COVDID-19 crisis and regulation face masks, the choices are back at square one: (1) yank down the face mask to Face ID anything, (2) use a passcode instead, (3) use Apple Pay Suica set with Express Transit. Yeah, the last one. More people have Express Transit now in China, TfL-land and little bits of the MTA OMNY system but nobody has it for purchases. Except Apple Pay Suica, still the only Express Transit card for contactless payments at stores.

In the sudden era of face masks and plastic curtained checkout areas, dealing with Face ID as little as possible, and using Apple Pay Suica as much as possible, makes life easier and safer: experts in Japan instruct people not to touch face mask surfaces and you don’t want to be yanking down a face mask to use Face ID Apple Pay at close proximity checkout. The interim solution is Apple Pay on Apple Watch which does not use Face/Touch ID at all. But there is that social distance problem: your arm has to reach the reader. That’s the thing about NFC, it’s close proximity technology. So are QR Codes.

The Touchless Distance
When I first saw the NTT Docomo Ultra Wideband Touchless Mobile FeliCa demo I though why would anybody want to pay a few feet away from the reader? Outside of paying while sitting in the drive thru I could not think of a reason. After living with Face ID, face masks and COVID-19 social distancing, I see the reason now at every checkout at every store. I want it. You will too (the 1:20 mark):

And for cars too, CarKey will work like this at some point (0:13 mark):

Touchless Transit Gate vs Facial Recognition
The COVID-19 crisis upends another Face ID related technology fantasy: facial recognition transit gates. NEC is working on face recognition that works with face masks. If anybody can deliver viable face recognition with face masks NEC will certainly be one of the first, but there are cost, performance and privacy issues to consider for transit gates: how fast is the transaction speed, how well does it scale for commuter rush, how do you register faces? Who controls all that transit gate face data and is it stored domestically or data farmed out internationally?

Mobile FeliCa and MIFARE Touchless is the same device level security model we have now with Apple Pay Suica and Student ID, and what we will have with CarKey and shared ‘keys’. UWB is a new hardware layer on top of what already exists, it bridges the NFC infrastructure and contactless payment methods we have now and extends it to the future instead of junking it.

Osaka Metro plans to have face recognition transit gates deployed in time for Osaka Expo 2025. It’s a risky transition plan. Touchless transit gates are the safer bet. Sony, Docomo, NXP, JR East, JREM are doing the necessary hardware and software development with the same embedded secure element security and local processing architecture we have now. Osaka Metro can buy the finished goods from them instead of reinventing the wheel.

Fixing Face ID Shortcomings
On the smartphone side Apple already has the Ultra Wideband U1 chip in iPhone 11. The next step is Apple Pay support as outlined in the iOS 14 Apple Pay post. I hope Apple uses the opportunity of adding UWB Touchless Apple Pay to enhance Face ID with improved technology and controls. Express Card/Express Transit is the Apple Pay method to bypass Face/Touch ID for transit, purchases (Suica) and ID door access (Student ID and CarKey). Extending the Express Card/Express Transit model as much as possible, while keeping the high level of security, is one practical way Apple Pay can address some of the Face ID in face mask era pain points.

Longer term, Face ID has to evolve to securely read faces with face masks reliably. If Face ID cannot be secure, intuitive and face mask user friendly, I don’t see a future for it, or being the iPhone model that customers want to buy. This is why iPhone SE is looking like Apple’s most important product launch of 2020.

Last but not least I don’t see Open Loop transit ever working with Touchless technology. Open Loop will likely remain a NFC only service because EMVCo partners are invested in lower common hardware standards like ISO14443 and plastic cards and probably loath to update them. Certainly they don’t want to lose the plastic card issue business because it’s more profitable than issuing digital ones. EMVCo certainly didn’t see the current situation coming, nor did Apple of course. But then again who did?


UPDATE

iOS 13.5 beta 3 has a Face ID tweak: when it detects a face mask it no longer delays the swipe up Passcode pop up with a 2nd read attempt, it goes straight to Passcode pop up. This small tweak remove a tiny bit of Face ID with face mask stress, but tiny things add up when unlocking iPhone many times a day. But for me Passcode pop up was only one stumbling block, a second bigger stumbling block is Passcode entry via the numeric keyboard.

There is a curious lag between what your fingers are tapping, the feedback click sound and what tap the iPhone actually registers. If you closely inspect the visual tap feedback, it flashes white then fades slowly, while the click just clicks.Taken all together, my brain wants to type fast and tells me the my 2 thumb input is going fast, but the iPhone Passcode numeric keyboard wants me to type slow with 1 thumb. Perhaps it’s just me but I only get correct passcode entry 50% of the time unless I slow way down and type with 1 thumb.

Overall the Face ID with face mask tweak seems more for iPhone unlock, it’s much less useful for Apple Pay. I hope Apple continues to tweak Face ID before iOS 13.5 ships but the reality is Apple can’t do very much in a short time.

John Gruber had an interesting observation regarding another iOS 13.5 beta 3 tweak, this one for Group FaceTime:

methinks a lot of folks at Apple (executives included) are using group FaceTime chats more than ever before lately, and have realized that in practice, especially in larger groups, it’s not a good experience.

Daring Fireball: ANOTHER IOS 13.5 BETA TWEAK: AN OPTION TO DISABLE ‘AUTOMATIC PROMINENCE’ FOR THE CURRENT SPEAKER’S TILE IN GROUP FACETIME

Unfortunately it’s the same for Face ID: Apple is only addressing it because Apple execs are wearing face masks. It’s very frustrating that Apple is only dealing with the Face ID with face mask issue now that it’s on their face. Customers in Asia have been wrestling with it since iPhone X day one November 2017. At any rate I hope Apple puts the experience to good use for a better future version of Face ID.