Japan Cashless 2021: the Wireless Android NFC Reader Suck Index

You too can have the whole transaction world in your hands with the Android based Square Terminal for just ¥46,980

Now that contactless is everywhere, wireless contactless readers have become very fashionable and popular. Nobody wants wires or checkout lines. All of these systems are built around an Android based reading device connected to the internet payment service via Bluetooth, WiFi or 4G with a main terminal, an iPad or a laptop running payment network software. Convenient though they may be, compared with hard wired NFC reader performance they all suck with different levels of suckiness:

  1. stera: this lovely little ‘NFC antenna under the screen’ piece of shit from SMBC, GMO and Visa Japan is so slow that checkout staff put their hand over the stera screen/reader to keep customers waiting until the device is ready to go. This is followed by the instruction ‘don’t move your device until the reader beeps.’ It’s a 2~4 second wait until it beeps. This is 2014 era ‘you’re holding it wrong’ garbage nonsense. I teased one store manager about the hard wired JREM FeliCa readers that were swapped out with stera, “Those were too fast,” he said. Too fast?!
  2. PAYGATE: Another payment provider associated with GMO, slightly faster than stera but still slow, PAYGATE does’t like Apple Pay Suica•PASMO Express Transit very much. Have of the time it ignores it altogether forcing customers into the 2016 era ‘manually bring up Apple Pay Suica’ authenticate and pay maneuver. Another ‘you’re holding/doing it wrong,’ when the fault is on the checkout system side. Passé and totally unnecessary.
  3. AirPay: It’s weird that the cheap AirPay hardware performs better than PAYGATE or stera, it’s even weirder that AirPay performs better than Rakuten Pay which uses the very same reader but is stera shitshow slow.
  4. Square Terminal has gotten lots of media attention in Japan. Too early to experience it in the field yet but I’m not hopeful. Square Terminal is Android based after all and the NCF antenna under the screen design is the worst performing reader design out there. As one Brazilian reader wrote: “I just don’t like the ones running Android because at least here the software is less reliable and I managed to crash a few one by just taping my phone.”

Yep, that observation matches my experience. Payment network providers need better Android readers, the current crop is too slow getting the payment transaction ready to tap. In this era of endless subcontractor layers in the development process, creating a fast reliable Android based NFC wireless reader might be a tall order, if not impossible. The all over the place wireless NFC reader experience certainly doesn’t boast well for open loop advocates.

UPDATE
I ran across another crappy reader experience (above) and retweeted it. A reader had some questions about it, answered here by an anonymous expert. It basically comes down to poorly executed reader polling or not following Sony polling recommendations for FeliCa cards. This is what is happening in the above retweet. It is also what is going on with PAYGATE Station readers, half of the time the proper code hasn’t loaded correctly although this issue seems to be fixed in new PAYGATE Station checkout installations. Which brings us to the point I was trying to make: these performance issues can be fixed with reader firmware updates or transaction system software updates, but never are.

Wildcard polling involves the reader making a request for system code 0xFFFF and expecting the card/device to list all the system codes that it supports. Wildcard polling won’t work on an Apple Pay device in Express Transit mode – instead, the system code must be explicitly polled for (0x0003 for CJRC, 0x8008 for Octopus). You can cause Suica/Octopus to be automatically selected by sending SENSF_REQ (Polling command, 06) for those services explicitly.

I have verified that doing so with Apple Pay will cause the emulated card to be switched out as appropriate – the IDm value will also change, since Apple Pay emulates each card separately, instead of with a common IDm as with Osaifu Keitai. If you read the Sony documentation, you will see that developers are cautioned to also poll for the specific service codes they want to access if there’s no response to a wildcard poll.

Perhaps your reader doesn’t do this, but it’s fairly big omission…it should be doing explicit polling. Simply polling for service code 0x0003 should wake up Suica if selected as an Express Transit candidate, even if you don’t send any other commands. I’ve verified this with an RC-S380 reader and NFCPay.

Suica comes to Fitbit Charge 4 on March 4 (updated)

UPDATE: Mobile Suica for Fitbit Charge 4 launches March 4

JR East announced Suica on FitBit Charge 4 service starting in March 4, just before the March 13 Suica transit tweaks go into effect. It’s exactly the same Mobile FeliCa Cloud powered package used for Garmin Pay Suica and wena Suica services that launched in 2020, with the same limitations: no plastic card transfers, no commuter pass support, credit card recharge limited to Google Pay.

These limitations are not deal breakers. With many company people teleworking during the COVID crisis there is less need for commuter passes. For users who want the complete Mobile Suica service on a wearable, Apple Watch is still the only game in town. Nevertheless this is a welcome addition for many Android users in Japan.

The Fitbit JP page has a few Suica details. It appears to be a Japan model only device, not a global NFC device…and only the black model support Suica. It’s too early to tell if this development has anything to do with Google finally closing the Fitbit acquisition or if this is the first step towards supporting major FeliCa payment services like iD, QUICPay, Waon, etc. Robust seamless global NFC support across Pixel and Fitbit devices from anywhere would be the first real challenge to Apple Pay Suica on iPhone and Apple Watch.

QR Code Transit on Hong Kong MTR starts January 23 (Updated)

After a very long preparation period QR Code transit on Hong Kong MTR finally starts on Saturday, January 23. The MTR Fan FaceBook page:

Only TWO WEEKS left before the launch of QR code payment on 23 January! For this new service, we have installed about 1,000 QR code scanners at stations and conducted a series of system and on-site tests. Prominent purple signage will also be on display to help passengers identify the gates providing the new service.

This is the debut of MTR ‘open-loop’ ticketing. Up until now MTR used the ubiquitous Octopus card, the trail blazing transit card that showed the world what smartcard ticketing can do when extended beyond transit to include eMoney payments, transforming a transit card into a transit payment platform. Unlike Japan however Octopus Card Limited (OCL) was late bringing Octopus to mobile. Part of the problem was that Hong Kong mobile carriers never had an Osaifu Keitai-like standard that bridged the Symbian and Android hardware eras. OCL also wasted time with SIM card mobile support before finally launching the mobile Smart Octopus service first on Samsung Pay in late 2018, followed by Apple Pay Octopus in June 2020 and Huawei Pay Octopus in December 2020.

But MTR still faces a problem that most Android devices don’t support FeliCa even though NFC-F is supported across all NFC capable devices. It’s the global NFC dilemma best illustrated in the Google Pay on Google Pixel situation: Mobile FeliCa is installed on all Pixel devices but Google only turns it on for Pixel models sold in Japan. There are many takes on the reasons why. My take is that Google doesn’t want to do the all the global NFC OS level support work that benefits all Android manufacturers. Google’s stance is, ‘don’t ask us, roll your own embedded Secure Element (eSE) solution.’ And so it’s a race of how many ‘Octopus on XX Pay’ digital wallet platforms OCL can line up for Android and wearables.

For MTR, QR Code open loop transit sidesteps this Android hardware mess, but will it be a success when users have to open a smartphone app with a face mask on at every gate? Apple Pay Octopus on Apple Watch sure beats that problem and then some. Long term I think NFC wearables and UWB Touchless will be the QR killer. Time will tell.

AliPay HK is the first payment provider, others QR players will be added as they are qualified. The transit gate layout is interesting, QR is limited to purple colored gate lanes shown in a nifty MTR video. This is similar to what JR East will do when they phase out mag strip paper ticketing and replace it QR Code paper tickets. It’s also the layout that Nankai will do when they implement VISA Touch after testing it this year.

The next MTR open loop addition is expected to be EMV+PBOC China T-Union compatibility though MTR has not announced when that will happen. OCL already committed to a new Octopus card that will be compatible with China T-Union.

UPDATE

AliPay mainland accounts can also be used for Hong Kong MTR QR transit.

ICOCA Widens Transit Footprint

One glaring weakness of the Japan Transit IC system is that it’s not universal even on the very rail networks that built the system. Suica for example is mostly absent in stations outside of Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai metro regions, roughly half of JR East stations. It comes down to cost: hard wiring every station is expensive. This cost problem is one that JR East plans to address by rolling out a cloud based low cost ‘simple Suica’ for all stations. They already missed a 2020 deadline and need to deliver on their promise if Suica is remain a viable payments competitor in the hyper competitive Japanese market.

JR West meanwhile is busy expanding ICOCA coverage on the their rail network with Fukuchiyama and Kisei line additions going online March 13, 2021. JR West also added ICOCA connecting commuter passes for Osaka Metro in December, the kind of arrangement that Suica and PASMO have had in place for years. It makes sense for JR West to expand now in preparation for the Mobile ICOCA launch in 2023.

The Kisei line is somewhat unique in that smaller stations are unmanned and local trains are one man operations with passengers getting off at the front for ticket verification. ICOCA readers are located at car exit points, passengers tap out similar to using a bus. This kind of operation would fit well on similar ‘one man’ operations like the JR Central Minobu line which are still limited to paper tickets.

Starbucks officially adds Suica contactless payments…finally

Apple Pay Suica/PASMO finally joined the official Starbucks payment lineup, something that many people have wanted for a long time. Nothing beats Apple Pay Suica Express Transit for grabbing coffee on the run.

I knew something was coming when Panasonic JT-R600 all-in-one readers appeared in Starbucks stores starting last summer. Initially these were for EMV chip cards and came with ‘please don’t forget to remove your card’ reminder stickers. EMV contactless is missing though I suspect it will come at some point. Other FeliCa contactless payments such as iD, QUICPay, Waon, nanaco, and Edy are also missing. Line Pay QR is accepted at some store locations but remains limited for now.

Suica/PASMO (and other eMoney like Waon) has been accepted for years at Starbucks locations in stations and malls where tenants integrate payment+reward point systems provided by the landlord. Suica/PASMO support is not native however and bolted onto the Starbucks checkout system. For JR East station area locations tied into the JRE POINT system this means double entry Suica payments: once for the Starbucks checkout and once more for the Suica/JRE POINT payment reader. This will remain in place until JR East and other retail landlords (PAMSO, etc.) come up with a better system for integrating JRE POINT (etc.) with Starbucks’ native Suica support. The big takeaway is that Suica/Transit IC is officially supported and earmarked for all locations.

Contactless payments are a welcome step forward but I wish Starbucks integrated their own reward points via NFC VAS instead of barcode in Starbucks app nonsense. That way I could get JRE POINT and Starbucks point with a single Apple Watch Suica tap at JR East station Starbucks locations without the hassle of iPhone Face ID with face mask. And while we’re on the subject of NFC VAS reward point cards…JR East hurry up with that JRE POINT card for Apple Wallet please.

UPDATE
Starbucks is running a ¥100 One More Coffee refill campaign with Suica/Transit IC purchase from January 13~June 30, a ¥50 discount. A good reason to kiss the iOS Starbucks App barcode thing goodbye for the duration and use Apple Pay Suica/PASMO Express Transit instead.