Pixel 4 FeliCa outside of Japan hiding in plain sight

After posting about the global NFC possibility of Pixel 5 and Fitbit, a reader forwarded some interesting Pixel 4 FeliCa information. We all know the official story that FeliCa only works in the Japanese Pixel 4 SKUs and no other models. However, there are indications that Google installed FeliCa capable hardware in all Pixel 4 models worldwide all this time but only enables the Japanese SKUs.

The reader asked me to post some information so that we can find out the truth with help from other readers of this blog. We are looking for non-JP Pixel 4/4a SKU users who can tag read their Pixel 4/4a device with another Android device loaded with the NXP NFC TagInfo app downloaded from Google Play. The steps to do this:

  1. Install the TagInfo app, turn off NFC-A and NFC-B reads as we only want to read NFC-F tags (screenshot directly below)
  2. Tag read the Pixel 4/4a with the TagInfo installed Android device
  3. Take a screenshot of the NFC scan results #1
  4. Tag read the Pixel 4/4a a second time, take a screenshot of scan results #2

Read #1 (Before Enablement): If FeliCa is present the Primary System Code in the Detailed protocol information section should be 0xFFFF. Additionally, Mobile FeliCa 4.1 will show a pre-enablement IDm starting with 05:FE.

Read #2 (After Enablement): On a JP Pixel 4 in the screenshot below, the Common Area (0xFE00) will be present, and the Primary System Code will have changed to 0xFE00, that of the Common Area. On non-JP models enablement doesn’t happen, read #2 will match read #1.

Enablement means running the Osaifu Keitai app. Let me know by Twitter @Kanjo or email the following: (1) the Pixel 4/4a model, (2) if the read #1 result indicates FeliCa with System Code OxFFFF, (3) if the first 4 digits of the IDm begin with 05:FE in read #1. Both reads should look identical so also let me know if anything changes in read #2.

The Premise
What does it mean if all Pixel 4/4a models have FeliCa, does it change anything? It simply means that Mobile FeliCa is loaded and present in all Pixel 4/4a devices but Google only turns it on, and pays for, full activations on Japanese models. This doesn’t change anything in the short term. The real value is that it helps us understand what Google is up to and possible changes that might be coming later on with Pixel 5: i.e. global NFC just like Apple.

The Results
Readers shared results that indicate Mobile FeliCa 4.1 present in every SKU regardless of country and match the Japanese model ‘before entitlement’ state. Mobile FeliCa is ready but the entitlement step does not occur as some system parameter prevents the Osaifu Keitai app from running.

This means Pixel 4/4a all have the same NFC hardware and Mobile FeliCa software installed, but non-JP models block Mobile FeliCa apps from running. This would explain reports of Pixel 4 users rooting a USA SKU device, changing some parameters and running Osaifu Keitai.

Are Google Pixel 5 and Fitbit up to the Global NFC Challenge? (Update: Pixel 5 not)

It’s that time of year again to think about FeliCa support on the Google Pixel platform as Pixel 5 approaches. Ever since Pixel 3 things have been the stuck in a rut: the same global NFC (A-B-F) chip and Mobile FeliCa is in all Pixel models, but only Osaifu Keitai apps launch and run on Japanese SKUs. No Suica for you if you don’t have one of those.

I used to think that Google was going cheap instead of deep. Google is cheap here actually, and lazy, but there are some other reasons. It goes back to the problem many people had with Google Pay Japan FeliCa support to begin with: it’s only a UI candy coating on top of the aging Osaifu Keitai stack and apps. Instead of doing a true top to bottom Google Pay global NFC solution like Apple did, Google Pay Japan FeliCa support is just surfing on the Osaifu Keitai board. And of course the Android Pay HCE-F thing is long since dead, it’s eSE or nothing now.

One problem is this: Osaifu Keitai is a domestic platform, Osaifu Keitai apps (Suica, etc.) are domestic apps. The various Osaifu Keitai partners and developers don’t want to deal with the extra expense of multi-lingual localization and support. Neither does Google, hence the logjam.

Google’s recent purchase of Fitbit might be the agent of change that finally changes the situation. The Osaifu Keitai model doesn’t extend to wearables. Google Pay has to come up with something new to replace Fitbit Pay, something that works across paired devices seamlessly if Google Pay Suica is to exist on a Fitbit smartwatch paired with Pixel.

There is something new this time around that didn’t exist, or at least didn’t exist as a marketed developer product back in 2018: Mobile FeliCa Platform and Mobile FeliCa Cloud for supporting all kinds of Mobile FeliCa services worldwide. This arrangement got us Suica on Garmin Pay.

Taken together I think there is a better chance Google will go deep instead of cheap, hopefully sooner than later. Google Pay Suica and Google Pay PASMO on Pixel and Fitbit devices from anywhere would be a very welcome development.

Update: Not labeled on diagram

Pixel 5 was announced and FeliCa support is still limited to JP models, more cheap instead of deep. Pixel support pages (screenshots) list FeliCa support in the ‘Not labeled on diagram’ section with Osaifu Keitai links and this new bit: “To use FeliCa on Pixel 4 and later Pixel phones you’ll need 4 apps that should automatically open during setup.” This is the enablement step that Google blocks on non-JP Pixel models. The strange thing is that Mobile FeliCa is hiding in plain sight on all Pixel models, if Google wanted to they could allow enablement remotely.

This confirms the FeliCa situation won’t change for Pixel until Google builds their own Google Pay replacement for Osaifu Keitai software instead of candy wrapping it. It all comes down to what Google wants to do regarding Suica support on Fitbit. Something will have to change in Google Pay if they want to do that.

Smells like Super Suica: Sony unveils next generation FeliCa

Sony announced the next generation FeliCa chip on September 8. Next generation FeliCa was mentioned in the September 2018 next generation Suica, aka Super Suica, press release. This is the first glimpse into some of the new FeliCa features that Super Suica will use. The Japanese and English press released highlight different feature sets. A basic rundown:

  • Extended Overlap Service: different service providers can share additional services, while making the most of existing systems.
  • Value-Limited Purse Service: purse data can be set as a negative numerical value, and enables “Upper Limit Value” and “Lower Limit Value” to be specified.
  • FeliCa Secure ID: on the surface this cloud based service sounds exactly like the digital car key feature Sony and NTT Docomo demoed at the Docomo Open House back in January and exactly like Apple Pay Car Key sharing. Dare I say there seems to be more web service functionality that might relate to the NFC Tag Maas Suica hinted at by AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara.
  • Additional Security Options: state of the art encryption, integrity protection option for ‘cost-balanced system solution use cases where higher priority is given to high-speed transactions while meeting the required security needs’. The new chip also complies with Public Transportation IC Card Protection Profile (PTPP).

The new hardware chip is NFC Forum Type 3 Tag compliant and works with NFC Forum certified devices.

As I explained previously, one big aim of Super Suica is sharing resources and services to reduce costs. Right off the bat Extended Overlap Service looks exactly what Super Suica wants to do: host other transit company commuter passes and reward points. The new FeliCa Japanese press release graph illustrates this, it almost looks like dual mode services in a single mode card. I think Super Suica is going to leverage the shit out of it.

Another interesting feature is the Value-Limited Purse Service. Super Suica will certainly get a stored value purse upgrade from the current ¥20,000 limit. I’m curious to find out if next generation Suica uses the new feature for additional stored value services.

One big question is when does FeliCa Networks upgrade Mobile FeliCa with all these new features and when do licensed developers get the goods. Sony and NTT Docomo already demoed Android Osaifu Keitai smartphones using FeliCa Secure ID and digital car keys with Ultra Wideband ‘Touchless’ in January. I think it’s safe to assume licensees get new FeliCa chips and upgraded Mobile FeliCa at the same time.

This is just a cursory overview. I have fingers crossed that FeliCa Dude will post something to Reddit that will delight and enlighten us when he has the time. In the meantime we have Apple Pay PASMO coming down the pike very soon in what I hope is a preview of more to come in 2021.

UPDATE
FeliCa Dude has posted an excellent overview on Reddit covering the new features and what they mean for operators. More than ever I am convinced that the big new marquee features, Extended Overlap Service and Value-Limited Purse Service will be playing major roles in Super Suica.

Farewell FeliCa Octopus, save the last tap for me

During the 2019 Apple Pay Octopus saga one thing was clear: Octopus was living on borrowed time. On the eve of the Apple Pay Octopus launch:

Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) has been slow extending the service to include mobile. Instead of putting early effort into digital wallet support for Apple Pay/Google Pay/Samsung Pay, OCL wasted time and resources developing the niche Mobile SIM product which didn’t pan out. This lag coupled with the rise of AliPay and WeChat Pay QR Code payment empires put enormous pressure on OCL to do something…

With so much traffic and business from the mainland, OCL owner MTR is looking to add QR Code Open Loop transit support (paywalled link)…MTR gates will eventually look like the ones in Guangzhou with PBOC/FeliCa/QR Code readers supporting Octopus, China T-Union, AliPay/WeChat Pay. At which point I say OCL doesn’t have a viable transit platform business anymore.

I hoped the success of Apple Pay Octopus would buy it time, but on August 28 the South China Morning Post published a story where OCL CEO Sunny Cheung says they will join the China T-Union initiative for seamless transit integration between Hong Kong and China. He to goes out of his way a few times in the interview to say how ‘old’ NFC technology is:

Cheung said internet users’ criticism of Octopus being a tech laggard died down in June after people were allowed to add their Octopus account to Apple Wallet on their iPhones. Cheung, who admitted he was stung by the criticism, regarded Octopus’ breakthrough on the iPhone as one of the best times of his stint with the company. “This was one of my biggest challenges,” he said. “The breakthrough helped refresh Octopus’ image even though it is still using NFC technology.”

Hong Kong’s Octopus aims to spread tentacles with contactless card for paying fares in mainland China

Obviously Sunny thinks that QR Codes are cutting edge. He is retiring and doesn’t care about criticism regarding his ineffectual OCL management, or scalping inbound tourists who want to use Apple Pay Octopus.

Hard Reality
China has ruthlessly weeded out MIFARE and FeliCa transit cards and replaced them with the slower PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-Union standard, aka the supermarket checkout spec. I think Octopus will eventually get the same China T-Union lobotomy.

Doing so means OCL and China transit authorities can replace or retire the Sold Octopus•Lingnan Pass that is plastic only and covers 20 Greater Bay Area cities. Online information is limited but the current Sold Octopus•Lingnan Pass card appears to be 2 separate chips, a NFC-F FeliCa with HKD e-purse and a NFC-A PBOC Lingnan PASS RMB purse. It’s a plastic era solution that cannot work on digital wallets in its current form.

Octopus could be ‘dual mode’: a single card with separate NFC-A/China T-Union RMB purse and NFC-F/Octopus HKD purse. In this scenario Hong Kong Octopus remains on FeliCa while the rest of China gets the benefit of China T-Union with mobile support. Unfortunately OCL would have to create a new dual mode card architecture that works on digital wallets and have somebody design and fabricate IC chips for plastic issue, an expensive undertaking. It would be great if this could happen but I’m not optimistic.

It’s easier and cheaper to create a single protocol China T-Union PBOC 2.0/3.0 card with separate RMB and HKD currency e-purses that works everywhere, and on mobile, for all mainland transit and for mainlander transit in Hong Kong.

There is also the plastic card issue business angle to consider. Read FeliCa Dude’s Octopus on iPhone 7 post paying special attention to the Octopus plastic card issue steps that he outlines. The Hong Kong powers that be would like that profitable franchise sourced locally or in mainland and not from Sony.

We all know ‘one country two systems’ is an illusion and Hong Kong is quickly being force fitted into China. There are no hold outs. It may take a few years, but as MTR transit gates and OCL store readers are gradually replaced with newer models, those readers will all have dual mode FeliCa/PBOC support. And when everything is ready, MTR and OCL will turn off FeliCa. FeliCa based Octopus has had a great run that influenced transit fare system development around the world. Enjoy it while it lasts.

The Apple Pay monopoly debate: are we really comparing Apples with Apples?

Ruimin Yang’s detailed and thoughtful post, “Apple Pay monopoly, are we really comparing ‘Apples’ with ‘Apples?“, outlines the entire Apple Pay system architecture, how it compares to other digital wallet platforms, (Google Pay, Samsung Pay) and what ‘open vs closed’ means in the whole ‘Apple Pay is a monopoly’ debate. I highly recommend it if you have any interest in digital wallet payments.

As Yang explains, ‘open’ is not easily defined and the options are not easily implemented, especially when it comes to Apple’s highly customized and constantly evolving Apple Pay platform built around their A/S series chip Secure Enclave and Embedded Secure Element. Apple has spent a lot of time, money and effort in building the Apple Pay brand as the high benchmark standard for secure, private and easy to use digital wallet transactions and services. It is not your standard off the shelf NFC + Secure Element package.

It is telling that Germany, a country with one of lowest rates of credit card use and whose banks fought to keep Apple Pay out, is pushing for ‘open NFC’ the most. It sounds like an across the board move but it’s really aimed at Apple Pay.

This is European business politics in the age of digital wallet wars: mobile payments and digital wallets have disrupted everything and the traditional players, banks and card companies i.e. the real gatekeepers, are doing everything they can to keep the upper hand by using the open NFC argument to force their own branding on Apple’s platform in place of Apple Pay.

In the European tradition, regulation is invariably the go to strategy for keeping the status quo. I still think Junya Suzuki has it right: the EU would never demand the same thing of Samsung or Huawei that they are demanding from Apple. In other words, politics.

Previous coverage:
What does open Apple Pay NFC really mean? (11-17-2019)
The Apple Pay EU antitrust investigation (6-20-2020)