Dear Apple: We need a Global NFC iPad

Now that iOS 13 is almost here, it’s time to sit down and think about the enhanced Core NFC Read/Write functionality and what it means for iOS/iPadOS. Core NFC “requires a device that supports Near Field Communication.” Theoretically this means iPhone and Apple Watch, but the reality is that only iPhone iOS supports Core NFC, NFC Tag Read/Write and new services like NFC Tag Apple Pay that use Background NFC Tag reading.

Until now nobody has discussed the need for a NFC capable iPad. Without the enhanced Core NFC functions of iOS 13 which limited NFC to Apple Pay Wallet card, there wasn’t a reason. After all who would want to use iPad for Apple Pay Suica transit in Tokyo, you’d look as silly as watermelon man (watermelon in JP = suika…get it?).

But iOS 13 Core NFC changes all this: sure you still don’t want to use an NFC iPad at the checkout line, but businesses would love an NFC iPad loaded with all kinds of enhanced Core NFC apps to do all kind of work as all-in-one mobile POS systems, factory inventory NFC tag read/write systems, and much more. Imagine how an NFC iPad bundled with Recuit’s AirPAY would appeal to Tokyo area businesses as they gear up for the 2020 Olympics. The possibilities are interesting and not insignificant.

What is the optimum global NFC iPad hardware configuration? Background NFC tag reading ability is an absolute must which means A12 Bionic is the minimum support configuration. Outside of that I would say: iPad Air and iPad mini, not iPad Pro, a NFC + cellular model, and a WiFi only model. The NFC iPad needs to be as inexpensive as possible with A12 Bionic and Touch ID. I think it could do well.

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Apple’s Secret Weapon

Technology is hard to cover well in a way that’s clear and easy to understand, that educates and elevates without dumbing down the technology or it’s intended audience. Technology like Apple Pay Suica is especially hard to cover well because it is multifaceted: it merges the Apple Pay platform of Global NFC technology deployed on iPhone and Apple Watch, with the Suica Transit Platform of FeliCa NFC deployed for transit and eMoney on a national scale, and how Apple delivers all of this to a global user base.

With so many parts it’s difficult to explain the greatness and importance of Apple Pay Suica, simply and clearly, and what connects it to Apple Card. Ken Bolido who is the production lead and creative director for Austin Evans, has created a video titled Apple’s SECRET Weapon. Ken ‘get’s it’ and captures all of it brilliantly: why Apple Pay is Apple’s Secret Weapon, how Apple Pay Suica is a perfect embodiment of that secret weapon, and how it relates to Apple Card. If you want to understand any of this and how it will play out, watch Apple’s SECRET Weapon. It’s essential viewing and a perfect primer for the role Apple Pay Suica will play in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

New Functions for iOS 13 Apple Pay Suica

For some time now I have been scratching my head over the dynamic card feature of Apple Card. I thought that Apple might announce new Apple Pay Wallet features for developers at WWDC19. They did not. Apple Card has been released but there are no details about the special Wallet UI features, or if they are available to other Apple Pay Wallet card developers. NFC card emulation in Apple Pay Wallet requires PassKIT NFC Certificates and an NDA. The only answer we’ll get is when new card designs arrive in Wallet like the refreshed Apple Pay Suica transit card in iOS 12.2.

A reader sent me a link with an updated Apple Pay server JSON file entry for Suica that indicates iOS 13 as the minimum version for installing the card. This is unusual: Apple Pay Suica has been around since iOS 10, other transit card minimum versions listed in the JSON file are iOS 12.x. We already know that direct Suica card creation in Wallet is a new Suica feature for iOS 13. This JSON file entry could be that, but I don’t think so. iOS 12 already supports direct transit card creation for Shanghai and Beijing transit cards, we don’t need iOS 13 for that.

The JSON file entry for Suica indicates a new Suica feature that requires iOS 13. What could it be? I’ve been scratching my head over the low resolution Suica ‘in transit’ notification card art over the course of iOS 13 beta releases. It’s still unfinished and very late for dovetailing that kind of detail.

Could it be a placeholder for something else? I’m going out on a limb here, but I think we will get some form of dynamic Wallet card functionality for Suica and other cards. It’s a long shot, but Apple has held back iOS features from beta releases occasionally to announce them in connection with new products for the Apple Event golden master.

We will undoubtedly have an Apple Pay update segment in the September 10 Apple Event. There is Apple Card of course, but there is also NFC Tag Apple Pay that Jennifer Bailey previewed back in May. It will fit nicely with the new iPhones, possibly even Apple Watch Series 5 if NFC background tag reading makes the cut.

There are also a number of Apple Pay Transit items on tap for iOS 13: Apple Pay Octopus, Apple Pay Ventra, EMV Express Transit for TfL, and (maybe) EMV Express Transit for LA TAP. Of all of these I hope Tim Cook or Jennifer Bailey goes out of the way to reach out to Hong Kong, even just a little. In these troubled times, the people of Hong Kong desperately need kind words of support. At the very least we will finally get an official Apple Pay Octopus launch window.

Update: iOS 13 developer beta 8 also has the same low resolution Suica ‘in transit’ notification card image of previous beta releases. Taken together with the JSON Apple Pay Suica iOS 13 minimum version reference, more than ever I feel the two are connected. I definitely smell a post Apple Event golden master feature.

iOS 13 beta 8 Suica In Transit notification

Transit Gate Evolution: Do QR Codes Really Suck for Transit?

The short answer of course is: yes, QR Codes really suck for transit, which Abacus first reported on when the QR code transit meltdown hit Chengdu last April. Abacus is taking a closer look at the problem again in a new piece, QR code payments make long commutes even longer in China:

while QR codes have proven remarkably effective at meeting most people’s mobile payment needs, it seems ill-suited for public transit compared with NFC. Since NFC relies on radio waves, payment requires only a tap of the phone. There’s no need to wake it up or turn the screen on, making it as convenient as traditional transit cards.

The limitations of the <QR> technology are apparent even as cities race to install QR code scanners in turnstiles across the country. Over time, though, the inconvenience might be enough to nudge China away from its reliance on QR codes.

The long answer requires a quick look at transit gate technology evolution. The success of Suica can be found in its development process, a fascinating story by itself. The Suica card and transit gate were developed as one thing to replicate the ease of flashing a commuter pass to the gate attendant without stopping.

A video of old style paper ticket manned gates illustrates the start point. There is no physical barrier. People slow down to get their ticket punched but rarely stop. For a commuter pass the user flashed a wallet with a clear plastic window at the attendant and kept on going, shown at the 0:16 mark:

Shigeo Miki came up with an idea of using IC cards for tickets. The magnetic-type ticket automatic gates, which were in use since the 1980’s, had some inconvenient aspects. Old-style passes could be shown to attendants without being taken out of their cases. But to use automatic ticket gates, passengers had to take them out, pass them through the automatic gate, and then put them away again. He thought that was a decline in service quality…

JR East “Following the track leading to Suica

This was the late 1980’s when IC cards were just coming into wider use, but not for transit. The Suica project had a large impact on Sony FeliCa development as did the Hong Kong Octopus project starting in 1992…

Furthermore, systems that read ID data from read-only cards and interact with the main computer each time someone goes through the ticket gate could not keep up with the enormous volume of data processing transactions in rush hour. So Miki and his fellow researchers perceived that the cards must be read/write types.

There we have it, the Suica project goals were: open gates, waving commuter passes, local processing. Magnetic strip paper ticket gates got faster, Omron states the speed is within 600 Milliseconds (MS), and better with the ability to handle and sort multiple tickets at a time. Suica is cool but nothing is cooler than watching the physical action of a well designed machine:

Despite development problems and a low research priority within JR East at the time, Suica success was achieved by moving the battery supply from the card to the gate and creating fast reliable performance with an illuminated target NFC ‘hit area’ tilted forward at 15 degrees, the same design you see today on the JREM EG-20 transit gate. The EG-20 already looks surprisingly similar to the open public transport gate concept. (Here’s a Japanese website that catalogs every JR East ticket device if you are interested)

Smartcard Transit Gates Compared
Smart transit cards were an important development that revolutionized transit and launched successful systems such as Suica, Hong Kong MTR Octopus and TfL Oyster. However all smart transit gates are not equal. Compare the Malaysia Touch n’ Go gate speed with Suica on EG-20:

One of the commentators notes the crucial differences: FeliCa (used for Suica and Octopus) is the most efficient NFC protocol, 212 kbps minimum/847 kbps maximum, while Touch ‘n Go is mainly MIFARE Classic at 106 kbps an “early form of ISO 14443A, …the least efficient NFC protocol.”

There is another crucial difference: Japan transit gates are open by default and close only when needed, just like the old manned JR gates, while Malaysia and Hong Kong gates are closed on default or use old fashioned turnstiles. The combination of the Ferrari fast FeliCa combined with the well designed JREM EG-20 gate (and variants) that is default open, keeps people moving, best highlighted in a Pokemon Go event ‘Pikachu’ transit gate video:

Suica speed is part of what makes it fun but there is a serious reason behind it: major Japanese transit operators like JR East have to move a tremendous volume of people through a fixed station infrastructure space that cannot be enlarged. Bigger stations with more transit gates are not an option. So the system focus is using the fixed space infrastructure as efficiently as possible. That is why the Suica transaction speed is less than 200 MS, that is why a Suica transit gate must clear 60 people a minute.

Open Loop Multiple Protocol Transit Gates Compared
Using EMV contactless with cards and smartphones, or QR Codes on smartphones for transit instead of native transit smartcards, is a step backwards from the fast read/write local processing model of Suica, and back towards read only centralized processing, one of the original system bottlenecks that Suica was designed to avoid. The QR Codes used for transit in China appear to be particularly slow and a poor match for high traffic stations. Poor gate design is certainly a factor here.

EMV has it’s own transit gate problems as well, as Singapore transit users found out in the recent rollout of EMV there, things slow down:

It’s fascinating that Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) dumped the fast FeliCa (rated 200 millisecond transaction but Octopus clocks in at around 100ms) behind EZ-Link cards to roll their own faster CEPAS technology (rated 180ms transaction) but are now letting super slow EMV contactless (500ms plus and counting) on their transit reader infrastructure. It’s like ripping out all the cutting edge transit gate technology and replacing it with clunky old supermarket cash register technology.

The last comment in the first Twitter timeline is an important observation: most EMV transit is simply grafted onto the current transit gate infrastructure which was designed for something else, a factor contributing to unreliable performance, forcing users to adapt. Most of the multi-protocol transit gates in service are poor design.

This leads to another EMV issue users have to adapt to: ‘card clash’. When EMV is bolted onto an existing system slapping a wallet on the transit reader doesn’t work anymore, the card has to come out of the wallet. This is still one of the nice things about plastic Suica cards. Young Japanese women in particular seem to enjoy slapping those cute little Hello Kitty wallets on the gate reader with a surprisingly hard thwack, stress relief perhaps? Chicago Ventra support offers insight on the current state of EMV transit:

  • Get your device ready, first, for fastest entry
  • “Card clash”: touch only your desired payment method
  • Multiple credit cards: always use the same card on the same device on transit readers

These are issues that Apple Pay EMV Express Transit is designed to fix by designating a single EMV bank card for transit but it cannot change the inherently slow EMV transaction speed or solve the limitations of EMV bank card architecture which is basically centrally processed read only. There are limits on how much the central processing read only model can achieve when fast local transactions are required. That’s why complex transit fares are only supported on read/write native transit cards like Oyster on TfL but not EMV bank cards. It’s also the reason why manual swipe MTA Metrocards will be around for a while, even Apple Pay Transit on OMNY is not particularly fast or reliable:

Japanese IT journalist Junya Suzuki tests OMNY transit gate speed…
and reliability

Last but not least, using EMV contactless for transit does carry some potential security risks that native transit cards do not.


The Abacus article highlights multiple protocol Chinese transit gates: paper tickets, NFC, QR Codes and Face recognition. Oh, and closed by default gates. This is not a fast transit gate environment.

The China Situation
The Abacus article points out the slow uptake of NFC, blaming it on UnionPay, but it boils down to the PBOC flavored EMV spec itself:

Each card organization has formed its own specifications based on the EMV specification based on its own business refinement and expansion, such as China UnionPay’s PBOC 2.0 specification, VISA’s VSDC specification and MasterCard’s M/Chip specification. Each specification follows the EMV specification for basic transaction processes and security mechanisms, but differs in terms of data element definition and extended application…PBOC based on the EMV standard, combined with the needs of domestic banks, the People’s Bank of China promulgated the PBOC series of standards:
1 PBOC1.0: e-wallet / electronic passbook / magnetic stripe card function
2 PBOC 2.0: E-wallet extension application, debit/credit application, personalization guide, contactless IC card standard
3 PBOC 3.0: Cancel e-wallet and electronic passbook application, cancel downgrade transaction, multi-algorithm extension, multi-application extension, mobile payment standard

Super Lu

Beijing and Shanghai Transit cards were originally MIFARE but instead of examining what technologies would be best for next generation transit needs, China simply migrated them to the much slower PBOC 2.0/EMV specification implemented on the China T-union transit card architecture. The China T-union card is country wide transit prepaid card spec for interoperable transit cards that can work everywhere, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc.

Unfortunately, the rollout of new format card issuance has been slow and piecemeal, with no apparent promotion push to educate transit users. Chinese users familiar with Suica performance find China T-union cards slower and less reliable at the gate. Because PBOC is slow EMV NFC spec 500 MS transaction speed and tightly chained to UnionPay, the transit gate performance edge is not great enough to ween users away from QR Codes and the point benefits of sticking with AliPay and WeChat Pay.

If the performance gain was similar to the huge Suica over QR difference, coupled with an open flexible backend for using different payment methods to add money, China T-union would stand a better chance of nudging QR users to NFC for transit. As it stands now, there’s no real difference between a UnionPay card and a China T-union card at the transit gate. One is post pay, the other is prepaid, 2 versions of the same thing, marginally faster than QR, but not much.

Whatever the causes for the current situation, it’s a perfect gift to Chinese QR code players, I suspect that the arrangement is also a profitable one for the Chinese government on some level because if it was not, they wouldn’t be adding QR Code readers to transit gates.


QR Codes for Japan Transit
Some Japanese tech journalists have fretted about JR East not embracing QR Codes on transit gates because JR Central plans to completely eliminate paper tickets for the next generation Chuo Shinkansen. It’s less about QR and more about eliminating magnetic strip paper tickets. JR East does have limited QR code use for ticket purchases at station kiosks, we’ll likely see wide support of many cashless payment options, QR included, with the new JR East eTicketing system due in April 2020.

QR Codes have seen some limited use on local monorail systems such as Okinawa’s Yui Rail but Suica compatilbilty is coming to the system in April 2020. The next generation Super Suica that does a lot more for much less, will arrive in April 2021. QR Codes for transit use in Japan will reamain a small side show far away from the main attraction.


In summary, the use of EMV bank cards and QR Codes for transit all comes down to transit company priorities for safe operation, better customer service and long term business goals. My position has been and continues to be is that it’s a better long term business opportunity for transit companies to:

  • Offer robust support of bank cards, QR and digital wallets on the backend for adding money to native transit cards on digital wallets and plastic, where they are really useful and add value without giving control away to outside companies.
  • Use closed loop transit gate value capture to focus on building better services tied to transit cards that benefit customers and businesses of the entire transit region, aka the transit platform business model.

It’s a simple choice really, moving people quickly and safely by transit, managed wisely, is a license to make money. A company can either use that license to build something of greater long term value for the users and businesses of the transit region, a win-win, or give it away to someone else.

Perception and Reality

I like writing but am no writer, so I prescribe to the ‘if you’re not a sharpshooter shoot lots of bullets’ school of wannabes. When the Financial Times, “The painful path of curing Japan of its cash addiction” (paywalled) piece came out, I had 2 hours to kill before going on a business trip and decided to post something while my reaction was fresh, figuring nobody would read it. The piece has not gotten many hits, but a few western journalists based in Tokyo tweeted about it recently, defending the FT piece and the overall ‘Japan failed’ game over narrative.

Here’s the thing. The cashless payments market landscape in Japan is the most messy and exciting one in the world right now. Nowhere else can you find such a concentrated investment in contactless payment infrastructure and different technologies (EMV, FeliCa, QR Codes, smartphones, etc.) competing and playing out in the market.

Japan is also the world’s great guinea pig test market. What works here first is adapted and deployed in other markets, like mobile payments. My take, covered in countless messy posts over the span of 2 years, is actually quite simple. The market revolution of mobile payments and smartphones is just getting started. The hot messy exciting payments situation you see happening in Japan right now will play out, in some other form, in other markets later.

That’s the story I think western journalists are missing. The ‘game over’ Japan narrative has been a stock western journalist in Japan ploy since the end of the Japan bubble, almost 30 years ago. A lot of journalists stick with it because it still sells. It’s entertaining for some people, but it doesn’t convey reality or educate.

JR East getting NFC-F added to the NFC Forum certification process and getting Apple to add global FeliCa to every iPhone and Apple Watch, to me, is an interesting story. Google following Apple’s lead and adding that same capability to every Pixel 3 device (but only turning it on for the JP market), to me, is an interesting story. It tells us where Apple and Google are going.

Our smart devices are quickly evolving into ‘do everything’ devices that, unlike plastic, don’t care about any particular payment technology. They just work. That’s where the puck is going. If you sit around declaring that the game is over, you’re gonna miss the game. And the opportunity to tell people about it.