Apple Pay Octopus Ides of March

Here we are again. Apple Pay Octopus has been languishing in beta test hell for over a year now, since December 2018, no public release in sight. The last Apple Pay Octopus news was the 2019 year end official launch delay to ‘later in 2020’ and the Octopus App v5.6 update that added support for iPhone recharge/top up of plastic Octopus cards and more. Hong Kong beta testers found code references in v5.6 that indicated Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) originally intended to release Apple Pay Octopus and v5.6 app together.

A few weeks ago a reader contacted me that Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) is updating the Schedule of Fees and Guidelines on March 1, 2020, which could indicate a minor Octopus App update, or perhaps not.

Then out of nowhere, Twitter user Jason Tjong (who lists himself an IT journalist with no publication link… freelance? blogger? a mole inside OCL?) put out a series of tweets basically saying everything that was supposed to be coming, first with Chinese New Year 2019, then later with iOS 13, is finally, yes finally coming in March 2020 along with Octopus App v6. Wow.

To which I say…hope for the best but we’ll see how it goes. There have been too many letdowns to be optimistic. We do have that Apple Event March rumor for iPhone 9 and new iPad. At last year’s spring event Tim Cook mentioned Apple Pay HOP, Ventra and EMV Express Transit for MTA OMNY for 2019. Reality and results were mixed. Apple Pay HOP launched without a hitch, MTA users stuck with manual swipe MetroCard are irritated by Express Transit (default Express Transit in a long term system migration environment was not a good idea), and Apple Pay Ventra is stuck in coming soon hell.

Tjong says the Octopus on Apple Pay delay is more Apple’s fault than OCL but I am skeptical…surely Cubic Transportation Systems/CTA say the same thing about the Apple Pay Ventra delay. Business terms and transaction fees are highly guarded secrets on both sides.

I also find it hard to believe that OCL would dump resources into beta testing Apple Pay and Octopus App development without the business contract tied down. I think there are other reasons..reasons like that unexplained takedown of Smart Octopus during the Hong Kong Polytechnic University siege.

But let’s put aside all doubts and pretend that March will be insanely great. Tim will announce Apple Pay for Octopus and Ventra at the March Apple Event, Octopus Cards Limited CEO Sunny Cheung will be invited on stage to unveil the service and press the launch button. Oh, and one more thing, Tim will announce an Apple engineered SARS-CoV-2 vaccine with same day availability at all Apple Stores worldwide.

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iOS 13.4 beta 2 Apple Pay Suica tweaks and questionable UI choices

Apple Pay Suica has more commute plan UI tweaks in iOS 13.4 beta 2. Commute plan information displays correctly now, and with more detail than before, but the renew button is gone and evidently dynamic: it only appears during the 2 week commute plan renewal period before expiration date. The design goal is clear but cannot absolutely confirm it until my plan enters the renewal period on April 15, hopefully beta testers will confirm it on Twitter before then.

A dynamic Suica commute plan renew button makes sense because the button does not function outside of the 2 week renewal period, but I’m not sure it’s the best UI choice. Most users will be confused when there isn’t a renew option showing. No button, no user feedback. My own choice is for a button that is always there but greyed out until it’s active for the renewal period.

What UI Apple delivers for the official iOS 13.4 release is anybody’s guess but the constant Suica tweaking before iOS 13 Dark Mode and after is telling. Apple is making questionable UI choices because Dark Mode severely limits UI color schemes. That is why Apple Pay Wallet buttons are black for daytime and white for Dark Mode. Grey is not an option. That’s why Apple is playing with dynamic buttons that only appear when needed. Dark Mode in fine in limited doses but things like Apple Maps Dark Mode are a disaster, Apple Pay Wallet Day/Dark Mode is a mixed bag. I hope iOS 14 Dark Mode delivers a better design than what we have now.

Outside of the UI, I’m happy to report that Apple Pay Suica performance on iOS 13.4 b2 is the best ever.

Tokyo Cashless 2020: NFC Pay…are we there yet?

Tokyo Cashless 2020 is a periodic look at all things cashless as Japan gears up for the Tokyo Olympics event. If there is a topic you’d like covered, tweet @Kanjo

Mom always had a ready answer for us kids at the start of every family summer trip, “No honey we’re not there yet.” It was vague, non-committal, endlessly cheery. NFC Pay (aka EMV contactless) has made some progress at Japanese checkouts, but as Junya Suzuki lamented recently it’s still not universal. Cashless payments in general however have made good progress thanks to the Japan Cashless rebate program.

Every inbound cashless Japan experience is different, it depends on the kind of trip, the region and personal spending habits. A businessman using plastic credit cards staying in Tokyo area hotels and well known areas, then yes the experience is mostly cashless. A budget backpacker on Lonely Planet/Airbnb trail will have a very different, very cash cash experience. Europeans and Australians will find that their EMV contactless bank cards don’t tap very far and wide.

Just Say ‘Apple Pay’ Conundrum
People would love to be able to just say ‘Apple Pay’ at checkout, but this does’t work very well in Japanese contactless checkout jungle. When you say ‘Apple Pay’ you get:

  • The main card set for Apple Pay Wallet
  • Face ID/Touch ID authentication request

This can play out in different ways. If you have an international issue bank card set as the main card and say ‘Apple Pay’ at Lawson, the reader pulls up the main card with a Face ID/Touch ID authentication request. If you have Suica set as the main card and say ‘Apple Pay’ at Lawson, it pulls up Suica with a Face ID/Touch ID authentication. If you want use Apple Pay Suica Express Transit at checkout, you have to ‘Suica’, not ‘Apple Pay’. Are you confused? The confusion is compounded by poor employee training. You can use EMV contactless at any McDonalds but getting the checkout staff to actually make it happen is a completely different story.

Who’s to blame for this state of affairs? I say everybody: Banks, Card companies, The EMV Consortium, Sony, NXP, The NFC Forum, Apple, Google, Samsung, and especially Visa Japan who refuse to play nice with anybody who plays nice with FeliCa. Instead of working together to create and market a few intelligent payment schemes that work seamlessly, we have a world of this and that pay. The only player to gain anything from the Japanese market card payment mess is, surprise, the card-less QR Code PayPay.

EMV contactless and known aliases
To successfully navigate the Japanese contactless jungle, inbound Apple Pay travelers needs to be acquainted with a few checkout slogans: NFC Pay, credit and Suica. When you see the EMV contactless acceptance logos for Mastercard, Visa, Amex or JCB, say ‘credit’ or ‘NFC Pay’ at checkout. This should work for both plastic EMV contactless cards and Apple Pay/Google Pay/Samsung Pay inbound digital cards. Even if the checkout terminal does not display an Apple Pay or Google Pay logo, you are good to go.

Unfortunately, there isn’t comprehensive resource for NFC Pay store listings. Visa Japan only lists Visa Touch stores, Mastercard only lists Mastercard contactless stores, etc. The best approach for iPhone/Apple Watch inbound visitors is to create a Suica card on your device and be flexible, use a mix of Apple Pay Suica (recharged with Apple Pay cards), NFC Pay and plastic credit cards. NFC Pay nirvana may not be here yet, but we’ll get there…eventually.

Transit IC only JR East Shinkansen eTicket reservations start today

The new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service debuts March 14, but 30 day advance ticket reservations mean it kinda starts today. The best explanation, Japanese only at this point, is the Eki-net online guide that outlines the new reservation, purchase and seat assignment process for PC and smartphone web pages. I find the smartphone online version more streamlined than the PC one but they are straight forward if you are familiar with Eki-net. The basic Eki-net process is the same until step 7, the section where you assign the eTicket (s) to your registered transit IC card (s). The differences from smartEX are interesting:

  • You can register up to 6 different transit IC cards to a single Eki-net account: Suica, Mobile Suica, PASMO, Kitaca, ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, PiTaPa, nimoca, SUGOCA, Hayaken
  • A single Eki-net account can reserve/purchase up to 6 Shinkansen eTickets then assign tickets and seats to registered transit IC cards

JR East Shinkansen eTickets are geared for family travel in a way that smartEX, EX-Press and the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTickets ending March 13 are not. Other systems can only attach a single IC transit card per account. The flexibility opens up some interesting possibilities, since Apple Pay Suica is just another transit IC card, one person can buy and assign eTickets up to 6 difference Apple Pay Suica devices. The downside is that transit card linking is completely manual and up to the user to update information when a new card is issued or the Apple Pay Suica ID number changes (less common than before but still happens). There are bound to be some very short trips that end with a transit gate error. Some other observations:

  • eTickets require a Transit IC card (paper tickets can be issued in the event of a lost transit card)
  • eTicket reservations are currently limited to Eki-net online but Eki-net app will gain eTicket support when the service launches March 14
  • As Suica App is tied to Apple ID and the Mobile Suica cards registered to it, I don’t see Shinkansen eTickets being integrated back into Suica App anytime soon
  • I don’t see QR Code ticketing support coming until after the transit IC eTicket system is complete and necessary gate infrastructure in place, a few years down the road at best

Eki-net eTickets are limited to JR East operated Tohoku, Yamagata, Akita, Hokkaido, Joetsu, Hokuriku Shinkansen lines. The next obvious question is when will other ticketing be migrated to Transit IC, and what kind of discounts will be offered?

Discounts, incentives and ticket system silos
Most Japanese don’t buy express train or Shinkansen tickets at regular prices. The whole point of Eki-net, smartEx, and all the other account based ticketing systems are the discounts and incentives to get people out of the ticket office line and online. Each operator has their own complex set of discount schedules which they guard and control carefully because it is their business engine.

For this reason I am not optimistic we will see an all-in-one train ticket app. Sure, there is some integration of JR East eTicket and JR West e5489 because they share Hokuriku Shinkansen operations, and there might even be an app than integrates many different ticket systems, but I don’t see it offering all the discounts of stand alone apps like Eki-net, EX, Odekake-net, etc. I also don’t see multi-lingual support in the mix, at least not in time for Tokyo Olympics. The fun starts March 14 with many things still coming down the pipe, from next generation Suica to new transit gates. It will be an interesting time.

5G Contactless Payments Part 1: Fast QR vs Ultra Wide Band enhanced FeliCa and MIFARE

Payment empire players envision a brave new world of 5G enhanced contactless payment solutions, seen in recent moves by JR East and other major Japanese transit companies to replace expensive legacy mag strip ticketing with lower cost QR Code ticketing. 5G flavored QR Code and ‘Touchless’ Ultra Wide Band (UWB) Mobile FeliCa solutions were also on display at last months Docomo Open House 2020. How can it be that Docomo is developing Ultra Wide Band Mobile FeliCa and QR Code solutions?

The endless push pull of ‘this contactless payment works great for me’ that drives somebody else crazy is endless fascinating. We have more choices than ever: digital wallets, plastic cards, face recognition, NFC, QR Codes, etc. 5G and UWB promise to mix things up even more.

Ultra Wide Band enhanced FeliCa and MIFARE Apple CarKey?
The evolution of EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE and other similar protocols as they transition from plastic smartcards to digital wallets devices opens up opportunities to include other radio technologies like Ultra Wide Band and Bluetooth in addition to NFC. Ultra Wide Band Touchless FeliCa on display at the Docomo Open House was all about cars, not Touchless walkthrough transit gates that will appear in a few years.

Touchless FeliCa makes great sense as a ‘NFC car key’ that utilizes UWB for operation at greater distance and better accuracy when needed. Touchless makes even more sense as a ‘keep phone in pocket’ touchless payment method for drive thru purchases. The addition of UWB into the mix makes smartcard protocols much more useful than just NFC. I would certainly welcome a smartphone UWB powered Touchless FeliCa replacement that ditches the need for automobile ETC cards and readers on Japanese expressways.

How UWB enhanced FeliCa would fit with Apple’s new CarKey feature said to be coming with iOS 13.4 is unknown but iPhone already supports FeliCa. UWB touchless support for iPhone 11 and later models is a logical evolution. Sony and Docomo are developing the technology with NXP which certainly means that MIFARE will also support UWB enhancements. The long history of FeliCa and MIFARE as keycard solution providers is a natural fit with Apple CarKey. NFC is the only protocol that has been discovered in iOS 13.4 beta CarKey framework so far but I would not be surprised if UWB code references turn up at some point.

5G Cloud vs Local Processing
The Docomo Open House also showcased a QR Code transit gate with 200 millisecond (ms) transaction processing but the real star was the speed of 5G. 5G powered cloud processing promises to upend the current advantage of locally processed prepaid stored value cards…cards like Suica.

The basic promise of 5G is that IT system designers finally achieve a nirvana of everywhere, always available, big pipe central processing without wires, the big cloud. The original Suica card design effort back in the 1980’s had to leverage local processing because central processing wasn’t up to the task of handling massive transaction volumes of a Tokyo-Shinjuku-Ikebukuro station at peak rush hour. This is why Suica cards are stored value by design, the FeliCa technology behind the card design delivers 200 ms and faster transaction times for local processing at the transit gate. What happens when 5G promises, in theory, to deliver 200 ms central processing?

Kill mag strip paper tickets first then Suica?
As Junya Suzuki points out in his article ‘Is QR the future of Suica?‘, transit QR Codes on the complex Japanese transit network only need be a unique local passkey with everything else, verification, transaction, etc., done in the 5G cloud. The same concept applies for facial recognition systems where the registered face is the unique local passkey. With the power and speed of 5G, Suzuki san argues that the need for Suica-like local processing falls away. In his scenario all Suica needs to be is a unique passkey that can lose stored value functions.

I understand his point, Suzuki san comes from an IT system background, as a journalist he has covered JP transit payment system developments for a long time. For low traffic stations a Suica-lite 5G cloud based network makes sense and does away with the expensive hard wired transit gates. Just one year ago JR East said they are building a cloud networked Suica to cover all non-Suica areas.

However the old Tokyo-Shinjuku-Ikebukuro station peak rush hour central processing crunch problem remains. I’m not convinced super fast 5G enabled cloud processing is going to solve that problem any better or cheaper than Suica does now, and reliability is a complete unknown. We also have the next generation ‘Super Suica’ format and FeliCa OS coming in the next 12 months, the design goals here include a flexible, modular cloud friendly architecture and lower costs. Next generation Suica coupled with a flexible local processing~cloud processing backend may be a compelling solution that finally delivers a practical inexpensive Suica infrastructure to the little end of the line station which only gets a few trains or buses a day.

New JR East Suica / QR Code transit gate for Takanawa Gateway station

JR East, Hanshin and Osaka Metro are testing QR Codes and facial recognition ID ticketing to replace mag strip paper. As Junya Suzuki points out, mechanical paper ticket transit gates are more expensive to install and maintain than IC transit card gates but the real expense is mag strip paper recycling costs. Mundane but not surprising. The more important long term question is this: do transit companies keep the current more expensive cash base paper ticket fare vs less expensive IC card fare structures in place, or do away with it when QR Codes replace mag strip tickets? I don’t think we’ll see an answer to that question for a few years.

There is no doubt that 5G will enable new payment possibilities, and a lot of debate. But I don’t see 5G cloud completely upending and replacing the need for local processing and stored value cards. Both are evolving, both have their place. It doesn’t have to be, and should not be a one size fits all solution. Each approach has strengths that can be complementary and build a better stronger system.

For me it comes down to one simple thing. My Apple Watch can be buried under multiple sleeve layers but Apple Pay Suica works great going through rush hour transit gates every time. It’s the best argument for UWB enhanced FeliCa and MIFARE touchless transit gates and stored value local processing I can think of. QR can never match that, nor can face recognition…think face masks during an epidemic or pollen season.

In the next installment I hope to explore 5G and the evolution of digital wallets.