AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomo Hagiwara took up my challenge earlier this year to raise the Japanese Softcream Cashless Index (SCI) to ‘over 5’ in time for the Tokyo Olympics. I figure if mundane softcream stalls are cashless, Japan is truly cashless. Today his company is teaming up with industry heavyweights JR East, Sony and DNP to deliver on that promise and bring inexpensive MaaS (Mobility as a Service) NFC tag payments (via AquaBits SmartPlate) to the masses, and the masses of merchants who don’t want to shell out for NFC reader checkout hardware. It’s the first real NFC challenge to inexpensive, infrastructure light QR Code payment schemes that leverage the established base of mobile networks and smartphones. Small businesses only need to sign up for an online payment service and put a NFC tag sticker on the checkout counter.
Since all NFC flavors (NFC A-B-F) are required for smartphone NFC certification, Read/Write FeliCa tags work on any smartphone with NFC-F even if FeliCa transactions keys for card emulation (Suica, iD, QUICPay, etc.) are not installed. Translation: inbound Android devices can use NFC tag FeliCa payments even if they can’t use Suica.
The one remaining question on the Apple side of the equation is what NFC tag integration Apple Pay has in store. Jennifer Bailey announced NFC tag Apple Pay testing back in May without a delivery date, and no details since. Ideally an NFC tag integrated Apple Pay would use Sign in with Apple to streamline or eliminate 3rd party payments service account signup within an app, and without an app via background NFC tag reading. The more ‘it just works’ integration, the better. Nobody wants to signup for a PayPay-like service on the spot just to buy hotdogs and beer at a stadium game, or softcream.
The German law to force Apple to open it’s “NFC chip” is a confusing one. Why does an EU country with one of the lowest cashless usage rates single out one company’s NFC product in a last minute rider to an anti-money laundering bill? That’s not banking policy, it is politics. Details are few but let’s take a look at what it could mean because when it comes to NFC technology, details are everything.
Background stuff The so called Apple ‘NFC chip’ is not a chip at all but a hardware/software sandwich. The Apple Pay ecosystem as described in iOS Security 12.3 is composed of: Secure Element, NFC Controller, Wallet, Secure Enclave and Apple Pay Servers. On one end is the NFC chip controller front end that handles NFC A-B-F communication but does not process transactions, on the other end there is the Secure Enclave that oversees things by authorizing transactions. The fun stuff happens in the Secure Element middle where the EMV/FeliCa/MIFARE/PBOC transaction technologies perform their magic with Java Card applets.
The A/S Series Secure Enclave and Secure Element are the black box areas of Apple Pay. The iOS Security 12.3 documentation suggests the Secure Element is a separate chip, but Apple’s custom implementation of the FeliCa Secure Element, and the apparent ability of Apple to update Secure Element applets to support new services like MIFARE in iOS 12 suggests something else, but it is anybody’s guess. Apple would like to keep it that way.
So what does ‘open NFC’ really mean? It’s helpful to look at the issue from the 3 NFC modes: Card Emulation, Read/Write, Peer to Peer.
Peer to Peer Apple has never used NFC Peer to Peer and I don’t think this is a consideration in the ‘open NFC’ debate.
Card Emulation Apple limits NFC Card Emulation to Apple Pay Wallet with NDA PASSKit NFC Certificates. This is what the ‘open NFC’ debate is all about. I imagine that German banks and other players want to bypass the PASSKit NFC Certificate controlled Apple Pay ecosystem. Instead, they want open access to the parts they want, like Secure Element, NFC Controller, Secure Enclave, and ignore the parts they don’t want like Wallet and Apple Pay Servers. They want the right to pick and choose.
The success of Apple Pay has been founded on the ease of use and high level of integration from a massive investment in the A/S Series Secure Enclave and other in-house implementations such as global FeliCa, etc. Outside players forcing Apple to open up the Apple Pay ecosystem represent not only a security risk to Apple but also a reduced return on investment. One commentator on MacRumors said it’s like Apple took the time and expense to build a first class restaurant and outsiders are demanding the right to use Apple’s kitchen to cook their own food to serve their own customers in Apple’s restaurant. It’s a fair analogy.
The NDA PASSKit NFC Certificate gate entrance rubs bank players the wrong way as they are used to giving terms, not accepting them. The Swiss TWINT banking and payment app for example is a QR Code based Wallet replacement that wanted the ability to switch NFC off, and got it.
My own WWDC19 Apple Pay Wish List did include a wish for easier NFC Card Emulation, but nothing appeared. It’s certainly in Apple’s best interest to make it as easy as possible for 3rd party developers to add reward cards, passes, ID cards, transit cards, etc. to Wallet. However given that the EU is hardly what I call a level playing field, the fact that bank players and politics go hand in hand in every nation, and the fact we don’t know the technical details of what the German law is asking Apple to do, all we can do is guess. In general, I think Europe will be a long rough ride for Apple Pay. At least until EU bank players get deals they are happy with.
iFixit posted a teardown of the Pixel 4 and we have a new NFC chip: STMicroelectronics ST54J NFC controller. This replaces the NXP PN81 used in Pixel 3 but still has a embedded secure element (eSE) that supports all the global NFC technologies: NFC A-B-F/EMV/FeliCa/MIFARE.
Pixel 3 was step towards global NFC with the Japanese models. The Pixel 3 Global NFC Evolution post examined the possibility of Google creating their own ‘in house’ embedded secure element (eSE) for all NFC transactions technologies implemented on their own Secure Enclave Pixel platform. I was wrong and made some bad assumptions:
Apple was already doing global NFC transactions on the A/S Series Secure Enclave, so Google would try to do the same with their Titan chip.
The Pixel Phone hardware page states: if you purchased your Pixel 4, 3a or 3 phone in Japan, a FeliCa chip is located in the same area as the NFC. The wording suggests a separate FeliCa chip for JP Pixel models but this is not the case.
FeliCa Dude was very considerate of my Pixel global NFC fantasy even though it made no sense at all cost-wise or software-wise having an extra NFC FeliCa chip and multiple eSE just for JP models. He extensively tested a Pixel 3 JP model, a single global NFC NXP PN81B chip was the only answer.
The iFixit teardown confirms that Pixel 4 simply repeats last year’s Pixel 3 strategy of having global NFC hardware but only buying FeliCa transaction keys for JP models. It’s a weird strategy because the whole point of the NXP PN81 and ST54J chips is to provide customers with a convenient off the shelf global NFC package with all the hardware (NFC A-B-F) and software (EMV/FeliCa/MIFARE) ready to go.
The Pixel 4 looks like a great device but the NFC story angle remains a disappointment. As I have said before, the Android equivalent of global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch has yet to appear.
Devices with eSIM functionality and without Mobile FeliCa
Devices without eSIM functionality and without Mobile FeliCa: the carrier-neutered model with a locked bootloader.
Devices without eSIM functionality and with Mobile FeliCa (the G013B/G013D models)
Pixel 4 delivers eSIM and FeliCa together to the Japanese market for the first time and this appears to be a reason behind Google choosing the ST54J that has eSIM + global NFC eSE on a single die. FeliCa Dude does not have a Pixel 4 yet so there is more analysis to do, but the important point is this:
if the Japanese SKUs of the Pixel 4 are indeed based on the ST54J, then there should be no technical reason why such <Mobile FeliCa> functionality can’t be delivered OTA <over the air update> to the ROW <rest of world> SKUs should Google desire to provide that service
It would be nice indeed if Google left the door open for adding Mobile FeliCa later to all non JP Pixel 4 models with a software update, especially for markets like Hong Kong that can use it. Whether Google will actually do that is another matter entirely.
There is something missing in the lineup however: a low cost entry level global NFC iPhone that’s even lower than the price cuts Apple implemented with the 2019 lineup. As Ben Thompson of Stratechery explains in a great post:
That means that this year actually saw three price cuts: •First, the iPhone 11 — this year’s mid-tier model — costs $50 less than the iPhone XR it is replacing. •Second, the iPhone XR’s price is being cut by $150 a year after launch, not $100 as Apple has previously done. •Third, the iPhone 8’s price is also being cut by $150 two years after launch, not $100 as Apple has previously done.
The rumored A12 chip iPhone SE2 may well be pie in the sky, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t market appeal for an inexpensive global NFC iPhone for places like Japan and Hong Kong. Those markets have highly integrated transit networks coupled with highly evolved transit card systems like Suica and Octopus. With both of these on Apple Pay there’s a good opening for a small SE size inexpensive global NFC iPhone, it would do very well.
UPDATE: What’s the best iPhone for Suica? A reader asked for my recommendation of a good Suica use iPhone in the 2019 lineup. I do not recommend iPhone 8. The superior NFC and Suica performance, plus the Express Card with power reserve and background tag reading features of A12 Bionic and later is a huge leap over previous models. These enhanced NFC functions are important for new Apple Pay features yet to come. I think it comes down to a choice between iPhone XR and iPhone 11, and how long you plan to use it in Japan.
It’s also helpful to remember that 2019 is the last lineup of 4G/LTE only iPhone. I think iPhone 11 is better optimized for 4G in the long run as Japanese carriers start to switch over bands to 5G. There is also the much better camera to consider. Last but not least is battery. The power optimization of A13 Bionic is going to deliver much better battery performance over a longer period of time.
It boils down to this: if you plan to use the iPhone for 2 years iPhone XR is a good choice, if you plan to use iPhone for 3~4 years iPhone 11 is the better choice.
That’s a huge incentive to drive transit users from plastic Suica to Mobile Suica. The same JRE POINT rates apply to Green Car Seat purchases. And get this, only Mobile Suica Commuter Plan purchases and renewals are eligible for JRE POINT with 1 JRE POINT per 50 yen of the purchase/renewal. This is a sweet deal if your company sponsors your commuter pass. They give you the money, you get the points. Ugh, now I have to hold off renewing my Apple Pay Suica Commute Plan until October 1 but the points are worth going without my commute plan for a few days. JR East’s big push for Mobile Suica over plastic is remarkable and will become a shove when the next generation ‘Super Suica’ format arrives in April 2021.
Today’s announcement only applies to regular train travel but JR East will be adding a lot more in 2020~2021 as the Super Suica start date approaches: JRE POINT for Touch and Go Shinkansen travel starts with the new JR East eTicket system in April 2020, Round trip fixed travel route coupon-like JRE POINT is due December 2020. And finally, with Super Suica in place, the regular express train/Shinkansen ‘EkiNet‘ ticketing and point system will be rolled into the JRE POINT system. Travelers can then earn and use JRE POINT to purchase regular express train and Shinkansen eTickets and upgrade seats. It will be Apple Pay Super Suica eTicket bliss.