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.

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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.

Origami Pay folds into merpay

The overheated Japanese payments market kicked into consolidation mode with the Line Pay Pay Pay merger announcement last November. The next consolidation was announced today with the Origami Pay startup folding into the the merpay startup. The deal is expected to close by February 25. Now that a market shakeup is in full swing I think we can expect mergers for other smaller players like kyash before the Tokyo Olympics.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of the merger of the QR Code Origami and NFC Apple Pay merpay. Perhaps we might end up with a flexible frontend solution like the recently released Toyota Wallet which combines both approaches. And it seems that the arrival of Toyota Wallet was a big factor that pushed the market into the consolidation cycle we are now witnessing. I just hope the backend is flexible too and not chained to a single banking empire. We shall see.

Suica joins Coke ON IC, is it worth it?

Coke ON is one more point gimmick app that offers a free beverage for points, bottle top ‘stamps’, earned with purchases via FeliCa/Coke ON IC (Transit IC, Rakuten, nanaco, PiTaPa, WAON), credit cards and QR (LinePay, PayPay aka Line PayPayPay) linked via Coke ON. Up until now Suica was excluded from earning stamps but will join the other Coke ON IC cards starting January 14.

The Coke ON app is not particularly user friendly. It wants your data, your location and your Bluetooth to connect to Bluetooth enabled Coke vending machines. And it seems overly aggressive, at least according to a very long Twitter thread. I’m not sure what exactly the issue is for the user but it seems related to location services and suspect card reads.

Japanese users have complained about Apple Pay Suica location based transaction notification details since the default feature appeared with the iOS 12.2 Suica make over. I have no problems using Apple Pay Suica on iPhone 11 Pro to buy drinks without Coke ON. The problem described in the tweet thread could be a Coke ON incompatibility with Mobile Suica despite Suica compatibility listed on the vending machine side. Hopefully this is fixed for the Coke ON Suica debut, however I don’t plan on giving away my iPhone data to collect Coke ON app bottle top stamps.

2019 Tidbits

The end of the year season is down for the count. Barring any news items like Apple Pay Octopus really launching this year, this is probably my last news post for 2019. Not news really, just tidbits.

Lingnan Pass and ShenZhen transit cards coming to Apple Pay in 2020
This piece of news came from Twitter users noting that the Lingnan Pass will come to Apple Pay in 2020. The Lingnan Pass and ShenZhen Transit pages show announcements released today (December 11), a machine translation roughly says Apple Pay support is coming soon. China has had the PBOC 2.0~3.0 contactless standard and T-Union transit card architecture in place for some time, with local transit cards slowly being updated to the new format. Beijing and Shanghai transit cards arrived on Apple Pay with iOS 11.3. Additional China transit cards were tested in an early developer preview of iOS 11.4 but dropped before the developer beta. Beijing/Shanghai transit cards were labeled beta up until iOS 12.2. Apple Pay Lingnan Pass and ShenZhen Transit will likely follow the Beijing/Shanghai transit card model with bank card recharge limited to China Union Pay (Interesting side note: Octopus and Lingnan Pass have a dual mode transit card). If Tim Cook does visit Hong Kong and China on his trip, things might shape up to be an excellent Apple Pay transit card year end Asian adventure.

Tim Cook’s Excellent Asian Transit Adventure?
The Tim arrived unannounced in Tokyo a few days ago, his first public appearance here since September 2016 and the first public demo of Apple Pay Suica just before the service launch. With Tim’s arrival in Tokyo I noticed an odd uptick in views from Hong Kong. When Tim landed in Singapore, Hong Kong views ticked up again. Obviously Hong Kong iPhone users are hoping that Tim will visit Hong Kong and launch the long delayed Apple Pay Octopus. I hope so too. Update: Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit information is available to China mainland users after a long absence.

12/19 UPDATE: Apple Pay Octopus has been delayed to later in 2020.

1/8 UPDATE: Apple announces new transit cards for China but not Octopus

Apple Pay Ventra
This was promised as ‘coming later this year’ back in May. As of December 10 Ventra Twitter support is still promising users to “stay tuned.” Let’s hope Cubic is working overtime to make it happen. Update: Ventra has changed the Apple Pay Ventra blurb from ‘coming later this year’ to ‘coming soon,’ we’ll see Apple Pay Ventra in 2020.

JP POST going Cashless
This was announced some time ago but is worth repeating: Japan Post is going cashless starting February 2020 in select central post offices, rolling out to all branches by May 2020. Your favorite plastic credit cards, eMoney cards (iD, QUICPay, Suica, etc.) and QR Codes (The PayPayPay crowd) can be used to pay for postage, sending packages, stamps, postcards, catalog items, etc. It would be nice if cashless payments improve post office lines and wait times, but I guarantee that’s not going to happen.