A great reality check

I was pleasantly surprised to find some hits coming from a website called limitless possibility, followed the link and discovered a great podcast by Luc-Olivier Dumais-Blais and Yanik Magnan on Japanese transit IC cards, Suica 2 in 1, the new features of FeliCa Standard SD2, Ultra Wideband Touchless and more…things I’ve been writing about for a while that never get any traffic.

Yanik does a much better job of summarizing the transit technology landscape than my messy collection of posts. I wholeheartedly agree that UWB Touchless is the perfect opportunity for Japanese Transit IC members to put aside political differences and merge, or at least ‘harmonize’ their data formats for a real all in one Super Suica. We shall see. There are things coming down the pike such as multi-secure element domain/multi-protocol Mobile FeliCa that might have transit implications. And I thank Yanik for his constructive criticism of my ‘Super Suica’ coverage. It’s very helpful and rare that anybody takes the time these days.

Extra bonus: their discussion of the Japan QR Code payment mess and a sendup of PayPay ‘gamification’ campaigns using the Canadian Tim Hortons roll up the rim thing is hilarious and spot on.

Japan Cashless 2021: the Wireless Android NFC Reader Suck Index

You too can have the whole transaction world in your hands with the Android based Square Terminal for just ¥46,980

Now that contactless is everywhere, wireless contactless readers have become very fashionable and popular. Nobody wants wires or checkout lines. All of these systems are built around an Android based reading device connected to the internet payment service via Bluetooth, WiFi or 4G with a main terminal, an iPad or a laptop running payment network software. Convenient though they may be, compared with hard wired NFC reader performance they all suck with different levels of suckiness:

  1. stera: this lovely little ‘NFC antenna under the screen’ piece of shit from SMBC, GMO and Visa Japan is so slow that checkout staff put their hand over the stera screen/reader to keep customers waiting until the device is ready to go. This is followed by the instruction ‘don’t move your device until the reader beeps.’ It’s a 2~4 second wait until it beeps. This is 2014 era ‘you’re holding it wrong’ garbage nonsense. I teased one store manager about the hard wired JREM FeliCa readers that were swapped out with stera, “Those were too fast,” he said. Too fast?!
  2. PAYGATE: Another payment provider associated with GMO, slightly faster than stera but still slow, PAYGATE does’t like Apple Pay Suica•PASMO Express Transit very much. Have of the time it ignores it altogether forcing customers into the 2016 era ‘manually bring up Apple Pay Suica’ authenticate and pay maneuver. Another ‘you’re holding/doing it wrong,’ when the fault is on the checkout system side. Passé and totally unnecessary.
  3. AirPay: It’s weird that the cheap AirPay hardware performs better than PAYGATE or stera, it’s even weirder that AirPay performs better than Rakuten Pay which uses the very same reader but is stera shitshow slow.
  4. Square Terminal has gotten lots of media attention in Japan. Too early to experience it in the field yet but I’m not hopeful. Square Terminal is Android based after all and the NCF antenna under the screen design is the worst performing reader design out there. As one Brazilian reader wrote: “I just don’t like the ones running Android because at least here the software is less reliable and I managed to crash a few one by just taping my phone.”

Yep, that observation matches my experience. Payment network providers need better Android readers, the current crop is too slow getting the payment transaction ready to tap. In this era of endless subcontractor layers in the development process, creating a fast reliable Android based NFC wireless reader might be a tall order, if not impossible. The all over the place wireless NFC reader experience certainly doesn’t boast well for open loop advocates.

UPDATE
I ran across another crappy reader experience (above) and retweeted it. A reader had some questions about it, answered here by an anonymous expert. It basically comes down to poorly executed reader polling or not following Sony polling recommendations for FeliCa cards. This is what is happening in the above retweet. It is also what is going on with PAYGATE Station readers, half of the time the proper code hasn’t loaded correctly although this issue seems to be fixed in new PAYGATE Station checkout installations. Which brings us to the point I was trying to make: these performance issues can be fixed with reader firmware updates or transaction system software updates, but never are.

Wildcard polling involves the reader making a request for system code 0xFFFF and expecting the card/device to list all the system codes that it supports. Wildcard polling won’t work on an Apple Pay device in Express Transit mode – instead, the system code must be explicitly polled for (0x0003 for CJRC, 0x8008 for Octopus). You can cause Suica/Octopus to be automatically selected by sending SENSF_REQ (Polling command, 06) for those services explicitly.

I have verified that doing so with Apple Pay will cause the emulated card to be switched out as appropriate – the IDm value will also change, since Apple Pay emulates each card separately, instead of with a common IDm as with Osaifu Keitai. If you read the Sony documentation, you will see that developers are cautioned to also poll for the specific service codes they want to access if there’s no response to a wildcard poll.

Perhaps your reader doesn’t do this, but it’s fairly big omission…it should be doing explicit polling. Simply polling for service code 0x0003 should wake up Suica if selected as an Express Transit candidate, even if you don’t send any other commands. I’ve verified this with an RC-S380 reader and NFCPay.

QR Code Transit on Hong Kong MTR starts January 23 (Updated)

After a very long preparation period QR Code transit on Hong Kong MTR finally starts on Saturday, January 23. The MTR Fan FaceBook page:

Only TWO WEEKS left before the launch of QR code payment on 23 January! For this new service, we have installed about 1,000 QR code scanners at stations and conducted a series of system and on-site tests. Prominent purple signage will also be on display to help passengers identify the gates providing the new service.

This is the debut of MTR ‘open-loop’ ticketing. Up until now MTR used the ubiquitous Octopus card, the trail blazing transit card that showed the world what smartcard ticketing can do when extended beyond transit to include eMoney payments, transforming a transit card into a transit payment platform. Unlike Japan however Octopus Card Limited (OCL) was late bringing Octopus to mobile. Part of the problem was that Hong Kong mobile carriers never had an Osaifu Keitai-like standard that bridged the Symbian and Android hardware eras. OCL also wasted time with SIM card mobile support before finally launching the mobile Smart Octopus service first on Samsung Pay in late 2018, followed by Apple Pay Octopus in June 2020 and Huawei Pay Octopus in December 2020.

But MTR still faces a problem that most Android devices don’t support FeliCa even though NFC-F is supported across all NFC capable devices. It’s the global NFC dilemma best illustrated in the Google Pay on Google Pixel situation: Mobile FeliCa is installed on all Pixel devices but Google only turns it on for Pixel models sold in Japan. There are many takes on the reasons why. My take is that Google doesn’t want to do the all the global NFC OS level support work that benefits all Android manufacturers. Google’s stance is, ‘don’t ask us, roll your own embedded Secure Element (eSE) solution.’ And so it’s a race of how many ‘Octopus on XX Pay’ digital wallet platforms OCL can line up for Android and wearables.

For MTR, QR Code open loop transit sidesteps this Android hardware mess, but will it be a success when users have to open a smartphone app with a face mask on at every gate? Apple Pay Octopus on Apple Watch sure beats that problem and then some. Long term I think NFC wearables and UWB Touchless will be the QR killer. Time will tell.

AliPay HK is the first payment provider, others QR players will be added as they are qualified. The transit gate layout is interesting, QR is limited to purple colored gate lanes shown in a nifty MTR video. This is similar to what JR East will do when they phase out mag strip paper ticketing and replace it QR Code paper tickets. It’s also the layout that Nankai will do when they implement VISA Touch after testing it this year.

The next MTR open loop addition is expected to be EMV+PBOC China T-Union compatibility though MTR has not announced when that will happen. OCL already committed to a new Octopus card that will be compatible with China T-Union.

UPDATE

AliPay mainland accounts can also be used for Hong Kong MTR QR transit.

Starbucks officially adds Suica contactless payments…finally

Apple Pay Suica/PASMO finally joined the official Starbucks payment lineup, something that many people have wanted for a long time. Nothing beats Apple Pay Suica Express Transit for grabbing coffee on the run.

I knew something was coming when Panasonic JT-R600 all-in-one readers appeared in Starbucks stores starting last summer. Initially these were for EMV chip cards and came with ‘please don’t forget to remove your card’ reminder stickers. EMV contactless is missing though I suspect it will come at some point. Other FeliCa contactless payments such as iD, QUICPay, Waon, nanaco, and Edy are also missing. Line Pay QR is accepted at some store locations but remains limited for now.

Suica/PASMO (and other eMoney like Waon) has been accepted for years at Starbucks locations in stations and malls where tenants integrate payment+reward point systems provided by the landlord. Suica/PASMO support is not native however and bolted onto the Starbucks checkout system. For JR East station area locations tied into the JRE POINT system this means double entry Suica payments: once for the Starbucks checkout and once more for the Suica/JRE POINT payment reader. This will remain in place until JR East and other retail landlords (PAMSO, etc.) come up with a better system for integrating JRE POINT (etc.) with Starbucks’ native Suica support. The big takeaway is that Suica/Transit IC is officially supported and earmarked for all locations.

Contactless payments are a welcome step forward but I wish Starbucks integrated their own reward points via NFC VAS instead of barcode in Starbucks app nonsense. That way I could get JRE POINT and Starbucks point with a single Apple Watch Suica tap at JR East station Starbucks locations without the hassle of iPhone Face ID with face mask. And while we’re on the subject of NFC VAS reward point cards…JR East hurry up with that JRE POINT card for Apple Wallet please.

UPDATE
Starbucks is running a ¥100 One More Coffee refill campaign with Suica/Transit IC purchase from January 13~June 30, a ¥50 discount. A good reason to kiss the iOS Starbucks App barcode thing goodbye for the duration and use Apple Pay Suica/PASMO Express Transit instead.

2021 Outlook: Apple Pay Code Payments and Multi-Payment Wallet Cards

A happy new year to everybody. When reading Junya Suzuki’s year end Apple Pay and contactless history in Japan article, I was irritated by its ‘rah rah for open loop’ ending that seemed to conclude EMV isn’t very slow and tap speed differences don’t really matter. After reading followup tweets with other IT journalists I realized that wasn’t his point at all. What Suzuki san was really saying was the total transit gate experience counts more than any particular technology package (MIFARE, FeliCa, EMV Open Loop, etc.).

Steve Jobs said the same thing about technology and products in the famous, “you have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology,” 1997 WWDC video. In other words, the whole (the product) has to be larger than sum of the parts (the technology pieces that make up the product) to be a success. It’s all about how they integrate as a product into the larger whole ‘vision’ thing. JR East transit gates are great because the total experience is greater than sum of FeliCa, Suica, JREM reader and gate design technology parts added together.

When it comes to payments however it’s not just about technology, it’s also the raw power plays going on behind the scenes. In the same article Suzuki san nonchalantly mentions that NTT Docomo dCard, which SMBC has issued and operated since the very beginning but in open warfare with Docomo these past few years, is dumping SMBC for UC Card group (Mizuho) this year.

There is also constant pressure to eliminate Japanese FeliCa contactless payment networks in favor EMV using the old bait and switch tactic of promoting a proprietary industry standard when the real end game is eliminating local competitors. These are issues that few journalists bother to analyze deeply and also what got Jack Ma in trouble when he blasted the Basel Accords, the traditional banking system, as an exclusive old men’s club that stifles innovation.

Power games in the world’s greatest free-for-all payments market
I’ve said this many times but one of the great things about Japan many western journalists completely miss, is that Japan is the world best guinea pig test market. Especially useful for observing new payment trends at work. The market is a perfect not too big not too small size, super cohesive, and it has a long history of Osaifu Keitai mobile payments with a wide foundation of payment technologies encompassing FeliCa, EMV and QR. And there is lots of money sitting in bank accounts. This unique mix affords the careful observer a virtual front seat on the power games playing out right now after the introduction of QR based payment services like Line Pay, PayPay and dBarai (dPay).

When Docomo unveiled their dBarai app service it confused many users. What was the point of using code payments when Docomo already had dCard and the whole Mobile FeliCa iD network in place for promoting contactless payments? But it wasn’t long before Docomo linked the 2 payment services together. dBarai users can pay using 3 different backend payment choices: direct dCard billing, monthly Docomo billing, a rechargeable stored value dBarai account with cash recharge options via ATM or linked bank account.

From the user point of view it doesn’t matter when they pay with a Docomo code payment app tied and charged to their dCard on the backend, it’s the same monthly bill. But to Docomo it is very different: instead of using the iD or SMBC VISA/MC payment network on the front end, it’s the Docomo dBarai payment network. I suspect Docomo pays less of a transaction cut to the bank because they have the cash flow to assume some of the risk that banks usually assume in establied credit card network transactions. Docomo likely also leverages the daily transaction float. In short the AliPay model. The next logical step for Docomo dBarai will be P2P payments that leverage Docomo’s Mercari connection.

The value of code payments in dBarai isn’t the technology, it’s a expedient tool that Docomo leverages to circumvent the limitations and fee structure of banks and card networks to create their own flexible payment network. This wiggle room is the essential margin that drives QR Code payment empire cashbacks, point giveaways and new services. This is the epicenter of the cashless payment turf wars that pits new mobile payment players against established card and bank networks. And Apple is about to dump delicious chunk bait into this shark tank.

The Toyota Wallet multi-payment model
In the Apple Pay 2020 wrap-up I mentioned Toyota Wallet as the most important trend: a Wallet app that lets users pay with a QR code or with NFC via an instant issue prepaid Apple Pay Wallet card. The Toyota Wallet iD/Mastercard has 2 Apple Pay device account numbers, one for the iD payment network and one for the Mastercard payment network. This is common for most Japanese issue payment cards on Apple Pay but it is less about NFC protocols (FeliCa, EMV) and all about dual payment network support in a single payment card. And it is not limited to Japan. In Australia there are dual payment Apple Pay cards that support both Mastercard and EFTPOS payment networks in a single card.

With Apple Pay Code Payments on the way, possibly with iOS 14.4, we have another option for multi-payment network cards: code payment and NFC payment. Apple Pay Code Payments are thought of as being only for AliPay and WeChat Pay support in China, but they are much more than that.

Apple Pay Code Payments gives mobile payment players the ability to move QR/barcode payments from an outside app and integrate them directly into an Apple Pay Wallet card. In the Toyota Wallet example below, Toyota could simply add another device account number for the QR Code payment network:

This might seem trivial but it’s important to remember some key differences of Wallet payment cards:

  • Direct side button Wallet activation with automatic Face/Touch ID authentication and payment at the reader.
  • Device payment transactions handled by the eSE without a network connection.
  • Ability to set a default main card for Apple Pay use.

If Apple Pay Code Payments are equal with Apple Pay NFC payments, and by all indications from beta screen shots they are and use the same ‘card’ UI metaphor, I think we are in for another wave of Apple Pay market disruption. Instead of NFC vs QR Codes, or Apple Pay/Google Pay vs apps, all of it just red herring fake debate, we can focus on what’s real: the payment network turf wars.

In the Japan market Line Pay, PayPay, dBarai, Rakuten and all other new players will have the tools to create better services tightly integrated in a Apple Pay Wallet card. Docomo for example could incorporate dBarai into dCard with an additional device account number. Mix and match payment networking in one card.

In the payment network world where market share is all, card networks have held too much power for too long, exactly what Jack Ma was complaining about. I see competition as a good thing that encourages innovation and choice, mobile payments are doing that.

Looping back to the open loop beginning of this piece I think it makes sense now to realign the debate points away from focusing on technology (EMV vs FeliCa, NFC vs QR, etc.), i.e. things that can change and evolve, and focus on payment network turf wars, i.e. things that are hard to change until you see the battles lines clearly enough to create a better strategy and get where you want to go.

In the public transit arena it always comes down to this. Moving people quickly and safely by transit, managed wisely, is licensed cash flow from the fare gates. A transit company can keep control of that license to build something of greater long term value for the users and businesses of the transit card region, which can cover the nation. A transit company can give control away to someone else and let them take their cut, but just like Jack Ma pointed out before he disappeared, will there be innovation when going all in with traditional card and bank payment networks?

I still say a transit platform, especially in the mobile era of chaotic opportunity, is the best approach if a company wants to achieve the former: a system where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Start with the best customer experience you want to deliver and work backwards to the technology.