The Weekly

2022-05-14 Early Rainy Season

Will Pixel Watch finally deliver global NFC Google Pay?
Ever since Apple made global NFC standard on all iPhone and Apple Watch models in 2017, global NFC has become a litmus test of ultimate Apple-like user friendliness. When inbound devices can add Suica, it’s not only cool, but also necessary to get around. Garmin and Fitbit wearables do the global NFC thing, but Android remains stubbornly ‘buy a Japanese smartphone to do the Suica FeliCa thing.’

In the global NFC sweepstakes then, every Google Pixel release cycle is a game of ‘will they or won’t they’ finally deliver global NFC. Actually Pixel is already global NFC with Mobile FeliCa ready to go, but Google disables it on all non-Japanese Pixel models.

Which brings us to Pixel Watch which got a sneak peek at Google I/O 2022. The buzz on Japanese Twitter was basically: I want one, but not if it does’t have Suica support. Fair enough, I bet a lot of people are thinking that and not only in Japan. After all, Hong Kong users would love having a Pixel Watch that supports Octopus.

The good news is that Suica appears to be coming to Google Pay for Wear OS. Various Suica string have appeared in recent Google Pay APKs. This is expected: it would certainly be very awkward if Pixel Watch doesn’t support Suica when Fitbit devices do.

But this begs a bigger question. Wouldn’t it be extremely awkward if Pixel 7 doesn’t support Suica out of the box when Pixel Watch does? I would say so. But then again one hopes The Android Ready SE Alliance is working to fix all that, and do away with Android HCE nonsense once and for all.


Digital My Number on track for Android 2022 launch, Apple Wallet due in 2023
The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) digital version of My Number Card (Individual Number Card) is on track to launch in 2022 (October-ish?). The latest MIC Work Group PDF document has a full outline of the digital My Number system and the various services the Japanese government plans to link with it. In late 2020 MIC said they were ‘in discussions’ with Apple to bring digital My Number to Wallet and this has not changed. Nikkei reporter Mayumi Hirosawa saw a chance to grab some eyeballs and published, The My Number iPhone Wall, a typical Nikkei ‘article’ of lazy, subjective, puerile observations angled as big bad Apple, but nothing new.

Meanwhile Yasuhiro Koyama’s online article on Keitai Watch is far more interesting and informative. MIC official Takashi Uekariya, the goto My Number digital guy, says the MIC and Apple are ‘working hard’ to bring digital My Number to Apple Pay Wallet, and that because Apple locks down new iOS features far in advance, timing wise it looks like iOS 17 in fall 2023 is the likely target for My Number on Apple Wallet. It would be nice though if Apple could surprise us later on in the iOS 16 release cycle, always good to raise the bar and deliver above expectations.

Looking at the larger picture, MIC documentation clearly states that My Number digital card requires a GlobalPlatform embedded Secure Element (GPSE) device, and that except for a small amount of SIM Free Android junk, most smartphones sold in Japan (both Apple and Android) are GPSE certified. An interesting sidelight is that ‘FeliCa chip’ Osaifu Keitai Android devices will support My Number NFC-B transactions. Going forward that means nobody in Japan will buy a device without a GPSE that doesn’t support My Number digital card and the associated banking services that will link to it. Kiss HCE goodbye.


The JR East paper ticket booklet replacement problem has a solution: Suica 2 in 1 transit points
It might seem like a great idea for JR East to migrate the legacy paper ticket bundle (the good old buy 10 and get one free) to Suica…but there’s this little problem of JRE POINT. Repeat Point Service has the same basic concept, 10 trips on the same route in the same month earn you a free trip in JRE POINT. Unfortunately, setting up a JRE POINT account is a pain in the ass, and getting the points back into Suica balance is a huge pain in the ass. For Mobile Suica there’s JRE POINT app + Suica app + Suica Pocket. For plastic Suica there’s JRE POINT app + a visit to the local station kiosk. It’s way beyond the ability of elderly transit users who just want to save on expenses.

Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards are a much better deal because they have transit points built in. No registration, no setup, just use the transit card and the system does everything for you. Automatically earned points are turned around and automatically used for paying fare. Simple, useful incentive: all one does is use the card for transit and receives a discount in return. This is the way it should be. JR East would be smart if they implemented a similar automatic transit point feature for Tokyo region Suica. JRE POINT is fine for larger more complex integration such shopping and Eki-Net ticket purchase, but integrated, invisible transit points for discounted regular transit would fill a big post-Covid need. I guarantee people would start riding the rails again after the long pandemic pause.

Mobile Suica Lite

With the proliferation of wearables JR East has been busy adding new devices to Mobile Suica. A timeline:

  • 2006: Mobile Suica for Osaifu Keitai
  • 2016: Apple Pay Suica for iPhone and Apple Watch
  • 2018: Google Pay Suica for Android Osaifu Keitai
  • 2020: Garmin Pay Suica, wena 3 Suica
  • 2021: Fitbit Pay Suica

The first hardware standard for Mobile Suica was Osaifu Keitai first on Symbian feature phones in 2006 followed by Android in 2013. This is the basic FeliCa chip in phone approach.

Apple Pay Suica in 2016 brought a new hardware model: a Apple custom embedded secure element (eSE) with licensed Mobile FeliCa for iPhone and Apple Watch. Pixel 3 and later models employ a somewhat similar arrangement using NXP multi-protocol NFC controllers with preinstalled Mobile FeliCa but Osaifu Keitai software is only activated on Japanese Pixel models.

A shortcoming of the Osaifu Keitai standard is that it only works on Osaifu Keitai ready Android smartphones. In 2016 Google released the HCE-F specification for Android 7.0. Japanese tech media at the time assumed HCE-F would become widespread for delivering FeliCa services to low-end Android devices without Osaifu Keitai support but that didn’t happen. As FeliCa Dude points out, “HCE-F is not useful for emulating existing FeliCa cards because the API has been needlessly crippled.” The HCE strategy is questionable and comes with security risks. In the pre-Apple Pay, pre-Google Pay era it seemed like a viable path, but things haven’t panned out in the embedded secure element era of today.

So how does JR East host Gamin Pay Suica, wena 3 Suica and Fitbit Charge 4 Suica wearables without Osaifu Keitai? The answer is what I call Mobile Suica Lite, a prepackaged service that supports some basic Mobile Suica features but has limitations:

  • New digital issue of regular non-registered Suica cards only, no transfer of plastic Suica cards.
  • No transfer of Suica to new devices
  • Deleting Suica from the device comes with a SF balance refund option (¥200 service fee + transfer to a Japanese bank account) but once the card is deleted it is gone forever.
  • No supplemental Suica services
  • Google Pay recharge backend

For wearables in the COVID era with teleworking and less reliance on commuter passes, Mobile Suica Lite is surprisingly useful despite the limitations. If you migrate to a new wearable simply run the SF balance down to zero, delete the old card, then issue a new digital card on the new device.

How exactly is JR East doing this? We know for certain that it is not Osaifu Keitai or HCE-F. My theory is we are witnessing Mobile FeliCa Cloud in action. According to FeliCa Networks Mobile FeliCa Cloud is:

…a service platform that connects NFC FeliCa Devices with Mobile FeliCa services. With Mobile FeliCa Cloud, the seamless provision of Mobile FeliCa services becomes possible regardless of OS or platform for smartphones and wearable devices…

What is a ‘NFC FeliCa’ device exactly? All NFC certified devices must support NFC-A, NFC-B and NFC-F. Any Global Platform certified secure element on a device also supports Mobile FeliCa. I suspect that any manufacturer with NFC and Global Platform certifications can pick Mobile FeliCa Cloud services à la cart from FeliCa Networks: i.e. I’ll have a Mobile Suica lite with a side order of Rakuten Edy but hold the iD.

Mobile FeliCa Cloud doesn’t come with all the Osaifu Keitai bells and whistles, but it also streamlines and eliminates Osaifu Keitai support headaches with prepackaged services. A Mobile FeliCa lite option for lite wearables…I hope we see more of it on more devices with more services.

The Ides of October

Yesterday, October 1, was the 15th day of the month by the lunar calendar. October is always a rush season of product announcements but the news cycle this year has been…well crazy doesn’t even begin to describe it. Part of the problem is COVID driven online announcement events. These were new and sorta cool 3 months ago but have degraded into slapdash scheduled info dumps.

It’s been especially brutal in Japan this week with the Docomo Account/Yucho Bank security crisis and NTT Docomo buyout stories soaking up all the media attention. On the ides of October we had Pixel 5, Wena 3 smartwatch, Apple Pay PASMO announcements, and the Tokyo Stock Exchange outage. Japanese IT journalists holed up at home or tiny APA HOTEL rooms are overwhelmed trying to keep up.

The Wena 3 announcement got a little lost in the shuffle but had some interesting e-payment developments: Suica, iD and QUICPay joined Rakuten Edy which has been on Wena for some time. It’s weird that Sony has taken this long to add, more or less, full FeliCa support in their home market.

Most of the online buzz was centered on Wena 3 Suica support which follows the Garmin Pay Suica launch in May. Wena 3 Suica shares the same Google Pay recharge backend that Garmin does, I suspect Wena 3 and Garmin both use Mobile FeliCa Cloud. The same Garmin restrictions also apply: no plastic card transfers, no Suica commuter passes, no auto-charge, no Green Seat upgrades.

That said I think many users will enjoy using Suica, iD and QUICPay wrapped in the strikingly designed Wena 3 lineup. My only regret is I don’t have one to tryout.