Mobile FeliCa evolution: FeliCa without the FeliCa chip

FeliCa Dude did his usual public service of posting Mobile FeliCa details for the latest Pixel 6 devices. There wasn’t any change from Pixel 5, so no global NFC Pixel for inbound visitors. Nevertheless it’s a good opportunity to review some important recent developments that have taken place behind the scenes on the Android Mobile FeliCa side and examine some possible 2022 scenarios. Things have changed even if most users don’t notice any difference.

The chart outlines Mobile FeliCa on Google Pixel developments based on information from FeliCa Dude’s tweets.

Mobile FeliCa 4.0 (Pixel 4) freed Android device manufacturers from having to use embedded secure element + NFC chips from the FeliCa Networks supply chain. Any FAST certified secure element will do. This development has resulted in a number of inexpensive Osaifu-Keitai SIM-Free smartphones released by Chinese manufacturers recently that are selling well. Hopefully it will have wider implications for inexpensive global NFC Android devices. There are lots of people in Hong Kong who would buy one to use Octopus.

Mobile FeliCa 4.1 (Pixel 5/Pixel 6) introduced multiple secure element domains. This allows the device manufacturer to ‘own’ the eSE and load or delete Java Card applets. FeliCa Dude thinks that multiple secure element domains (MSED) might play a part in the MIC digital My Number Card due to launch on Osaifu Keitai devices in 2022. My Number card uses NFC-B but MSED allows the Mobile FeliCa secure element to host it anyway, an interesting development.

Mobile FeliCa 4.2 or 5.0? The next version of Mobile FeliCa (MF) will hopefully support FeliCa SD2 next generation features that shipped in November 2020, features that power Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit Cards (aka Super Suica) which are going wide in March 2022. These cards really need to be on mobile for future MaaS service plans outlined by JR East which cannot happen until SD2 features are added.

The improvements in MF 4.1 certainly give Android device manufacturers the ability to update MF over the air but don’t hold your breath. Standard industry practice to date has been ‘buy a new device to get new features’. Apple has been a little bit better in this regard: MIFARE support was added in iOS 12 for Student ID cards and iOS 15 fixed some Calypso bugs on ‌iPhone‌ XR/XS and ‌iPhone‌ SE.

A FeliCa Dude Reddit post comment regarding Asus smartphones illustrates the pre-MF 4.0 situation: “any phone that lists ‘NFC’ compliance must support Type F (FeliCa), but as there is no Osaifu-Keitai secure element <aka Mobile FeliCa secure element>, you will be limited to reading and potentially charging physical cards: you cannot use the phone as a card itself.” That was then, this is now.

Most people assume FeliCa support requires a Felica chip but this is not true. The evolution of hardware independent Mobile FeliCa is very clear: the ‘FeliCa chip’ from Sony/FeliCa Networks requirement is long dead and gone. Manufacturers like Xiaomi claim they make special models and add FeliCa chips just for the Japanese market, but that’s just marketing BS: they run Mobile FeliCa on the same NXP NFC chipset they sell everywhere. The majority of smartphones supporting FeliCa don’t have a FeliCa chip, everything from EMV to FeliCa and MIFARE runs on any GlobalPlatform certified secure element on any Android device.

Hopefully the sum of recent Mobile FeliCa developments, along with Garmin Suica, Fitbit Suica and built in WearOS Suica showing up in recent developer builds, indicate that FeliCa Osaifu Keitai services will become standard on Android devices as they have been on all iOS and watchOS devices since 2017.

Only Japan has cute transit card mascots?! Why?

I have been in Japan for so long that I assumed the cute, cleverly effective transit card mascot characters like Suica penguin, PASMO robot, ICOCA duck (er platypus?), etc., are employed by transit companies around the world. They are not. Let’s compare…

TfL Oyster? Not cute.

San Fransisco Clipper? So unoriginal.

Sydney Opal? Ditto.

Hong Kong Octopus? Borrowed mascot better than none?

For goodness sake, if transit companies around the world can’t implement the great technology that makes Suica great, they could at least create cute fun mascot characters that brighten the commuting day and help people feel good about riding transit again. And you do want people to ride transit again after the COVID nightmare right? Cleverly designed mascots with a touch of anime kawai’ are a great marketing tool for that.

Apple Pay Suica • PASMO • Octopus service outages follow the Facebook one

16:00~18:00 October 5, 2021 JST
Apple Pay / iCloud system status updated to ‘outage resolved’ at 16:00 JST. Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO Apple Pay services were also listed as ‘restored’ at 16:00 JST. As Apple Pay Suica and PASMO recharge started working again at 14:00 JST, the service outage was 8 hours total.

15:00 October 5, 2021 JST
Apple Pay Octopus recharge is also not working, this means the problem is an Apple Pay system issue, not caused by Mobile Suica, Mobile PASMO or Mobile Octopus systems. No signs yet if Apple Pay recharge for Clipper, SmarTrip and TAP transit cards is affected as well.

14:15 October 5, 2021 JST
Apple Pay Suica and PASMO recharge are working again for me on iPhone and Apple Watch. No official status updates yet from Mobile Suica, Mobile PASMO and iCloud.

8:00 October 5, 2021 JST
Apple Pay Suica and PASMO services are currently not working for Apple Pay recharge, commuter pass renewal, transfer to other devices, new card issue, and Green Seat upgrades (Suica only). The Apple iCloud system status page shows an Apple Pay outage for adding and removing cards but does not mention Suica or PASMO. Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO recharge on Android Osaifu Keitai and Google Pay Suica are not affected though some Android users report problems with some Mobile Suica services such as Green Seat purchases.

The first report of trouble was 6:00 AM JST, but Apple Pay Suica auto-charge worked normally for me passing through the station gate at 7 AM. If you attempt a Suica or PASMO app recharge you get network connection errors no matter how good your device connection is.

Apple Pay Suica and PASMO recharge is limited to cash recharge at station kiosks and convenience store ATM machines. A major outage took out Facebook services earlier today, Japanese twitter users also report Outlook is not working. Suica and PASMO card use for transit and purchases is not affected.

This post will be updated as service status changes.

Links
Mobile Suica system status
Mobile PASMO system status
iCloud system status

Global NFC FitBit Sense and Versa 3

Who would have thought that team FitBit would beat team Pixel to the market with global NFC devices? That is what happened with the release of FitBit Sense and Versa 3, any device bought in any country can add and use Suica. FitBit Charge 4 was the first device to support Suica but only for certain Japanese models. This means that Android users without global NFC can now add it with FitBit Sense and Versa 3. FitBit was up to the global NFC challenge all along. Going forward FitBit needs to expand Japan payment options to include iD, QUICPay, Waon, Nanaco, Mobile PASMO and NFC Pay.

There is one catch: the device must be registered and the IP address must be in Japan to use Suica. It sounds like Mobile Suica lite is being used. Hopefully the same approach can be employed to launch Octopus on FitBit devices in Hong Kong, there are users there who would appreciate it.

JR East Eki-Net overview: will mobile ticketing go mainstream with new Eki-Net 2.0 reboot?

Waku-waku for the new Eki-Net? JR East wants to make travel ‘waku-waku’ fun and romantic again like the Showa ‘Full Moon’ campaign era when JR Group ticketing was unified.

One unfortunate legacy of the Japanese National Railways (JNR) breakup and privatization in the late 1980’s was a fragmented ticketing system. The JNR paper ticket system worked very well. I was always impressed how you could go to any JNR Green Window ticket office and the all knowing agent would give expect advice and deftly punch up tickets to anywhere, in any configuration, even covering private rail.

The JR Group model fell apart in the internet era with online ticketing services, Suica and compatible Transit IC cards limited to separate JR Group regions. JR Group ticketing for paper, but not for mobile. What got broken doesn’t get put back together easily though it desperately needs to.

Last weekend the 20 year old JR East Eki-Net online ticket reservation system, older than Suica, got the ‘renewal’ overhaul advertised back in March. The main aims are to reintegrate JR Group tickets into one slick consistent UI instead of a swamp of sub-menus, and integrate JRE POINT that replaces the old cumbersome Eki-Net point system. The overhaul also repositions Eki-Net from a limited ‘nice but I’ll stick with paper’ online purchase option to a standard way that JR East wants people to buy all train tickets, both paper and mobile.

While eTickets have been in place since March 2020, Eki-Net 2 is the first serious step towards eliminating legacy mag-strip paper tickets and drastically reduce the number station ticket offices in favor of online mobile ticketing. The first stop for all JR East ticketing is now Eki-Net instead of lining up at a station ticket window.

There are 2 Eki-Net flavors: (1) the full comprehensive Eki-Net Web version optimized for desktop and smartphones offering mobile tickets, paper tickets, car rentals and tour packages like the classic 2nd honeymoon ‘Full Moon’ campaign for retiree couples, (2) Eki-Net App that only offers JR East eTicket and Ticketless mobile options.

The Eki-Net web site covers every ticketing feature, the mobile app is limited to mobile tickets.

What exactly is mobile ticketing?
To understand the aim of Eki-Net it’s important to know the basic ticketing categories:

  • Suica (Transit IC cards) pays the distance based fare using the Stored Fare (SF),
  • eTickets are cloud account Shinkansen ticket bundles that include the end to end distance fare plus the express • seat reservation charge, they are attached to the Suica or Transit IC card via the card number but do not use SF
  • Ticketless is a mixed mode that combines a cloud account express • seat reservation purchase for regular express train seating used in combination with Suica or Transit IC cards for basic fare.
  • Touch and Go is a ticketless Shinkansen option that uses Suica and Transit IC cards for non-reserved seat Shinkansen travel in a pre-determined area, basically the whole JR East network

What’s new in Eki-Net 2?
Suica plays a central role in Eki-Net mobile ticketing. 2021 is also the 20th anniversary of Suica which has evolved beyond its commuter pass origins to encompass eMoney payments, mobile devices, Transit IC mutual compatibility and more.

In recent years Suica has gained another role as an all purpose mobile transit card hosting Shinkansen eTicket from JR East and SmartEX from JR Central. The challenge facing JR East is migrating the vast array of special ticketing and discount fares schemes from paper to mobile. Let’s take a look at the new banner features advertised for Eki-Net 2 and examine how JR East is doing this.

JRE POINT Integration
The integration of JRE POINT is the biggest new feature and illustrates JR East’s intention. The old Eki-Net point system was scrapped, good thing, there is finally point synergy and compatibility between Suica and Eki-Net. If you have any doubts that JR East is serious about mobile ticketing, take a look at the JRE POINT reward schedule:

Earning JRE POINT in Eki-Net, the VIEW PLUS Gold vs Regular 5% difference is obscene

Online paper ticket purchases give you basically zero points if you buy them with anything other than a JR East VIEW credit card, called ‘VIEW PLUS’ service which adds 3% or 8% more JRE POINT per ticket purchase amount depending on the VIEW card for a total of 5% (Regular VIEW) or 10% (Gold VIEW). JRE POINT can also be used for purchasing mobile only eTicket and Ticketless, and upgrading to Green Car and Gran Class seats. The upgrade exchange rate depends on distance and the train type, the new UI shows users all possible JRE POINT seat upgrades during seat selection.

Using JRE POINT in Eki-Net

Improved UI for web and app
Basically the new design dumps the old way of selecting the JR line or train and streamlines everything into a single station point and date entry screen. Seat selection is the advertised UI improvement and it shows: it is much improved on the web side, discount ticket comparisons are easy to see as are JRE POINT seat upgrades.

QR Codes support for group ticket pickup
A nice paper ticket option so that one person can purchase all tickets and send a QR Code for group members to pick up their tickets at the nearest station kiosk. It’s more convenient and replaces the old insert credit card and enter PIN code method for paper ticket pickup.

Eki-Net ticket discounts
Paper tickets have traditionally been the cheaper option. JR East must offer good discount incentives to drive mobile ticketing uptake. Fortunately the new Eki-Net ‘Tokuda-ne’ discounts offer anywhere from 5% off for same day tickets to 50% off for 20 day advance tickets. Discounts combined with JRE POINT are good but we’ll only find out if they drive mobile ticket uptake when regular train travel returns. While these options have closed the discount gap between mobile and paper somewhat, the majority of discount ticketing is still paper only.

JR-EAST Train Reservation
The international flavor of Eki-Net is called JR-EAST Train Reservation. It’s a completely separate web only multi-lingual service that offers regional passes for inbound tourists that can be purchased online before coming to Japan, or at a passport reading station kiosk. JR-EAST Train Reservation passes are different from the paper only Japan Rail Pass in that a growing number of them can be attached to Suica. New features here include: (1) Expanded multi-language support (2) pass purchases after coming to Japan (3) using Suica to attach eTickets. For the later there is a new user guide and How to register your IC card section. You can use Apple Pay Suica • PASMO by registering the card number, get the number using Suica App or PASMO App.

Weak points and summary
The Eki-Net renewal is big, complex and getting mixed reviews from Japanese users. Some love it, others hate it calling it, ‘an improvement for the worse’. The biggest gripe for many is that only up to 4 Express Train • Shinkansen sections are supported for one trip purchase. If you are traveling from Kagoshima to Aomori, forget Eki-Net and go straight to your local station ticket office for paper tickets.

The iOS Eki-Net App remains a nice idea that needs work. It feels like a thin re-skinned version of the mobile web one without offering any obvious benefit, the Face ID•Touch ID login option still useless as you have to manually login once every 24 hours and complete a picture puzzle. And there is no Apple Pay in-app support.

My biggest gripe is the failure of the JR Group to get their mobile ticketing act together. Sure, we have JR Central EX and JR East eTickets, but these are locked in their respective service regions. This is 2021, JR Group ticketing should be cross compatible, streamlined and mobile ready. It doesn’t matter how great JR East makes Eki-Net, users can travel with just Suica on the Tokaido and Tohoku Shinkansen, but they have to buy 2 tickets using 2 different accounts and billing with 2 different ticketing systems. We should be able to travel anywhere on JR Group lines using one account to buy mobile tickets. In todays scenario this isn’t possible. The unfortunate legacy of the JNR breakup lives on.

‘New Eki-Net’ poster at the local JR East station. The overall impression of Eki-Net 2 is that less about going mobile and more about getting customers out of the ticket office to a station kiosk machine instead.

Reference posts
JRE POINT Beginners Guide
Suica App • PASMO App Guide
Apple Pay Suica Shinkansen