Dear Jane, we fucked up, sincerely MTA

The piecemeal MTA OMNY rollout is a lesson how not to do a transition from old system to new system. A case where poor design, poor management choices and unanticipated user interaction, each insignificant in isolation, snowball into a nagging long term problem.

The problem goes like this:

(1) Apple Pay Express Transit is opted in by default and iPhone users don’t always know it’s on. They don’t care about using Apple Pay credit cards on OMNY anyway because fare options are limited and OMNY isn’t installed everywhere and won’t be until at least the end of next year. They use good old MetroCard and put iPhone away in the right pocket or purse carried on the right shoulder.

(2) When the user gets to a OMNY fare gate they swipe MetroCard with its peculiar forward swipe motion on the reader which is located above and behind the OMNY NFC reader, which is positioned low and angled at pocket level. As “MetroCard sucks, it may take several (forward) swipes to enter”, the user leans into the gate while doing this and boom: OMNY reader activates iPhone Express Transit and charges fare without the user knowing it.

Default opt in Express Transit has been with us ever since Apple Pay Suica arrived in 2016. But transit cards are not credit cards and everything was fine. Things got sticky when iOS 12.3 introduced EMV Express Transit that uses bank issued credit/debit/prepaid cards for transit on Apple certified open loop systems. Currently these are Portland HOP, NYC OMNY and London TfL.

HOP and TfL don’t have problems with Express Transit. Both systems use contactless exclusively. HOP has stand alone validators, not gates. TfL gates have the NFC reader located on the top. OMNY on the other hand will have MetroCard swipe cards around for years to come: the OMNY transit card replacement is still in development with no release date. With the slow transition pace and current gate design expect the OMNY Express Transit problem to be around until MetroCard is dead, and OMNY is complete with the new tap only card.

In retrospect MTA should have done it this way: (1) rollout out the OMNY card MetroCard replacement first and add open loop support as the very last thing, (2) design better OMNY gates in two kinds, dual mode NFC + swipe, and single mode NFC only. This way MTA stations could do what JR East stations do: start with single mode tap only express gates on the edges and dual mode gates in the middle. As the transition progresses the dual mode gates get fewer and pushed to the sides with single mode gates taking over.

Apple could help by keeping automatic Express Transit opt in only for native transit cards (Suica, SmarTrip etc.). EMV Express Transit should always be a manual opt in. I understand Apple’s perspective: they want to present Apple Pay Express Transit as a seamless one flavor service, not good/better/best Express Transit flavors. The reality however is that the current technology powering EMV open loop fare systems isn’t up to native transit card standards. Apple can’t fix that.

Unfortunately MTA has taken the dumb path of blaming Apple instead of fixing their own problems. New York deserves a world class modern transit system, OMNY is an important step in building one. MTA management performance so far doesn’t inspire much confidence. Let’s hope they focus on the rollout and deliver it without more delays or problems.


Are Google Pixel 5 and Fitbit up to the Global NFC Challenge?

It’s that time of year again to think about FeliCa support on the Google Pixel platform as Pixel 5 approaches. Ever since Pixel 3 things have been the stuck in a rut: the same global NFC (A-B-F) chip is used in all models but only FeliCa keys for card emulation are installed on Japanese models, i.e., no Suica for you if you don’t have one of those.

I used to think that Google was going cheap instead of deep. Google is cheap here actually, and lazy, but there are some other reasons. It goes back to the problem many people had with Google Pay Japan FeliCa support to begin with: it’s only a UI candy coating on top of the aging Osaifu Keitai stack and apps. Instead of doing a true top to bottom Google Pay global NFC solution like Apple did, Google Pay Japan FeliCa support is just surfing on the Osaifu Keitai board. And of course the Android Pay HCE-F thing is long since dead, it’s eSE or nothing now.

The real problem is this: Osaifu Keitai is a domestic platform, Osaifu Keitai apps (Suica, etc.) are domestic apps. The various Osaifu Keitai partners and developers don’t want to deal with the extra expense of multi-lingual localization and support. But neither does Google, hence the logjam.

Google’s recent purchase of Fitbit might be the agent of change that finally breaks the jam. The Osaifu Keitai model doesn’t extend to wearables. Google Pay has to come up with something new to replace Fitbit Pay, something that works across paired devices seamlessly if Google Pay Suica is to exist on a Fitbit smartwatch paired with Pixel.

There is something new this time around that didn’t exist, or at least didn’t exist as a developer product back in 2018: Mobile FeliCa Platform and Mobile FeliCa Cloud for supporting all kinds of Mobile FeliCa services worldwide. I’m sure this arrangement got Suica on Garmin Pay.

Taken together I think there is a better chance Google will go deep instead of cheap, hopefully sooner than later. Google Pay Suica and Google Pay PASMO on Pixel and Fitbit devices from anywhere would be a very welcome development.

Smells like Super Suica: Sony unveils next generation FeliCa

Sony announced the next generation FeliCa chip on September 8. Next generation FeliCa was mentioned in the September 2018 next generation Suica, aka Super Suica, press release. This is the first glimpse into some of the new FeliCa features that Super Suica will use. The Japanese and English press released highlight different feature sets. A basic rundown:

  • Additional Security Options: state of the art encryption, integrity protection option for ‘cost-balanced system solution use cases where higher priority is given to high-speed transactions while meeting the required security needs’. The new chip also complies with Public Transportation IC Card Protection Profile (PTPP).
  • Extended Overlap Service: different service providers can share additional services, while making the most of existing systems.
  • Value-Limited Purse Service: purse data can be set as a negative numerical value, and enables “Upper Limit Value” and “Lower Limit Value” to be specified.
  • FeliCa Secure ID: on the surface this cloud based service sounds exactly like the digital car key feature Sony and NTT Docomo demoed at the Docomo Open House back in January and exactly like Apple Pay Car Key sharing. Dare I say there seems to be more web service functionality that might relate to the NFC Tag Maas Suica hinted at by AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara.

The new hardware chip is NFC Forum Type 3 Tag compliant and works with NFC Forum certified devices.

As I explained previously, one big aim of Super Suica is sharing resources and services to reduce costs. Right off the bat Extended Overlap Service looks exactly what Super Suica wants to do: host other transit company commuter passes and reward points. The new FeliCa Japanese press release graph illustrates this, it almost looks like dual mode services in a single mode card. I think Super Suica is going to leverage the shit out of it.

Another interesting feature is the Value-Limited Purse Service. Super Suica will certainly get a stored value purse upgrade from the current ¥20,000 limit. I’m curious to find out if next generation Suica uses the new feature for additional stored value services.

One big question is when does FeliCa Networks upgrade Mobile FeliCa with all these new features and when do licensed developers get the goods. Sony and NTT Docomo already demoed Android Osaifu Keitai smartphones using FeliCa Secure ID and digital car keys with Ultra Wideband ‘Touchless’ in January. I think it’s safe to assume licensees get new FeliCa chips and upgraded Mobile FeliCa at the same time.

This is just a cursory overview. I have fingers crossed that FeliCa Dude will post something to Reddit that will delight and enlighten us when he has the time. In the meantime we have Apple Pay PASMO coming down the pike very soon in what I hope is a preview of more to come in 2021.

Public tests for new JR East Suica/QR combo transit gate (Updated)

The new JR East Suica/QR gate design was unveiled back in December along with the new Takanawa Gateway station details. Test gate installations have been in service at Takanawa Gateway and JR Shinjuku New South exit these past few months but only for Suica and the QR reader covered up. If you have your heart set on trying one out, go to Takanawa Gateway where JR East officials will take the cover off the QR reader from September 15~29 (except for 9/24~27) for public tests.

QR will eventually replace mag strip paper tickets which are increasing expensive to recycle, and the new gates will gradually replace those ingenious paper ticket/Suica combo transit gates made by Omron. I have tried the new gate in Shinjuku and all I can say is…I’m glad I wear my Apple Watch / Apple Pay Suica on the right.

No moving parts is boring…but cheaper than intricate mag strip reading mechanisms

UPDATE: Conflicted Impressions
Junya Suzuki has posted a deeper dive into the QR reader design on the new JR East gates with his usual fascinating analysis. Suzuki san is very big on the evolution of Suica away from local processing to a centrally processed unique ID model that does away with stored fare.

His IT background experience really shines through as he makes a convincing argument that a centralized unique Suica ID approach greatly simplifies the IT system by reducing hot-list/off-list refreshes that have to be coordinated between local and central systems.

We’ll have to see how things pan out with next generation FeliCa and next generation ‘Super Suica’ in 2021. There will be a definite focus on cloud + local, but I have doubts that Suzuki san’s centralized everything vision is always the best approach.

Perhaps I am missing something in his analysis, but I think there’s a happy medium that leverages the strengths of both for a robust innovative transit fare payment system as the centerpiece of the transit business platform.

Here’s a recap of his observations and reader feedback:

Separate QR reader placement
In Suzuki san’s piece JR East tech leads explain that widely separate NFC and QR readers work much better than an all-in-one approach. NFC always reacts faster than QR and this creates problems with the all-in-one reader and smartphones when fast, clean, precise read times are required. The gate QR sensor is made by DENSO. If you have ever used a poky DENSO POS QR+NFC reader at store checkout, you can relate.

Security Invisible Ink
As FeliCa Dude points out, JR East is likely using IR transparent ink to create unique ID codes for security. Apparently this is already used for Okinawa Monorail Okica QR paper tickets.

Poor Walk Flow
One of the great things about the mag strip paper ticket gates is they pull the ticket into the machine and spit it out at the other end of the gate. This is clever guided incentive to keep walking to pick up the ticket. With QR code transit gates people stop and wait for the reader to do something. Another nice thing about mag ticket machines is they eat the used tickets. The QR paper ticket downside not mentioned by JR East or the media: where do people put their used tickets for paper recycle? Who and what collects them, a bin?

When your iPhone X NFC stops working

A while ago Apple Pay just stopped working on my iPhone X. My phone simply hasn’t been detected by any NFC readers I’ve tried. At this point I finally have some spare income and would like to invest in fixing it. I don’t particularly care how involved it is, but I just can’t find any information on where the actual NFC antenna is and if it has the same lock that the face ID sensors do. I’m sorry if I’m just missing some fairly obvious information here. I would just like to be able to use Apple Pay again.

Reddit post

The Express Transit user base has greatly expanded in the US with the rollout of Apple Pay SmarTrip and Apple Pay TAP. Some iPhone X users will invariably discover they have problems using Express Transit and consider getting it repaired. iPhone X AppleCare is expired for most people at this point, getting iPhone X NFC repaired isn’t cheap or easy.

I ran across a Reddit post asking about the self repair challenge. The iPhone X has a unique volume button / NFC antenna cable design that I suspect is the culprit behind the infamous long running iPhone X NFC problem. Some repair forums report that the volume button / NFC antenna cable is serialized and simply replacement may not work.

I’ll cut to the chase: unless you love spending time and money repairing your iPhone, I strongly urge you get a replacement from Apple if you can, or better yet upgrade to iPhone SE. Touch ID is much better than Face ID when navigating the outside world wearing a face mask, and you get A13 Express Transit power reserve and background NFC tag reading that’s gonna work great with iOS 14 App Clips.