The Contactless Payment Turf Wars: why Oyster is missing from mobile

Open Loop EMV
It is very strange that the TfL Oyster card, which completely transformed London area transit still isn’t hosted natively on Apple Pay or Google Pay. Other MIFARE based cards are hosted on both digital wallet platforms and TfL has an Oyster app for account management and online recharge (top-ups). From a technical standpoint there doesn’t seem to be any particular problem preventing them. Perhaps it is a political thing.

TfL decided in 2011 to put their resources into the emerging EMV contactless standard. The reason was simple:

The current Oyster system, though very popular, is expensive and complex to administer. Contactless bank cards use existing technology, responsibility for issuing cards would lie with the banks rather than TfL, and the operating costs should be lower.

That is politician think, not business think: everything is a budget problem, not a business opportunity that needs investment, reduce costs by letting someone else pick up the tab but let them take their cut first. I wonder if TfL publishes how much they pay out in transaction processing fees to banks and Cubic? Perhaps not. Meanwhile budget pressures are not letting up as Londonist notes:

In 2017 there was a push to nudge people away from their Oyster cards and towards contactless. One announcement rang out all over London’s tube stations: Why not use your contactless bank card today? Never top up again, and it’s the same fare as Oyster.

The die was cast in 2014 and probably won’t change. Instead of putting resources into hosting Oyster on Apple Pay or Google Pay, TfL and Cubic already have a mobile solution which is ‘open loop’ ticketing with EMV contactless bank cards. Open loop does not address the finer issues of different fare schedules (children, seniors, etc.), commuter passes, season tickets, nationwide transit interoperability, regional promotion, nor does it offer the business advantages of a transit payment platform, Express Cards with power reserve or any kind of future vision. That’s the end of the open loop story because EMV contactless is a very dumb smart card.

It’s a shame really because TfL loves to say they generate the most transactions in all of Europe. To me that’s a gold mine to build an empire, budget problems solved. Unfortunately TfL gives that gold mine away to banks and Cubic.

You can see the same thinking with Oyster’s Australian cousin, the Opal card system, built and managed by Cubic, just like Oyster. Opal is also going the ‘open loop’ route instead of transit cards on mobile.

Open Loop QR

Hong Kong’s Octopus (FeliCa) and Singapore’s EZ-Link (Ex-FeliCa now CEPAS) are going open loop but in different ways. EZ-Link has been testing EMV contactless for over 2 years now, users report a less than smooth experience. Kaohsiung Rapid Transit in Taiwan which uses MIFARE based iPASS and EasyCard is also considering EMV contactless open loop while the recently opened Taoyuan Airport MRT offers QR Codes and a cute YouTube video.

Hong Kong going the QR Code route shows how badly AliPay wants in on Hong Kong transit, and MTR Corporation in on China transit, bad enough that Hong Kong will sacrifice a great transit payment platform for AliPay, another gold mine giveaway. Judging by the AliPay branding and retrofitted QR Code readers on Hangzhou Metro gates in the pictures above, what AliPay wants, AliPay gets, but the fast FeliCa based Octopus smart card stands in the way. Instead of improving Octopus or extending mobile Smart Octopus, it looks like Hong Kong will invest in very slow and very dumb QR. The Hong Kong Economic Journal had this to say about the development:

MTR has set its sights on a major revamp of its fare collection system, accepting new electronic payments methods rather than just single journey tickets and Octopus Cards. From the passengers’ perspective, it means there will be no need to have an Octopus card on hand for a journey on local trains, if MTR’s new fare collection system supports all the mainstream contactless payment methods such as Visa payWave and MasterCard PayPass, or mobile payment means like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Pay.

Japan in the middle
TfL/Oyster and Transport for NSW/Opal, Octopus, EZ-Link are government held transit authorities, not private independent companies. Publicly run transit authorities are subject to politics and special interests like any government agency, this sometimes leads to poor decisions and short-term thinking.

Japan was fortunate that major transit players like JR East, are private companies with strong technology partners, like Sony and NTT Docomo. Out of this fortunate set of circumstances Suica was created and finally reached  the market in 2001 (a fascinating engineering story). Suica became the Japan IC Transit card template which evolved into the ubiquitous Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association project for transit and e-money use. Mobile Suica was introduced in 2006 by NTT Docomo and now resides on the Apple Pay and Google Pay platforms.

The ubiquity and scale of interoperable transit IC cards sets Japan apart from all other countries. China copied the Japanese model for China T-Union but the cards cannot be used as e-money and have been upstaged by AliPay and WeChat Pay which, surprise, can be used for e-money and transit.

Japan occupies a very unusual middle ground between EMV contactless from the West and QR Codes from China, neither of which play well together. The scale of Suica provides the breathing space for Japan to pick and chose what works best for, and enhances their transit payment platform. The result is an incredibly rich and varied contactless payments market anchored around Suica and similar FeliCa prepaid cards.

Future trends
For every marketing report that predicts QR Code payments growing into a 70 billion USD sized market by 2023, someone else calls it nonsense because Suica is becoming the card for everything. In many ways Suica already is. MITI said it is investigating using QR Codes for small rural transit systems that cannot afford IC card systems. This loops back to TfL complaint that IC cards are expensive to issue and manage.

Low-cost QR Codes certainly make sense for lightly used rural transit operations but they have a fatal weakness: they don’t have plastic card versions that work anywhere and seniors prefer the simplicity of plastic, QR Codes require a high cost network connected smart device, an app and are strictly one way read with no offline processing.

JR East and Sony have announced that they will solve cost problems for rural transit and much more in early 2021 with Super Suica.


Update: Open Loop QR Code Security Risks
One issue that was in the back of my mind while writing this post was the privacy and security implications of letting AliPay inside with direct transactions on transit gates. Japanese customers are very sensitive about where and how transaction records are held and used but I have yet to see any security discussion in connection with Hong Kong MTR opening up transit gates to AliPay and WeChat Pay. QR Code transactions are very different from offline FeliCa Octopus transactions. Where and how does the QR Code transaction data from Hong Kong MTR transit gates get stored, does the Chinese government has access to it to gather intelligence from transaction and location records?

If there is one thing we do know about Chinese companies is that they do what they want when nobody is looking. Witness China Telecom spoofing the BGP protocol to poison internet routes and suck up massive amounts of American and Canadian internet traffic for intelligence analysis. If I was living in Hong Kong I would be concerned about the privacy implications of MTR going open loop with QR codes.

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iOS 12 Apple Pay Wallet pulled a MIFARE and nobody noticed

The Apple Wallet Ponta card launch at LAWSON presents another dilemma: just what exactly is Apple using for iOS 12/watchOS 5 Apple Wallet Passes and Student ID cards? Student ID cards and Apple Wallet Ponta have the same device eligibility specs: iOS 12/watch OS 5 running on iPhone 6 and later/Apple Watch Series 1 and later.

You might assume that Apple Wallet Ponta is FeliCa but the eligible device list tells a different story. You might also assume that everything in Japan is FeliCa but this is also not the case. Doutor Coffee shops sell a handy little Doutor pre-paid card that is MIFARE and it works flawlessly side by side with FeliCa flavored Apple Pay Suica on the same NFC reader.

Altogether we have an interesting spec list for Student ID and Mobile Ponta cards.

  • The same eligible device specs that only support NFC A-B across all devices
  • Stored value
  • iOS 12 PassKIT NFC Certificates
  • Express Card capable
  • Local offline transactions

I’m calling it (again): the only technology that fits this profile (for Student ID cards but not Ponta) is MIFARE iOS 12 PassKIT Wallet passes are simply MIFARE. Only Apple could pull this kind of ‘under the hood thing’ off in iOS 12 without anybody suspecting and it neatly puts all the major NFC technology pieces on Apple Pay: EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE and China Transit.

Blackboard supplies the technology and backend services for Student ID cards on iOS 12. I contacted Blackboard PR to confirm if the card technology was FeliCa or MIFARE but did not receive an answer. However I did run across an interesting Blackboard press release from 2015 Blackboard and NXP Semiconductors Collaborate to Strengthen Campus Card Technology:

Blackboards’ push to adopt NFC in addition to their existing MIFARE-based solutions, back in 2012 showed incredible insight into the potential of this technology. The security, convenience and flexibility that NXPs NFC and MIFARE solutions bring truly reflect the student lifestyle. Now access to campus services can be simply enabled via a smart watch or smart phone.

Based on this and the fact that it came 2 years after a FeliCa demo of Blackboard Student ID cards with a rumored migration from FeliCa to MIFARE, plus the eligible device specs, my conclusion is that Student ID cards on iOS 12 are MIFARE HCE (Host Card Emulation) which is NFC-A.

Apple Wallet Ponta cards on iOS 12 are VAS protocol contactless passes outlined at WWDC18 , WWDC16, and in the Contactless Passes section of the iOS Security Guide:

Wallet supports the value added service (VAS) protocol for transmitting data from supported passes to compatible NFC terminals. The VAS protocol can be implemented on contactless terminals and uses NFC to communicate with supported Apple devices.

This is also NFC-A. Contactless passes have been around for a while on iOS but adoption has been slow. With iOS 12 PASSKit, Apple is encouraging developers to migrate from QR Codes to NFC contactless passes and hopefully lowering the NFC Certificate requirement bar a little. Part of the reason for the slow uptake is poor NFC reader support. LAWSON has a new POS system built around Panasonic JT-R600CR readers which are Apple Pay savvy and Apple Wallet Ponta cards only work correctly when you tell the LAWSON cashier to use “Apple Pay”.

Update: A highly trusted NFC engineering source contacted me that I got it partly wrong. The correction edit above explains that Wallet Ponta cards are Apple’s implementation of the VAS protocol and not MIFARE. Student ID cards are almost certainly MIFARE/PASSKit NFC Certificate Host Card Emulation (HCE), Apple has not publicly announced MIFARE support but it is the only technology compatible with Blackboard IC card formats that could power the express card features of iOS 12 student ID cards across all eligible devices. Research and confirmation efforts are ongoing.

Apple Wallet Ponta contactless rewards card at LAWSON

Ponta Apple Pay launches at LAWSON
Ponta Apple Pay launches at LAWSON with 4X points for Apple Pay Purchases

The Ponta rewards card for Apple Wallet launched at LAWSON Japan right on schedule and without a hitch.  iOS 12/watch OS 5 users with any Apple Pay capable device: iPhone 6 and later, Apple Watch Series 1 and later can add the Ponta rewards card operated by the Recruit Group to Apple Wallet and automatically earn Ponta points with Apple Pay purchases at LAWSON without having to use an app or show a bar code. Apple Pay purchases earn 4X Ponta points during the launch campaign running through March 6, 2019. You can also make purchases with Apple Wallet Ponta points.

NFC Apple Wallet passes are a new feature of iOS 12/watchOS 5. Apple is encouraging developers to use NFC instead of QR or bar codes for Apple Wallet passes, and has been showcasing contactless NFC passes at recent Apple Events. Ponta Apple Wallet hopefully marks the beginning of other NFC enabled reward cards such as JRE POINT joining Apple Wallet.

Create a digital Ponta card with iOS Ponta Card App then add it to Apple Wallet as shown here and in the above screenshots. Say “Apple Pay” to the LAWSON cashier and use Face ID/Touch ID with the card you want to use. Ponta automatic points don’t register with Suica Express Cards, iD or QUICPay, be sure to say “Apple Pay”. The reader does a double read, first for Ponta then for Apple Pay, so hold iPhone to the reader until it gives you a transaction complete sound, the linked Tweet video below gives you the idea. It’s slower than a regular FeliCa transaction because of the double read and the poky Ponta NCF-A protocol.

With a successful Apple Pay transaction the Ponta logo flashes briefly confirming purchase reward points, shown in the GIF Tweet, followed by a Ponta Wallet point summary notification. If you pay close attention to the GIF you’ll notice that LAWSON accepts NFC Pay in addition to FeliCa, iOS NFC switching in action again as Apple Wallet Ponta uses NFC-A. Whatever the NFC flavor is Apple Pay takes care of it, just as it should be.

Update: the LAWSON POS is built around Panasonic JT-R600CR readers which are Apple Pay savvy and Apple Wallet Ponta cards only work correctly when you tell the LAWSON cashier to use “Apple Pay”. Apple Wallet Ponta is Apple’s implementation of the VAS protocal for contactless NFC passes, reward cards, etc. and is NFC A. The Panasonic reader reads Ponta then selects the correct FeliCa payment method (Suica, iD, QUICPay). Users are complaining that LAWSON did not train store staff well but are getting up to speed quickly.

Apple Pay Suica Express Card Performance Timelines

Express Cards on iOS/watchOS have a special place on the Apple Pay platform. First of all there are only 3:

Express cards share common features:

  • they are stored value
  • they can be recharged with Apple Pay credit cards or cash
  • they don’t require Apple Pay authentication
  • they are multi-purpose and are used for purchase, transit and opening door locks

Apple Pay credit/debit cards in both EMV or FeliCa flavors use middleware to work the transaction magic but Express Cards like Suica and Student ID don’t use middleware. They are pure card emulation residing in the super exclusive PassKit-NCF Certificate Nirvana zone where they can do anything they want.

There is a weakness on pre-Bionic architecture however: iOS/watchOS has to babysit all the card emulation and is a somewhat fragile. Changes in the OS affect performance and reliability. Here is a timeline of my experiences with iOS 10 Apple Pay Suica Express cards on the iPhone 7 JP model.

iOS Suica Express Performance Timeline

Apple Pay Express Card performance on pre-Bionic hardware tends to be cyclical: each new iOS has unstable performance at first but improves with later updates. It happened with iOS 11 and the rocky Apple Pay Cash start. And it’s happening again with iOS 12 and iOS 12.1 both of which have Express Card performance issues.

iOS Suica Express Performance Timeline 2

That is why A12 Bionic and Express Cards with reserve power are a big deal. Express Cards with power reserve are the latest Apple Pay Wallet feature to arrive with A12 Bionic on iPhone XS and iPhone XR. Express Cards with reserve power operate without iOS up and running and bypass iOS for basic operations even when it is running. This removes a huge layer of potential problems. My experience with ‘bulletproof’ Apple Pay Suica Express cards on iPhone XS simply blows everything else away.

At some point this feature will be standard across iOS and watchOS. The reliability benefits are huge, as is peace of mind in a power pinch.

And finally there is iPhone X Suica Express Card performance which is in a dog league all its own. Taken together with the iOS 11~iOS 12 timeline, it illustrates how complicated and confusing the current iOS 12 situation is for iPhone X Japanese users. Until Apple comes clean and provides some guidance for iPhone X devices with defective NFC, I don’t see things improving for these users. I’m glad to be out of it but cringe reading iPhone X user experiences and feel for the users as I’ve been there myself.

Suica Express Card performance and iPhone X production timelines compared
iPhone X only had 6 months of defective free NFC production. Until Apple goes public with the iPhone X NFC problem, many users will never know they have a defective device. Taken together with the iOS 12 performance issues, it’s a perfect storm of confusion.

Lawson launches first Apple Pay NFC contactless rewards card in Japan

Payment acceptance marks at Lawsons 2
The Lawson POS screen will add Ponta NFC contactless to their ever-growing collection of acceptance marks

Lawson Japan announced NFC contactless support for the popular Ponta rewards card operated by the Recruit Group starting nationwide on November 7. The Lawson press release explains that iOS 12/watch OS 5 users with FeliCa capable Apple devices: iPhone 7 (JP)/iPhone 8/iPhone X and later, Apple Watch 2 (JP)/Apple Watch 3 and later can add a Ponta card to Wallet and use Ponta points for NFC contactless purchases.

Purchases made with Apple Pay Suica or Apple Pay credit cards automatically earn Ponta points without having to open the Ponta App or show a bar code. This is exactly what Apple was selling to developers in the WWDC18 Apple Pay session: no more messy QR or bar codes for Wallet cards and passes. Apple has also been using contactless NFC passes at recent Apple Events.

Neither Ponta Web or Ponta App can add Wallet passes right now so this means updates are due before the November 7 launch. Ponta rewards are issued and used by a large number of stores, hopefully the Lawson announcement is the start of a larger rollout and a mention on the Apple Pay Japan site. The less rummaging around to dig out a rewards card, all the better. It means I might actually use it more.