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.

Mobile Suica launches on wena 3

Suica on Sony wena 3 launched today according to a JR East press release. The service was announced in October. In addition to Suica, wena 3 also supports iD, QUICPay and Rakuten Edy payments.

wena 3 Mobile Suica is very similar to Garmin Suica with the same Google Pay recharge backend and limitations: no commute plans, etc. Apple Watch Suica is still king of the wearables with a full feature set and PASMO support too, nevertheless Android users, and some iPhone users, will enjoy using Suica on a cool looking device. No word about PASMO support though I expect it will come eventually.

Apple Pay PASMO launch day behind the scenes

「モバイルPASMO」の実現までに13年もの歳月がかかった裏事情, CNET

The every reliable Junya Suzuki has posted exactly what I hoped he would: nitty gritty launch day event details. A quick rundown with commentary if you can’t read his original Japanese post.

Big Apple Presence
A large number of Apple Japan folks were on hand at the October 6 Apple Pay PASMO press event with media invited from America. Apple Pay VP Jennifer Bailey also checked in with a message via video link. Highly unusual given that a single person is what Apple usually fields for recent Suica announcements like the Apple Pay MIZUHO Suica. This is big in itself but it’s helpful to know some basic Transit IC card market share numbers. Suica and PASMO are #1 and #2, combined they represent 80% of all transit IC card issue. ICOCA is #3, manaca is #4.

The addition of Apple Pay PASMO is why Suzuki san now refers to Tokyo as a “キャッシュレス経済圏 “Cashless Economy Zone”. The Suica and PASMO zones blur and become one thing in a digital wallet. Mobile Suica membership passed 10 million users last month, total Suica issue (plastic and mobile) is about 85 million.

Out of the Suica issue numbers Suzuki san pulls an important growth figure: the 2020 Suica mobile to plastic ratio is 12%, at the 2016 Apple Pay Suica launch the ratio was 7%. That growth is the power of Apple Pay in action, and also Google Pay. The mobile growth curve will accelerate with the addition of Garmin Pay Suica and wena 3 Suica. That’s why Apple Pay PASMO is a big deal, not only for Tokyo, but for PASMO and Apple too. It is this shift that Suzuki san says finally drove PASMO to commit to delivering a mobile service after years of dithering.

But what about the other transit card economic zones and how will they be integrated into the mobile mix? For ICOCA the only question remaining is ‘when’ Mobile ICOCA arrives, ‘if’ is no longer an option. ICOCA is the Suica of the Kansai area, manaca is the Suica of Aichi. Osaka and Nagoya don’t want to be left behind the Tokyo cashless economy zone.

My own take outlined in Hello Apple Pay PASMO and Road to Super Suica is that PASMO is a dry run for other mobile cards. The template is ready to roll, right down to the recycled but sleeker modernized Suica App stuff in PASMO App.