SmartPlate CEO Takes the Softcream Cashless Index Challenge

AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara responded to my post and took up the Softcream Cashless Index (SCI) challenge, promising to deliver a SCI score of “over 5” with his SmartPlate NFC tag payment service that works with Apple Pay and Google Pay:

The Apple Pay side of SmartPlate depends on the background NFC tag reading capability of iPhone XS and iPhone XR models, and the enhanced Core NFC functionality in iOS 13. The new iPhone models this year with A13 Bionic will undoubtedly build on the A12 Bionic NFC functions introduced in 2018. The big questions are: will Apple Watch Series 5 have NFC background tag reading as part of the Apple Pay experience on a wearable, and what about NFC Tag Apple Pay on non-Bionic chip devices?

watchOS 6 does not support Core NFC, but developers with a PassKit NFC Certificate from Apple can do lots of interesting things with Apple Pay NFC functions. Not that I’m asking Hagiwara san to divulge anything because PassKit NFC Certificates come with all kinds of non-disclosure conditions. But I do look forward to all the Apple Pay goodies coming with iOS 13. So far we have Apple Pay Octopus, Apple Pay Ventra, and Apple Pay myki on the transit side, there will be lots of new stuff on the NFC tag side. It would be great if SmartPlate can join the iOS 13 Apple Pay service rollout with backup from Apple Pay lead Jennifer Bailey at the Apple Event.

I look forward to reporting about the NFC Tag Apple Pay experience, and tasting great softcream along the way.

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NFC Tag Apple Pay and Japanese Softcream

Summer is here and the increasing number of Apple Pay Suica inbound tweets are fun to read as always. I saw inbound in action recently at a local station NewDays, 2 Chinese women walked up to the checkout and asked in English “Can we pay here with this?” One was waving a Suica card, the other waving her iPhone. People really appreciate the ease and speed of Suica Express Transit.

However, there are still lots of times on the road when you come face to face with the so called ‘curse of Japanese cash addiction’, and the fact that, even though things have changed a great deal since Apple Pay arrived in Japan, there’s still a long way to go.

I had the that kind of experience recently coming back from Minobu on the Keio Highway Bus. That particular bus has a 10 minute rest break at Shakado Parking Area just outside of Kofu on the Chuo Expressway. There’s barely enough time to dash to the restroom and grab a drink for a long congested crawl to Shinjuku Bus Terminal.

Like many Japanese highway rest areas, Shakado offers delicious looking local specialties. Kofu is a well known for it’s delicious fruits, the Shakado cafeteria softcream fruit parfait looked too good to pass up. With 6 minutes to spare I hunted for the softcream button on the meal ticket machine, which was Suica compatible, but couldn’t find it. I asked one of the staff and they pointed to a separate smaller ticket machine that was just for softcream, a separate stall vendor, and not only was it cash only, it was coin only.

Where’s the softcream button?

Fortunately I had lots of coins that day, a rarity, but pitied another poor westerner wandering around obviously interested in that delicious looking softcream without a clue how to buy one, but I was out of time and dashed for the bus. With a softcream fruit parfait. It was delicious.

After 2 years of writing about cashless/contactless trends, I think I have finally hit on the perfect index for Japan: The Softcream Cashless Index (SCI). Nothing is more regional, seasonal, ubiquitous, cash only and delicious as the endlessly glorious variety of Japanese softcream. Sure, MiniStop has pretty good softcream and all the cashless options like Apple Pay Suica, but those parking area seasonal regionals like Yamagata Cherry softcream (to die for) are always cash cash.

On a scale of 1~10, I put the Japanese national SCI average at 2. Softcream stalls are the worst candidates for the usual cashless options: credit cards/FeliCa/QR etc., because they are mostly one person operations, or side stalls of larger retail operations. Nobody wants to invest in cashless terminals, or even cashless ticket machines, for such mundane, low priced, low margin softcream side business. If softcream can be made cashless, Japan will truly be a cashless nation.

The NFC Tag Apple Pay Option
The ideal cashless payment infrastructure investment for softcream operations is no investment at all. This is why meal ticket machines are so popular in Japan for food serving businesses: they eliminate the cash register all together, the staff can focus on serving customers instead of wasting valuable time babysitting customer payments.

A good cashless payment option in this case is NFC Tag Apple Pay that Jennifer Bailey previewed at her Transact Conference Keynote. A PaymentsSource article covering that keynote makes clear that NFC Tag Apple Pay is built on two iOS 13 technologies: enhanced NFC tag read/write support in Core NFC, and Sign in with Apple ID.

The process leverages “Core NFC,” enabling an iPhone to scan an NFC tag that launches an app or a website, so users can skip the step of downloading an app when accessing a new service, Bailey explained.

“There’s no app requirement and no requirement to pre-sign up,” Bailey said, describing how Bird is using the technology in a pilot, with Apple Pay’s “pay load” automatically working to establish the account information to set up a one-time purchase. “It’s so much easier for new users to get into these services very quickly,”

For NFC Tag Apple Pay to succeed in Japan, it has be offered through major payment providers like J-Mups or Recruit AirPay (who already provide regular terminal based Apple Pay), who can package it together with their cloud backend and an app. From the softcream vendor side, all they need to do is sign up for NFC tag payment service via the setup app and receive a free NFC tag and logo. And that’s it, they are in business.

The concept is similar to the SmartPlate demo only more streamlined. It has to remove all payment involvement from the softcream side, just like a meal ticket machine. The only thing they need to do is look at a screen to confirm payment.

In lieu of Google Pay offering a similar NFC tag payment scheme, the payment provider could conceivably offer an Android app to include that platform but this breaks the Jennifer Bailey rule: no app, no sign-up. This rule is what sets NFC Tag Apple Pay apart from QR Code pay services who want you to sign up in an app to get your personal data. This rule will be the reason for the success of NFC Tag Apple Pay.

Can it change the Softcream Cashless Index? If Apple and their Japanese payment partners can replicate the hands off, no cash register, no brainer experience of Japanese meal ticket machines with NFC Tag Apple Pay, definitely yes. There’s only a year to go until the hot summer Tokyo Olympics but if the SCI average can make it to a 5, or more, that would be a huge tasty success and invitation to eat your way across Japan without a wallet.

While the screen is on: Background Tags and Apple NFC Evolution

Background NFC tags work when the iPhone screen is on

NFC background tag support that allows users to scan NFC tags without an app arrived with A12 Bionic iPhone XS/XR and iOS 12, but the feature is only becoming truly useful with the enhanced NFC tag support in iOS 13 Core NFC. The Japanese and UK governments have already announced ID card NFC tag support for iOS 13, Jennifer Bailey previewed a new NFC tag Apple Pay feature in May, and the iOS 13 Shortcuts app lets users deploy NFC tags to create their own HomeKit automations. These are exciting developments that are just the start of new powerful and innovative NFC services on the Apple platform.

Apple’s strong point is the tight integration of software services across different devices that no other platform can match. Apple Pay Suica works on iPhone and Apple Watch, but the latter combination of technology, function and size makes it a completely different and beguiling experience. Apple Pay on Apple Watch is its own special thing.

A Temporary Split in the NFC Evolution Line?
The evolution of Apple NFC on both iPhone and Apple Watch was in lockstep up until the arrival of A12 Bionic in 2018. The A12 Bionic NFC powered background tag and Express Transit power reserve features only work on iPhone XS/XR. Apple Watch Series 4 does not support these NFC features, nor does watchOS support the Core NFC framework, this means that NFC tag Apple Pay on Apple Watch is out of the question.

Is the feature split temporary or does it represent a different line of NFC evolution for Apple Watch? The absence of Core NFC makes sense because watchOS does not support 3rd party apps, at least not yet. Express Transit power reserve however, would be a great feature to have on Apple Watch as iOS 13/watchOS 6 Apple Pay Express Transit rolls out to Chicago Ventra, Brisbane myki and Hong Kong Octopus.

Getting that feature on Apple Watch depends on how quickly Johny Srouji’s A team can implement the A12 Bionic Secure Enclave design that handles basic Apple Pay transactions directly and bypasses the OS, on the S Series chip. I cannot believe they are not pushing hard to deliver the goods as soon as possible, perhaps even with Apple Watch Series 5 featuring a S5 Bionic chip.

Delivering a S5 Bionic would get Express Transit power reserve on Apple Watch with NFC performance gains as well. It would also give Apple the option to add NFC background tag reading later on as watchOS becomes more powerful and independent.

The iPhone 7 FeliCa Question
There is one fuzzy area of iOS 13 Core NFC and it is iPhone 7 FeliCa support. At WWDC19 Apple announced that all devices, iPhone 7 and above, would support the enhanced NFC tag lineup: NDEF, FeliCa, MIFARE, ISO 7816, ISO 15693, VAS. But this does not match up with Apple’s own device specs for adding a FeliCa Suica card to Apple Pay:

Apple is telling developers that all iPhone 7 models are good for FeliCa but telling customers that only iPhone 7 JP models are good for FeliCa. This means we get one of two scenarios:

  • iOS 13 retroactively adds FeliCa support to all non-JP iPhone 7 models. Apple can do this by adding device specific FeliCa keys as iPhone 7 NFC hardware is the same for all models worldwide.
  • iOS 13 Core NFC FeliCa tags work but non-JP iPhone 7 models (without FeliCa keys) do not work for FeliCa transactions at the terminal.

The latter ‘FeliCa keys vs. No FeliCa keys’ scenario is illustrated in a comment post by Reddit user FelicaDude, if I understand correctly, that without device specific FeliCa keys iPhone 7 only works in basic Read/Write mode without encryption, with FeliCa keys iPhone 7 works in Read/Write encryption mode necessary for local offline processing with payment terminals (i.e. Suica):

The international iPhone 7s can do basic FeliCa read/write without encryption, because they embed a FeliCa-capable CLF <contactless frontend>. Apple has chosen not to provision them with Osaifu-Keitai keys, probably to avoid paying royalties to FeliCa Networks for each device.

FelicaDude Reddit

The initial iOS 13 beta 3 release build (17A5522f) did not support iPhone 7 but the revised build (17A5522g) released yesterday does. I am intrigued that something is going on with iOS 13 and iPhone 7. It’s probably a vain hope that it could be connected with the upcoming Apple Pay Octopus transit card launch which requires a FeliCa capable device, though it does makes sense for Apple to launch the Apple Pay Octopus with a wide footprint of supported devices. Let’s keep fingers crossed that iOS 13 adds full FeliCa support to all iPhone 7 models and transforms them to the global FeliCa iPhone devices they deserve to be.

UPDATE
FeliCa Dude has answered and posted the definitive take of iPhone 7 FeliCa support for all things from Octopus to iOS 13 Core NFC. We own him thanks for taking the time to cover all the angles in such detail.

Deep Secrets of Apple Pay Express Transit

Apple Pay Suica on A12 Bionic iPhone XS/XR works even in the middle of a recharge

Apple Pay Suica on A12 Bionic iPhone XS/XR is different from other devices because basic FeliCa transactions bypass iOS and go directly to the Secure Enclave. You can see this in action with Express Transit power reserve, but if you observe carefully you can catch it in other ways.

I caught a glimpse today buying ice coffee at a JR station NewDays shop (supplied by Doutor btw). I was recharging Suica with Apple Pay and forgot it was still processing when I touched iPhone XS to the reader. The payment went through without a problem, the recharge completed a few seconds later.

Is this a iOS 12.4 beta thing or did A12 Bionic iPhone do this all along? I suspect it did all along and makes sense: the payment transaction bypassed iOS which was busy processing the Apple Pay recharge and wasn’t ready to post a balance update to the Secure Enclave. Prepaid and postpay processing at the same time…very interesting.

Most people think all Express Transit is the same, but Suica Express Transit prepaid is very different from EMV Express Transit postpay. Suica settles the transit bill in less than 200 milliseconds (ms) locally right at the transit gate, while EMV Express Transit leisurely (500 ms) tells the gate, ‘I am bank card XXX, put it on the bill’ for settlement later between the bank and the transit agency. For EMV there is a lot of backend system work to make that happen, and even then the user sometimes has to tap twice:

Apple Pay Suica Service Mode

Apple Pay Suica Service Mode is a weird function that doesn’t have a counterpart on the Android Suica side. The JR East Apple Pay Suica help page mentions this. The iPhone Service Mode explanation says, “Service Mode will allow station agents and kiosks to help with any issues with your card.” The street reality is that station agents don’t need you to put the device in Service Mode, just fork it over and they can fix any Suica issue for you.

This difference exists because Osaifu Keitai smartphones (and the candy wrapper Google Pay Suica) have a dedicated FeliCa chip. Apple created it’s own custom FeliCa implementation hosted on the iPhone A Series and Apple Watch S Series SOC. But the Apple implementation did not really mature until A12 Bionic and the Express Card (Student ID)/Express Transit cards with power reserve feature. The A12 Bionic Secure Enclave supports limited NFC transactions that bypass iOS. It’s the same way a dedicated FeliCa chip works on Android.

This means that Apple Pay Suica on non-A12 devices requires iOS/watchOS to be up and running for Suica to work. Unfortunately this also means that different iOS versions sometimes have performance issues on non-A12 devices and that iOS occasionally drops the ball. Fortunately iOS 12.3 fixes all issues and has great Apple Pay Suica Express Transit performance. iOS 12.3 is a highly recommended update.

The Dead Suica Notifications/No Suica Balance Update problem happened occasionally and the way to fix it is to turn on Service Mode and leave it until it turns off automatically in 60 seconds or the screen goes dark, whichever comes first.

In this case Service Mode syncs and reconciles iOS with the Suica Stored Fare (SF) balance information from the FeliCa embedded Secure Element implemented inside the A Series/S Series Secure Enclave.

Service Mode seems pretty useless on A12 Bionic devices. I imagine it’s there more for show than actual functionality, although Service Mode is useful for cash recharge on 7-Eleven ATM machines where you have to put the device upside down to capture the ATM NFC antenna hit area.