Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch: First Impressions

Now that iOS 12.3 is out with great Apple Pay Suica performance and no more bugs, I have a new side project: Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch. I moved my daily Commuter Suica to Apple Watch and it’s an interesting experience. Some first impressions.

  • Apple Pay Suica performance on watchOS 5.2.1 on Apple Watch Series 4 is great, but not as great as iOS 12.3 on iPhone XS. Because A12 Bionic removes the iOS overhead for Express Cards with power reserve, Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XS/XR feels light and snappy like a plastic Suica card. I can’t wait for Express Cards with power reserve on Apple Watch.
  • Suica Recharge on Apple Watch sucks and I have discovered how wonderfully useful Suica App really is. I have a Commuter Suica on Apple Watch and a My Suica on iPhone. Both of these can be recharged and managed (with different credit cards attached to each Suica!) in Suica App. It’s super convenient and has opened my eyes to a major Apple Pay Wallet design weakness: iPhone Wallet and Watch App Wallet should just be one thing that manages all of my Wallets cards on both devices in one place. Apple Watch Wallet is great, in a pinch, but it’s a lousy UI experience for managing transit card options and Suica Recharge. Apple Pay transit prepaid card users access those card options far more than credit cards. I added a unified Wallet request for iOS 13 to the Apple Pay WWDC19 wish list.
  • Suica Reminders for low balance and commuter plan renewals are another Apple Watch weak point. They don’t exist. Suica App to the rescue again with Notification Sounds. The 3 beep Suica low balance reminder (¥1,000 or less) works everywhere and is a life saver. It’s far more attention grabbing than Apple Pay Suica Notification Center reminders on iPhone.

A true story: I was buying lunch at a family owned Daily Yamazaki convenience store. You might know the kind, a Showa style convenience store stocked with Yamazaki breads, homemade sandwiches and bento, usually run by an older couple, a store from a different era that will unfortunately disappear.

I bought a bento and paid with Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch. The Suica 3 beep low balance reminder sound from the reader caught the attention of the owner who looked to be in his late 70s. “Suica works on that? It’s so small.” I assured him Suica worked on Apple Watch.

He smiled and said, “That’s really convenient. You’ll never lose it or have to find it when it’s on your wrist.”

It is indeed.

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WWDC19 iOS 13 Apple Pay Wallet Wish List (U)

Now that full 3rd party NFC access is reportedly coming with iOS 13 tag support for ISO7816, FeliCa and MIFARE, does this mean developers get supercharged Core NFC and PassKit NFC Certificates generously handed out like condoms at a gay sex party? Probably not, the only new things in the rumors are ‘full access’ and ‘ISO7816’, but let’s take a look at some possibilities based on the 3 NFC Forum defined NFC Modes: Card Emulation, Reader/Writer and Peer to Peer.

A12 Bionic NFC powers Express Cards with power reserve and Background Tag Reading on iOS 12 iPhone XS/XR

It’s useful to remember that A12 Bionic powered iPhone is one of the most compelling ‘Global NFC’ devices on the market, with all the important technologies in one package sold everywhere: NFC A-B-F hardware and EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, PBOC and VAS (value added service protocol) software. Android is fragmented, especially when it comes to FeliCa support.

Apple has invested a lot of time and money to guarantee everything is there and ‘just works’. A12 Bionic added Express Cards with power reserve that support certain NFC transactions without iOS up and running. A12 Bionic also added Background Tag Reading and the ability to read NFC tags ‘out of the box’ without a separate app.

The big frustration for developers has been that iPhone NFC is all dressed up with no place to go. iOS 12 NFC supports Card Emulation and Reader/Writer but severely limits the Secure Element access necessary for Card Emulation with NDA covered PassKit NFC Certificates, while Core NFC is a limited Reader/Writer Mode sub-set.

Card Emulation

New Apple Card Wallet UI (U): After using Apple Card UI flavored Apple Pay Suica in iOS 12.2 with even more tweaks in iOS 12.3, I’m pretty sure that new PassKit controls for Apple Pay Wallet card customization: detailed transactions, summaries, balance payments, new card options and other UI goodies of the recently announced Apple Card, will be made available for all iOS 13 Wallet cards, and possibly some iOS 12.3 Wallet transit and EMV cards as well.

The Apple Card UI and Wallet UI design language in iOS 12.2 and later, is so different from the rest of iOS 12 that I’m surprised nobody in the Apple tech blog space has picked up on it yet. There are lots of useful card options and information, like EMV Transit Card option in iOS 12.3 for Portland TriMet, that can be piped into Wallet cards from the card provider cloud, instead of sitting in a separate app. Customized dynamic card artwork, such as individual Suica card names and commute plan routes displayed on Suica cards in Suica App for example, would be great to have in Wallet.

I do have one request for the iOS 13 Wallet UI: please integrate the separate iPhone and Apple Watch Wallets into a single Wallet. It’s incredibly convenient to control all card options on iPhone instead of fiddling with the tiny Apple Watch screen to recharge a Suica card for example. Suica App manages separate Suica cards on iPhone and Apple Watch incredibly well in one place. It is a super convenient design.

Easy Card Emulation: I am less sure how Apple plans to make card emulation easier for developers:

  • New functions in PassKit that do more
  • Less stringent and easier to obtain PassKit NFC Certificates
  • A combination of the two or
  • Something new altogether

I hope for a combination approach that keeps everything secure while making it easy for developers to add all kinds of non-EMV cards to Wallet, the major categories include…

  • Transit Cards: Transit cards have been tricky because up to now each one has been a kind of custom in-house job by Apple in cooperation with the transit company. HOP and Ventra were already announced to drop in iOS 12 this summer. Hong Kong Smart Octopus (FeliCa) and LA tap (EMV only?) should arrive with the iOS 13 launch in September. It would be great if iOS 13 PassKit makes it easy to add all kinds of native transit cards like Taiwan EasyCARD and Melbourne Myki (both MIFARE) and more to the mix, with Apple having to do less, and have a real transit card coming out party. Unfortunately I don’t see Singapore’s EZ-Link card ever joining the party unless iOS 13 PassKit makes it very easy to support customized technology like the Singapore only CEPAS.
  • Prepaid Reward Cards: There are lots of these everywhere. In Japan we have: Edy, nanaco, WAON (all FeliCa), Dotour (MIFARE), Ueshima (Mag strip) and Starbucks (FeliCa and Mag strip). Some of these have apps that let users attach credit cards to the backend for online recharge. None of them are on Apple Pay but need to be, urgently, to combat manufactured QR code mania stealth marketing. The challenge for Apple here is the same as transit cards: make it easy for developers to do more, with open API access and easy to obtain PassKit NFC Certificates. I suspect one hold up has been that every single one of these prepaid reward cards wants to have an Express Card option to bypass authentication at the reader and iOS 12 Wallet only supports a single Express card at a time. Hopefully iOS 13 Wallet solves the problem.
  • Regular Reward Cards: There are tons of these everywhere. My real wallet has JRE POINT, WAON POINT, Tomod’s, plus a crazy collection of stamp/point cards. How nice it would be if it was super easy for developers to add these to Wallet.
  • ID Cards: This is where ISO7816 tag support fits in. Contactless Student ID cards in iOS 12 were a MIFARE only custom in-house job, transit cards without transit, by Apple in cooperation with Blackboard. Hopefully Apple will greatly extend ID card support in all NFC flavors for many companies and institutions, for all manner of ‘company only’ Wallet ID cards.

Reader/Writer (U)

Android has a huge advantage over iOS because Android apps have the NFC access to do what they want. From RFID Insider:

Below are all the abilities/formats available for writing to a tag:

Business Card
Link/URL
Wi-Fi
Bluetooth
Email
Telephone Number
Geo Location
Launch an Application
Plain Text
SMS

How to Write an NFC Tag RFID Insider

A fully functional Core NFC could do all this, but the important question is how would Apple want to do all this. NFC tags are great technology but they remain deeply geeky for the majority of users. The key is making NFC tags as friendly, easy and secure to use as Apple Pay. This is exactly what Apple plans to do.

At the TRANSACT 2019 conference Jennifer Bailey announced NFC tag Apple Pay. NFC tag Apple Pay works with or without apps. All the user does is tap a NFC tag and Apple Pay takes care of the rest as shown in the demo video using a SmartPlate NFC tag.

The easiest way to think of it is that instead of tapping a reader to pay with Apple Pay, NFC tag Apple Pay turns your iPhone into the reader. An NFC tag and iPhone is all that you need to Apple Pay at a store.

What does this sound like to you? Yep, this is exactly what QR Codes do and NFC tag Apple Pay is aimed right at the ‘but the store doesn’t need an expensive NFC reader to use QR’ sweet spot that QR Codes have occupied up to now. NFC tag Apple Pay levels the play field, neatly eliminating the QR advantage while offering security that QR Codes cannot match.

However don’t assume that the QR players are chained to QR Codes, it’s an inexpensive and convenient technology for building payment system app services, not particularly sacred. NFC tag Apple Pay also works in an app and this offers Japanese QR Code payment systems such as Line, PayPay, etc., a way to incorporate Apple Pay NFC support in their app, if they choose to do so.

A12 Bionic iPhone XR/XS are the only devices that support background NCF tag reading and the native ability to read tags without an app. The big question in my mind is how Apple plans to implement NFC tag Apple Pay on older devices

Peer to Peer

iOS 12 does not support NFC Peer to Peer. I don’t see that changing in iOS 13 if it can’t be part of a new Apple Pay service. AirDrop already works well across devices that do not have NFC capability. That’s probably enough real world peer to peer for most people.

Summary

The Apple Pay theme for WWDC18 was ‘move Passes into Wallet, get rid of the QR Codes and replace them NFC.’ The new Apple Card UI improvements in Wallet and NFC tag support suggest the Apple Pay theme for WWDC19 will be: ‘move card functionality out of apps and into Wallet cards with new iOS 13 PASSKit controls, or get rid of apps altogether and replace them will all kinds of NFC enabled cards and NFC tags.’

It certainly makes sense. Apple Pay is NFC for the majority of iPhone users, the NFC thing that people use. Apple devoting iOS resources into making card emulation easier and better for 3rd party developers to add all kinds of cards to Wallet, and migrate functions out of separate apps to the Wallet card itself, will give the most bang for the development buck. NFC tag Apple Pay will finally bring NFC tags into the mainstream while eliminating the remaining advantages of QR Codes. It’s going to be a very interesting WWDC for all things Apple Pay.

A12 Bionic Bulletproofed Apple Pay Suica

A12 Bionic powers Express Cards with power reserve on iPhone XS/XR that operate independently of iOS, previous Express Cards require iOS to be up and running to operate

Anybody reading this blog is undoubtably confused by the endless discussion of Apple Pay Suica errors and problems. Here is some explanation to help you understand them and how A12 Bionic in iPhone XS and iPhone XR solves them.

Apple Pay Suica problems are not problems with FeliCa technology. The problems are caused by the way Apple implements FeliCa technology on their hardware. Instead of using a real FeliCa chip from Sony, Apple created a virtual FeliCa chip on the A-Series chip with per device unique keys licensed from FeliCa Networks.

Apple’s custom implementation of FeliCa on the Apple Pay platform is clever and cost-effective in many ways but there are downsides:

  • iOS/watch OS has to be running for Apple Pay Suica to work. Japanese Android devices with FeliCa chips can still use Suica when the battery runs down.
  • Different iOS/watchOS versions affect Apple Pay Suica performance in good ways, and bad ways.

Apple Pay Suica Express Card Software Problems
Wireless radio technology like NFC, WiFi, Bluetooth and cellular is a delicate balance of software and hardware that often seems like a black art. A small code tweak or tiniest hardware flaw can easily upset the balance and wreak havoc. Remember the ‘you’re holding it wrong’ iPhone 4 anntenagate crisis? Like that.

Occasional iOS versions have caused Apple Pay Suica Express Card performance problems:

  • The iOS 10.1 Apple Pay Suica debut release worked pretty well but occasionally tripped up at transit gates, slamming them shut and forcing a re-read. By iOS 10.3 Apple Pay Suica performance was great.
  • The Apple Pay Cash iOS 11.2 release made life miserable for all Apple Pay Suica users. Apple fixed it with the iOS 11.2.5 update.
iOS Suica Express Performance Timeline
iOS Suica Express Performance Timeline 2

It’s happening again with the iOS 12.0/iOS 5.0 debut release. iPhone 8, Revision B iPhone X, Apple Watch 3/4 users are experiencing unresponsive Express Cards or just good old error flicker (Suica error correction algorithms on JR East transit gates are truly amazing BTW). Apple iOS engineers are on it and Apple Pay Suica performance bug fixes are due in the iOS 12.1 update.

Express Card Power Reserve Mode
Express Card power reserve mode on iPhone XS and iPhone XR lasts up to 5 hours. You can use it for transit, recharge and purchase.

The A12 Bionic Difference
This kind of Suica, “iOS loves me, iOS loves me not” version by version game is a consequence of Apple requiring iOS to operate Suica on pre-A12 Bionic devices. iPhone XR/XS users do not have Suica problems on iOS 12 thanks to the new A12 Bionic architecture and Secure Enclave that powers Express Cards with power reserve. Here is what we know so far:

The superior performance of Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XR/XS suggests that the A12 Secure Enclave and Secure Element layer loads FeliCa keys and code and uses them not only in power reserve mode but also for regular mode Express card operation completely removing all the iOS overhead and interaction for basic Suica operations. It is much closer to how a Suica smartcard works. This makes iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica ‘bulletproof’ to any given iOS version. It just works, even when the battery runs down.

Apple Watch Series 4 still uses the ‘OS has to be running scheme’ as the Apple S4 does not support Express Cards with power reserve. I think the Apple Chip design team must be working on a S-Series chip that will have the same features of the A12 Bionic Secure Enclave and Secure Element architecture. Express Cards with power reserve and bulletproof Suica will be a great selling points for Apple Watch in Japan when it arrives.

Most of this explanation is about FeliCa and Apple Pay Suica but the same methods can be used for all other middleware stacks: Express Cards with power reserve work with Apple Pay Transit in China.

The iPhone X Suica Problem
Last but not least there is the iPhone X Suica problem which I have covered extensively over the past year and is causing new headaches and confusion as iPhone X users run into new problems after updating to iOS 12.0. This is a completely different beast from all of the above, a unique and rare Apple failure unrelated to iOS or A-Series Secure Enclave architecture. The iPhone X Suica problem is a NFC hardware problem with iPhone X units manufactured before April 2018 and is fixed in Revision B iPhone X units manufactured after that date. Exchanging a problem iPhone X unit is the only way to resolve the problem. Unfortunately Apple is making exchanges very difficult for iPhone X customers with problem devices who need help. I hope Apple will come its senses and issue a repair program for iPhone X customers who really need Apple’s help.

UPDATE
iOS 12.2 improves Apple Pay Suica Express Card performance and fixes issues on non-A12 Bionic devices.