The Weekly #4

August 8, 2021

Pixel 6 Tensor and the secure element

After many years of rumors Google finally unveiled their custom silicon, though details won’t be known until Pixel 6 devices go on sale. Dieter Bohn wrote:

Tensor is an SoC, not a single processor. And so while it’s fair to call it Google-designed, it’s also still unclear which components are Google-made and which are licensed from others. Two things are definitely coming from Google: a mobile TPU for AI operations and a new Titan M2 chip for security. The rest, including the CPU, GPU, and 5G modem, are all still a mystery.

Ever since Pixel 3 models went on sale in Japan with Mobile FeliCa support, inbound Pixel users have been pining for the same global NFC feature that iPhone and Apple Watch have, but it hasn’t happened. Here’s why.

On the NFC hardware side everything has been ready to go on all smartphone hardware for years because NFC A-B-F support is a requirement for NFC certification. The problem has been on the SE side, the black box where all the transaction magic happens. From GlobalPlatform the SE certification organization:

A SE is a tamper-resistant platform (typically a one chip secure microcontroller) capable of securely hosting applications and their confidential and cryptographic data (for example cryptographic keys) in accordance with the rules and security requirements set by well-identified trusted authorities.

There are different form factors of SE: embedded and integrated SEs, SIM/UICC, smart microSD as well as smart cards. SEs exist in different form factors to address the requirements of different business implementations and market needs.

GlobalPlatform Introduction to Secure Elements

SE Wars
In the pre-Apple Pay mobile carrier hardware era, carriers used SE SIM or a embedded Secure Element (eSE) + carrier SIM combo that chained customers to service contracts for the privilege of using mobile payments. This is the classic Osaifu Keitai model pioneered by NTT DOCOMO: an overpriced carrier SIM contract to use mobile payments only with select carrier handsets.

This carrier lock in model is one reason why Mobile FeliCa ended up being ridiculed as ‘galapagos technology’ even though everybody else copied it. This carrier SE SIM hostage situation, i.e. the Mobile Wallet SE Wars, led Apple and Google to follow different strategies to address the problem.

The Apple Pay Way
Apple’s answer of course was Apple Pay. A unique in-house strategy of putting a GlobalPlatform certified Secure Element in Apple Silicon. Most eSE go on the NFC controller, but doing it the Apple in-house way has advantages over a NFC chip vendor bundle: control of the eSE applets and ability to update them and the Apple eSE for new protocols in iOS updates. We saw this in action with the addition of FeliCa in 2016, PBOC in 2017 and MIFARE in 2018. We are seeing it again with the addition of Ultra Wideband (UWB) Touchless in iOS 15.

The Google Pay Way
Google’s answer to the carrier owned SE problem was a convoluted evolution from Google Wallet (2011) to Android Pay (2015) and finally Google Pay (2018). Google’s first salvo was Host Card Emulation (HCE): “NFC card emulation without a hardware secure element” a virtual secure element hosted on Google’s cloud or in an app. Later on Google attempted to do the same for FeliCa with HCE-F.

The HCE strategy was quietly abandoned when Google decided to get into the hardware business and Android Pay turned into Google Pay. Now we have Google Pay running on Google Pixel with its own embedded Secure Element (eSE). With Pixel and Google Pay, Google decided they didn’t want to be the Secure Element provider for every Android OEM out there especially when the Chinese OEMS are all rolling their own eSE based digital wallet services anyway, completely ignoring HCE. Sure, HCE/HCE-F is still there in Android developer documentation but it’s a vestigial relic of the SE wars. From an industry standpoint it’s eSE or nothing now.

Google Pixel models up to now have used vendor bundled eSE + NFC controllers with the Pixel JP models using the Osaifu Keitai software stack. This makes global NFC support more complicated because Google doesn’t ‘own’ the eSE and the software stack, at least not in the Apple sense of making their own all in one solution. As we have seen, Mobile FeliCa is installed on all Pixel 5 models but the Osaifu Keitai stack only loads on JP models.

Will a Tensor SoC that contains a Titan M2 and a custom eSE solve this? It all depends on whether Google goes deep instead of cheap by stripping Google Pay of its dependency on the Osaifu Keitai stack and create their own region free support stack. If so, inbound Pixel 6 users will have the ability to add Suica and other FeliCa cards out of the box.


The PASPY organ transplant

As pointed out previously, the PASPY transit card transition from NFC to QR is not going to be easy. Not only does HIroden have to swap out the basic technology infrastructure, they also have to swap out their IT system integrator partners. The PASPY system was built and is currently managed by NEC with the last server upgrade completed in 2014. A quick look at the system map illustrates the pain points that including swapping out the NFC reader infrastructure in trolleys and buses and replacing it with QR readers with mobile connectivity, a requirement because of central processing. There will also be a lot of pain for wide area commuters because going QR means cutting the cross compatibility cord with ICOCA, Suica, etc.

The mobile connection means a mobile operator has to be involved to make it work. The likely IT system candidate here is the same one behind all the QR transit systems in Japan so far: SoftBank backed QUADRAC. The PASPY QR replacement is expected to be closed loop, similar to the QR + smartphone app closed loop system being tested by Nankai. Too bad JR West can’t come to the rescue with a localized version of the Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit Card, but that’s another story for another time.


To eSIM or not to eSIM

eSIMs are great in theory, unfortunately the current reality for Japanese customers is less than ideal even thought the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) is promoting them over traditional physical carrier SIMS and issued eSIM guidance. In addition to this carrier SIM locked devices will not be allowed from October. Of the big three carrier budget brands: NTT DOCOMO (ahamo), au KDDI (povo), SoftBank (LINEMO), only LINEMO and povo offer eSIM options. DOCOMO says they are thinking about it but for now ahamo is a physical SIM service because DOCOMO says eSIMS are not as secure as physical SIMS.

A recent article by Masao Sano outlined the eSIM situation in Japan and current obstacles for customers. The online signup process and device setup isn’t always smooth going and first time customers sometimes have to deal with unlocking their carrier device, APN settings, network authentication codes, profile installations and so-on. The eSIM process needs to be easier and user friendly. The good news is that unlocked carrier phones will be standard soon along with better eSIM option plans and migration setup. Once ahamo adds an eSIM option the next step will be taking it mainstream for major brand carrier contracts.


Apple Music finally sorts Japanese artist names correctly

Congratulations Naoko! You and all your fellow Japanese artists on Apple Music were finally liberated from the # sorting section and now live in 五十音 (Gojūon) splendor in iOS Music App. A very long wait though wasn’t it? Six years!

Seriously though I wonder what took Apple so long to fix most, but not all, of their Japanese music metadata mess. Not a moment too soon as the old reliable iTunes Match service seems to be on its last legs and the macOS Music app replacement for the old reliable iTunes app is completely useless for organizing a digital music collection: Apple Music and iCloud Music library have a mind of their own.

Truth be told, I had more fun collecting and listening to music on iTunes + iPod than discovering music on Apple Music + iPhone. For some strange reason, less is sometimes more.


The Weekly will be taking a summer break the weeks of August 9 and 16 and resume the week of September 1. Take care and enjoy the rest of the summer.

AirPods Pro Tokyo Commuter Quick Review

As a rule I don’t do product reviews, especially highly personal preference items like speakers and headphones. But after a few days of using AirPods Pro on the daily commute, they worth writing about. The original AirPods worked very well for my ears and losing headphone wires was a godsend. Far too many times the EarPods wire caught on some woman’s purse getting out of a crowded train with a violent tug that yanked EarPods out of my ears and sent my iPhone flying for the car floor.

The AirPods sound was good enough for my ears in quiet environments but as every train commuter knows, a quiet train is very rare. Meandering feeder lines like Tokyu Ikegami are so noisy on underpasses and bridges that serious music listening with AirPods is impossible.

My first 2 days with AirPods Pro were so miserable I seriously thought about returning them. The sound was thin and unbalanced. I swapped out the medium silicon tips for large and carefully played with the ear position. I was used to jamming in AirPods but AirPods Pro prefer a much lighter ear canal landing. Then everything clicked and I was sucked into a private listening space I never experienced before. It was like my very first Walkman experience back in college, with way better sounding earphones. Listening to music on the daily commute is fun again.

There are lots of noise cancelling headphones out there but I am very happy with the size and performance of AirPods Pro. The noise cancellation ~ outside sound balance is just right for my ears and the daily Tokyo commuter train grind, I hear only enough to keep me aware when needed. The toggle feature between noice cancellation and transparency mode is far more convenient than I ever imagined. AirPods Pro are certainly not cheap but if you are happy with AirPods on your daily commute I recommend giving AirPods Pro a listen at the nearest Apple Store.

The Apple Music Japanese Metadata Mess Continues

Kana gojuon (fifty sounds) sorting for Japanese artists on Apple Music and iCloud Music Library has never worked for me since those services started in 2015. No matter how much I enter and tweak kana sort fields in iTunes, 12 hours later iCloud Music Library on iOS ignores everything and sends kanji named artists to the bottom of the list under ‘#’.

Just for kicks I decided to engage Apple Support about the problem. The Japanese support staff was very professional and kind. It took 3 sessions of taking screenshots on iOS Apple Music and macOS iTunes, and collecting a sysdiagnose log to upload to Apple Support. I have done these a few times but had to admire the composure of the Apple support technician. I could never stay that cool walking a neophyte through the same data collection process.

He promised to call me with an update today and did so, “We heard from engineering but there is no solution for your issue.” I suspected as much but it was weirdly reassuring to know that Apple engineers could not fix it. He went on to explain that the kana sorting issue might be fixed in a future update. Or maybe not: it has been 4 years already, I’m not holding my breath.

Japan is the 2nd largest music market after the United States and far more profitable than other Asian countries. You would think that Apple would invest the time and effort to fix things. The strange thing is that kana sorting on iTunes and iTunes Match worked fine before Apple Music and iCloud Music Library. iTunes won’t be with us much longer, but it worked well for a long time. Goodbye old friend.

Apple Music Japan Updates “For You” Section

The Apple Music ‘For You’ section that was updated in the USA store on April 15, finally arrived on the Japan store today. The update offers much more customized content than the previous ‘For You’ for which I am glad, the old one had too much weekly repeats to keep my interest.

After listening to the Ramones, Apple Music immediately offered Punk bands galore, Monkees, Rolling Stones and many other interesting offbeat content. I look forward to playing with it. One thing I like right off is that disliking something immediately removes it from suggestion lists. Goodbye U2, may you never pollute my suggestion lists again. The real test will be how much good Japanese rock ‘n roll listening Apple Music offers up in addition to the standard western stuff.

It’s very strange that HomePod is still missing from the Japan market. There are lots of audiophiles with money here, with the right marketing approach HomePod could do well. Unfortunately Japanese artist kana sorting tags on Apple Music are still such a mess that kana sorting is remains broken since iCloud Music Library appeared. Every Japanese artist from Yumin to Utada ends up at the very bottom in the under # in iCloud Music Library no matter what you add to the Japanese kana sorting fields in iTunes. And if Japanese kana sorting is broken, Siri on HomePod is broken too. And if iTunes is going away in macOS 10.15, Japanese kana sorting for iCloud Music Library may be broken forever.

Juggling domestic and international App Store accounts in iOS 12

iOS 12 App Store limitations
iOS 12 App Store can update Apps from a secondary account but only App titles that exist in the main account App Store

I can’t find the link right now (found it) but some blogs reported back in early summer that iOS 12 iOS 11.3 gained the ability to update App Store content from 2 different account IDs, USA and international.

I have juggled USA and Japan App Store content since App Store day 1 2008. Updating meant constant logging out and logging in to different accounts manually, a pain in the neck that I grew accustomed to over the years. Things have slowly improved but seamless savvy domestic~international App Store switching is still not there yet in iOS 12.

iOS 12 updates Apps from both USA and Japan accounts but only for content that is exists in both App Stores. Any attempt to update Japan only content from Yahoo Japan, Docomo, etc., and the USA App store coughs up a ‘This item is no longer available’ error. Back to the old tried and true ‘log out of US store log in to Japan store’ update maneuver.

This kind of ‘USA English version first, internationalization and optimization later when we can get to it’ attitude seems to be getting worse at Apple instead of better. On iOS 12 alone we have Apple Music Japan content that still does not Kana sort, half-assed Apple Maps Japan content, no Japanese TV content what-so-ever even though Netflix Japan and Amazon Prime Japan are going all out. On the just released macOS Mojave 10.14 iMessages is still missing Location settings. The list goes on.

Apple likes to pride itself on being, slightly, ahead of the curve on software internationalization. Sometimes it is, sometimes not. Smart, savvy internationalization of OS, cloud and content services that lead the industry may not sound sexy or produce big profits, but they have a huge impact on product quality around the world.

Making Apple products the best possible products out there was what Steve Jobs was all about. Apple may be stumbling of late, let’s hope they remember their founder by putting all into the job at hand.