iOS 13.4 GM went out last week with the new iPad Pro/MacBook Air announcements. This week we have another hardware announcement rumor and we have the waiting for Godot Apple Pay Octopus launch…reportedly with iOS 13.4 which should officially arrive March 24~25. I agree with Jason Tjong in that if Apple Pay Octopus is coming, it has to come with iOS 13.4.x, the very last major iOS 13 release. The Apple Pay server leak in June listed iOS 13.0 as the minimum system, I don’t think Apple Pay Octopus will get a reset reprieve for iOS 14. TBC.
Should we worry about the typhoon class headwinds from the corvid-19 crisis blowing apart plans around the world? With everything from the Tokyo Olympics to WWDC up in the air, TBC is all we got.
September 2017: Apple releases global NFC iPhone 8/X and Apple Watch Series 3 setting the stage for Octopus support
December 2017: OCL launches Smart Octopus on Samsung Pay
The chart below lists native transit cards on mobile digital wallets by service launch year, limited to reloadable virtual transit cards already in service or formally announced by wallet platform vendors (Apple/Google/Samsung/etc.) and/or transit operators. Best viewed in landscape mode.
Transit card payment mobile protocols are FeliCa, MIFARE and PBOC 2.0/3.0, the later is the Chinese variant of EMV which uses Type A NFC with the slowest grocery store checkout transaction speeds of the three protocols:
Each card organization has formed its own specifications based on the EMV specification based on its own business refinement and expansion, such as China UnionPay’s PBOC 2.0 specification…PBOC based on the EMV standard, combined with the needs of domestic banks, the People’s Bank of China promulgated the PBOC series of standards: 1 PBOC1.0: e-wallet / electronic passbook / magnetic stripe card function 2 PBOC 2.0: E-wallet extension application, debit/credit application, personalization guide, contactless IC card standard 3 PBOC 3.0: Cancel e-wallet and electronic passbook application, cancel downgrade transaction, multi-algorithm extension, multi-application extension, mobile payment standard
Compared to other contactless smartcards in use, the data transmission of <China T-Union> Yang Cheng Tong is criticized by commuters that it takes 1~2 seconds between the card and reader to complete the transaction, though the operator claims that the data communication only takes 0.5 seconds in its official site.
Some China transit cards used FeliCa and MIFARE protocols in the past but have been migrated to the PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-union card spec for interoperable transit cards that work across the country, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc. Mobile FeliCa developed by Sony and NTT Docomo has been around the longest and works across multiple mobile hardware platforms from Symbian handsets, to Android, to iOS/watchOS. MIFARE and PBOC 2.0 have a shorter history on mobile. The key period is 2015~2016 which saw transit card debuts on Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Huawei Pay. Initial Apple Pay support for Beijing and Shanghai transit cards was listed as beta on iOS 11.3. An NFC engineering source said the early Apple implementation was not the full PBOC 2.0 spec, apparently fixed in iOS 12.3 when the beta label was removed.
One of the biggest advantages of transit cards in digital wallets is the freedom of anywhere anytime recharge with credit/debit cards; transit users are no longer chained to station kiosks to recharge plastic smartcards or renew a pass. The more payment options supported on the recharge backend, the more convenient. These are great customer features, so why is it taking so long to get transit cards on mobile in America and Europe when there are many China T-Union transit cards already on mobile?
Many transit card fare systems outside of Asia are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems, including Oyster, Opal, Clipper, OMNY, Ventra and SmarTrip to name a few. Cubic and operators like Transport for London and Transport for NSW have focused primarily on Open Loop EMV card support as a mobile solution instead of native virtual transit cards.
Publicly run transit system resources are usually limited so using bank cards for open loop transit is seen as a way to reduce system costs. The downside is that banks get a cut from transit gate transactions and transit cards for mobile are slow in coming, if at all. Cubic’s very first virtual transit card effort, the long delayed Apple Pay Ventra, is all the evidence you need when open loop is a priority and transit cards are not. Despite the recently announced Google Pay and Cubic alliance, I think transit cards on mobile will continue to arrive in a slow trickle. Let’s face it, HOP is the only American transit card that has gone mobile so far, and it’s not managed by Cubic. It’s the same story in Australia with Melbourne myki Google Pay.
Putting aside the open loop fad for a moment, I think the large deployment of China T-Union cards on mobile comes down to one simple thing that has nothing to do with protocols or smartphone hardware: all China T-Union cards share a common recharge backend cloud provided by Union Pay. It’s the reason why China T-Union sports a similar logo, the Union from Union Pay, and can only be recharged with a Union Pay card. It’s all one package. From Apple Support:
Here’s what you need to create a new Beijing Transit or Shanghai Transit card in Wallet to use with your iPhone: An iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, or later, set up with Face ID, Touch ID, or a passcode A China UnionPay debit card for Beijing, or a China UnionPay credit or debit card for Shanghai that you’ve added to Wallet
A common recharge backend cloud shared by all transit cards with the same card architecture makes hosting virtual cards much easier, the various transit operators don’t have to host everything directly or build a cloud backend from scratch, and there’s nothing to negotiate because Union Pay is the only payment network.
China T-Union in the cards for Hong Kong Octopus? China T-Union illustrates the power a national transit card standard backed with a shared cloud resource but it’s a straightjacket: Union Pay is the only payment network allowed. The real interesting development here is that QR Codes (AliPay/WeChat Pay) for transit, and everything else, are mainstream in China. There are many reasons for this outcome but on the transit gate QR Codes and PBOC-EMV transit cards are pretty much the same speed. There isn’t enough difference to care, and AliPay/WeChat Pay represent a choice outside the Union Pay straitjacket with all kinds of incentives to use QR.
Another interesting development is the pressure from QR Code players like Alipay for a piece of MTR transit gate action, and the Greater Bay Area transit card negoiations with Yangchengtong on the Hong Kong MTR/Octopus Card Limited mobile strategy roadmap. QR is mobile only of course, but a dual mode FeliCa/PBOC card approach for the Greater Bay Area is much cheaper and easier to implement on mobile than plastic.
Unfortunately in the face of pressure MTR/OCL, a world leading transit platform business model and innovator, has been surprisingly slow rolling out virtual Octopus cards on digital wallets to encourage the migration from plastic cards with new kinds of mobile services. It’s a troubling turn of events because OCL has had all the necessary transit on mobile infrastructure in place to move forward quickly for some time.
The recent Hong Kong protests followed now by the coronavirus crisis are certainly slowing things down. In the end however, growing mobile services is the best way forward for Octopus to remain a viable Hong Kong MTR business in these uncertain times. Because if it does not, Octopus risks becoming just another China T-Union card. Put it this way, if OCL doesn’t innovate and invest it its future as a world’s leading transit platform, it does not have one.
Here we are again. Apple Pay Octopus has been languishing in beta test hell for over a year with no public release in sight. The last official news was the 2019 year end launch delay to ‘later in 2020’ and the Octopus App v5.6 update that added support for iPhone recharge/top up of plastic Octopus cards. Hong Kong beta testers found code references in v5.6 that clearly indicated Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) originally intended to release Apple Pay Octopus first and iPhone app plastic recharge later, but the order was flipped with the delay.
To which I say…hope for the best but we’ll have to see how it plays out. There have been so many delays that it’s hard to be optimistic, and Tjong has not revealed any sources or given reasons to back up his tweets. On top of everything else we now have the coronavirus crisis. If his predictions/sources turn out right, great, if not we’ll wait for the next rumor or a real announcement from OCL.
Tjong says the Apple Pay Octopus delay is Apple’s fault not OCL, but again I am skeptical. From a technical side OCL already has extensive mobile experience with their Smart Octopus on Samsung service and has field tested Apple Pay Octopus since December 2018, OCL feedback to beta testers indicated everything was set to launch right up until the delay announcement. From a business side I find it hard to believe that OCL would dump resources into extensive Apple Pay beta field testing and Octopus App development without the business contract ends tied down. I think there are other reasons..reasons possibly related to the Hong Kong protests and the unexplained takedown of Smart Octopus during the Hong Kong Polytechnic University siege, but this is not a popular view.
We can put aside all doubts and pretend that March will be insanely great. Tim will announce Apple Pay for Octopus and more at the March Apple Event, Octopus Cards Limited CEO Sunny Cheung will be invited on stage to unveil the service. Joking aside, the only clarity from the murky chaos that was 2019 and is 2020 so far is this: Hong Kong is in a very different place than it was back in December 2018 and there’s less interest in Apple Pay Octopus.
2/19 UPDATE Jason Tjong also tweeted that Apple Pay Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Foshan China T-Union transit cards announced by Apple in early January will appear with iOS 13.4 which would be March, he also suggests that China T-Union card mobile integration is less complex than Octopus, again without citing sources or offering explanation. Given the circumstances of the Octopus delay I don’t agree with his tech take, but Apple Pay Lingnan/ShenZhen/Foshan coming more or less simultaneously with Apple Pay Octopus crossed my mind back when those card were announced in December right before the OCL delay announcement. It makes sense for Apple Pay to align transit card region support whenever possible though I do not think Apple is the reason for the last minute Octopus delay. We shall see. Long term, Greater Bay Area Transit operators are looking to create a single transit card. A multiple release that soon straddles both Hong Kong and surrounding mainland area transit cards with a single digital wallet, not dual mode exactly but close, is a win for iPhone/Apple Watch transit users.
3/15 UPDATE New Apple Pay Octopus iOS 13.4 launch rumors along with Apple Pay China T-Union beta test screen shots are making Twitter rounds. If true, we could see wide area Apple Pay Transit releases on or shortly after the official iOS 13.4 which could drop this week March 25/26. With the coronavirus crisis in full swing in America now, expect things to be fluid.
The iPhone 7 and later device configuration specification exactly matches Apple’s Core NFC documentation but readers report that Octopus App strings reveal that Apple Pay Octopus will be limited to iPhone 8/Apple Watch Series 3 and later. This is inline with expectations and solves the iPhone 7 FeliCa support mystery: iPhone 7 only supports FeliCa Read/Write, iPhone 8 and later supports both FeliCa Read/Write and Card Emulation functions.
The Android support spec is a little fuzzy too. NFC-F is a requirement for NFC certification so many recent devices support FeliCa Read/Write but far fewer Android devices have the software support for FeliCa Card Emulation, Samsung Galaxy being one of the few in the Hong Kong market.
Oh and one last consolation prize for iPhone users until Apple Pay Octopus appears: Octopus on Apple Pay is designated as “Smart Octopus”…sounds familiar. Also it appears that Smart Octopus Apple Pay was originally due to launch with iOS 13.2, read Smart Octopus Apple Pay details while the link is valid.
Apple Pay Ventra The native Chicago Ventra transit card on Apple Pay is a big deal that was announced back in March. It represents the first major native transit card for the USA on Apple Pay. The much smaller Portland transit system HOP card landed safely in Wallet in May, but Ventra is still listed as ‘coming soon.’ The fault is not with Apple but with Cubic Transportation Systems who operate transit fare systems for Ventra, New York OMNY, Transport for London (TfL) Oyster, Sydney Opal, Washington DC Metro, and many more. For all of their supposed system expertise, Cubic was extremely slow rolling out Apple Pay Express Transit on TfL and has yet to deliver a single native transit card on Apple Pay or Google Pay. I hope Cubic does a better job in 2020.
Apple Pay Octopus The Apple Pay Octopus ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ saga of 2019 was strange and ultimately sad. The Apple support side was all ready to roll with iOS 13. Octopus Cards Limited announced Apple Pay support back in July with ‘coming soon’ website artwork that was pulled when the launch was officially delayed on December 19. My take is that OCL parent Hong Kong MTR made, or was forced into, a political decision to limit services, starting with the unexplained service outage of Smart Octopus during the Hong Kong Polytechnic University siege. This is not a popular opinion.
Readers have reported riot damage to MTR infrastructure and suggest this might be a reason for the Apple Pay Octopus delay. I don’t buy it. Hong Kong MTR, or someone higher up, wants to limit services and control movement, not open them up. But this introduces great risk: moving people are moving money. Limit services and the flow of people, and you limit the flow of money. In this scenario Hong Kong doesn’t have a future. More than anything, I hope Hong Kong gets it’s future back in 2020.