QR Code Transit on Hong Kong MTR starts January 23 (Updated)

After a very long preparation period QR Code transit on Hong Kong MTR finally starts on Saturday, January 23. The MTR Fan FaceBook page:

Only TWO WEEKS left before the launch of QR code payment on 23 January! For this new service, we have installed about 1,000 QR code scanners at stations and conducted a series of system and on-site tests. Prominent purple signage will also be on display to help passengers identify the gates providing the new service.

This is the debut of MTR ‘open-loop’ ticketing. Up until now MTR used the ubiquitous Octopus card, the trail blazing transit card that showed the world what smartcard ticketing can do when extended beyond transit to include eMoney payments, transforming a transit card into a transit payment platform. Unlike Japan however Octopus Card Limited (OCL) was late bringing Octopus to mobile. Part of the problem was that Hong Kong mobile carriers never had an Osaifu Keitai-like standard that bridged the Symbian and Android hardware eras. OCL also wasted time with SIM card mobile support before finally launching the mobile Smart Octopus service first on Samsung Pay in late 2018, followed by Apple Pay Octopus in June 2020 and Huawei Pay Octopus in December 2020.

But MTR still faces a problem that most Android devices don’t support FeliCa even though NFC-F is supported across all NFC capable devices. It’s the global NFC dilemma best illustrated in the Google Pay on Google Pixel situation: Mobile FeliCa is installed on all Pixel devices but Google only turns it on for Pixel models sold in Japan. There are many takes on the reasons why. My take is that Google doesn’t want to do the all the global NFC OS level support work that benefits all Android manufacturers. Google’s stance is, ‘don’t ask us, roll your own embedded Secure Element (eSE) solution.’ And so it’s a race of how many ‘Octopus on XX Pay’ digital wallet platforms OCL can line up for Android and wearables.

For MTR, QR Code open loop transit sidesteps this Android hardware mess, but will it be a success when users have to open a smartphone app with a face mask on at every gate? Apple Pay Octopus on Apple Watch sure beats that problem and then some. Long term I think NFC wearables and UWB Touchless will be the QR killer. Time will tell.

AliPay HK is the first payment provider, others QR players will be added as they are qualified. The transit gate layout is interesting, QR is limited to purple colored gate lanes shown in a nifty MTR video. This is similar to what JR East will do when they phase out mag strip paper ticketing and replace it QR Code paper tickets. It’s also the layout that Nankai will do when they implement VISA Touch after testing it this year.

The next MTR open loop addition is expected to be EMV+PBOC China T-Union compatibility though MTR has not announced when that will happen. OCL already committed to a new Octopus card that will be compatible with China T-Union.

UPDATE

AliPay mainland accounts can also be used for Hong Kong MTR QR transit.

Huawei Pay Octopus: global NFC = custom eSE

Huawei Pay Octopus launched on December 9, the second digital Octopus 2020 launch after Apple Pay Octopus on June 2. The device list is interesting: Huawei Mate 40 Pro, P40, P40 Pro, P40 Pro+, P30, P30 Pro, Mate 30, Mate 30 Pro, Mate 20, Mate 20 Pro, Mate RS Porsche, Mate Xs, Nova 7 5G. A wide range of Huawei models sold in Hong Kong have global NFC support, at least on the smartphone side but does not include the G2 Pro smartwatch.

In Japan the only Huawei models with global NFC/Mobile FeliCa/Osaifu Keitai support are the P20 and P30 and only with a Docomo sim. Huawei Pay is not supported in Japan. The Huawei Pay Octopus device list tells us what we suspected all along: Huawei Pay is global NFC capable but Huawei kneecaps it so they can sell devices via Docomo. Huawei Pay can turn things on and off because, just like Apple Pay, Huawei has a custom embedded Secure Element (eSE), so does OPPO and so will Xiaomi in 2021.

The gist of all this is that Google’s Android Pay era HCE and HCE-F technology lost out to eSE long ago. As FeliCa Dude said, ‘it’s all eSE or nothing now,’ to which I would add, ‘it’s all custom eSE + XX-Pay or nothing now.’

So where does Google Pay fit in this scheme? It doesn’t. And it could be one of the things Google hopes to address with their own SoC, but a custom eSE is probably a long shot. That is unless Google is serious about making global NFC Google Pay work seamlessly on Pixel and Fitbit devices by dumping Osaifu Keitai and going all in with a custom eSE. If Google persists in wanting it both ways, limited NFC Google Pay for everybody and global NFC Google Pay in Pixel for Japan only so they can sell via Docomo etc., expect more of the confusing Android global NFC support mess we have now.

We all float

The float is essentially double-counted money: a paid sum which, due to delays in processing, appears simultaneously in the accounts of the payer and the payee.

Individuals and companies alike can use float to their advantage, gaining time or earning interest before payment clears their bank.

Investopedia

One of the great tragedies of the NYC MTA is that it’s a too-much-public-not-enough-private transit cash pipe with too much exposure to local NY politics. NYT has a wonderful video on YouTube that explains the critical MTA flaw: politicians cleverly borrow against the MTA cash pipe for pork barrel projects that have little or nothing to do with MTA, but leave it highly leveraged and helpless to fix it’s own problems or invest in infrastructure.

Think of what MTA could really do if it was effectively protected from political interference, with full control of its own money and a Suica-like transit+payment empire, free to use the float of all those MetroCards soon to be OMNY transit cards.

One of the many things never discussed about open loop is who uses the float, but banks hold the money until the user account is settled with the transit company and they take a cut of the fare. It doesn’t take much imagination to see why banks and credit card companies really like promoting open loop.

Closed loop Japanese transit companies don’t talk about the float either but Japan IC Transit cards are like micro bank accounts with unused e-money balance and plastic card deposits sitting in all those Suica, PASMO, ICOCOA, manaca, etc. Japanese transit companies love to put all those micro bank accounts to work earning interest.

Japanese transit companies and Hong Kong Octopus have built those micro bank account transit cards into a very nice transit payment platform business that combines transit, payments and other services attached to the card which means there’s a lot more stored fare floating around than plain old transit-only cards. The addition of digital wallets like Apple Pay Suica and Apple Pay Octopus means there’s ever more e-money moving through those cards with short term parking…more float for transit companies to earn interest.

It’s a wonder why more transit companies haven’t followed the transit payment platform model to capture more business in the digital wallet era, but it’s testament to how little control they have over their own business destiny. Next time when you hear the praises of open loop over closed loop, remember to think about who’s floating in that business arrangement…and who’s not.

Farewell FeliCa Octopus, save the last tap for me

During the 2019 Apple Pay Octopus saga one thing was clear: Octopus was living on borrowed time. On the eve of the Apple Pay Octopus launch:

Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) has been slow extending the service to include mobile. Instead of putting early effort into digital wallet support for Apple Pay/Google Pay/Samsung Pay, OCL wasted time and resources developing the niche Mobile SIM product which didn’t pan out. This lag coupled with the rise of AliPay and WeChat Pay QR Code payment empires put enormous pressure on OCL to do something…

With so much traffic and business from the mainland, OCL owner MTR is looking to add QR Code Open Loop transit support (paywalled link)…MTR gates will eventually look like the ones in Guangzhou with PBOC/FeliCa/QR Code readers supporting Octopus, China T-Union, AliPay/WeChat Pay. At which point I say OCL doesn’t have a viable transit platform business anymore.

I hoped the success of Apple Pay Octopus would buy it time, but on August 28 the South China Morning Post published a story where OCL CEO Sunny Cheung says they will join the China T-Union initiative for seamless transit integration between Hong Kong and China. He to goes out of his way a few times in the interview to say how ‘old’ NFC technology is:

Cheung said internet users’ criticism of Octopus being a tech laggard died down in June after people were allowed to add their Octopus account to Apple Wallet on their iPhones. Cheung, who admitted he was stung by the criticism, regarded Octopus’ breakthrough on the iPhone as one of the best times of his stint with the company. “This was one of my biggest challenges,” he said. “The breakthrough helped refresh Octopus’ image even though it is still using NFC technology.”

Hong Kong’s Octopus aims to spread tentacles with contactless card for paying fares in mainland China

Obviously Sunny thinks that QR Codes are cutting edge. He is retiring and doesn’t care about criticism of his disastrous OCL tenure, or scalping inbound tourists who want to use Apple Pay Octopus.

Hard Reality
China has ruthlessly weeded out MIFARE and FeliCa transit cards and replaced them with the slower PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-Union standard, aka the supermarket checkout spec. Octopus will eventually get the same China T-Union lobotomy.

If OCL went deep instead of cheap Octopus would go ‘dual mode’: a single card with separate NFC protocols and currency purses: NFC-A/China T-Union RMB and NFC-F/Octopus HKD. In this scenario Hong Kong Octopus remains on FeliCa with the rest of China on PBOC China T-Union.

Unfortunately OCL will likely go cheap instead of deep…. a single protocol China T-Union PBOC 2.0/3.0 card that works everywhere, and on mobile, for all mainland transit and for mainlander transit in Hong Kong. There is also the plastic card issue business angle to consider. Read FeliCa Dude’s Octopus on iPhone 7 post paying special attention to the Octopus plastic card issue steps that he outlines. The Hong Kong powers that be would like that profitable franchise sourced locally or in mainland and not from Sony.

‘One country two systems’ was an illusion, Hong Kong is being force fitted into China. Nothing is sacred, there are no hold outs. It may take a few years, but as MTR transit gates and OCL store readers are gradually replaced with newer models, those readers will all have dual mode FeliCa/PBOC support. And when everything is ready, MTR and OCL will simply turn off FeliCa. FeliCa based Octopus has had a great run that influenced transit fare system development around the world. Enjoy it while it lasts.


UPDATE November 2020
Jason Tjong tweeted that a dual protocol mode Octopus card is in final testing stages. Hard to say what it is at this point, Sold Octopus•Lingnan Pass replacement, Greater Bay Area transit card, the new Octopus?

UPDATE April 2021:
Octopus Cards Limited has applied for China T-Union membership as planned, and will launch a card for use outside of Hong Kong. The SCMP story quotes OCL CEO Angus Lee Chun-ming:

“We have applied to join the China T-Union, the nationwide one-card payment system led by the Ministry of Transport. That will enable Octopus physical-card holders to pay for public transport fares in mainland China,” and ‘The service can be upgraded to digital Octopus cards in the phase two development. “The card will be denominated in Hong Kong dollars. Octopus will arrange the currency settlement with the mainland partner,” said Lee.’

The physical dual mode card with 2 separate stored fare purses in beta tests since November is phase one and appears to be 2 separate chips (PBOC and FeliCa) in one card like the Octopus • Lingnan Pass. The digital wallet version is phase two. The elimination of FeliCa on the Hong Kong side will be the final phase, though I wonder if the multiple secure element domain/multiple NFC protocol support of Mobile FeliCa 4.1 outlined by FeliCa Dude will be used to ease the dual mode digital wallet migration.

The Apple Pay Octopus Inbound Gouge

Good old William S. Burroughs hit the nail on the head explaining what the title of Naked Lunch really meant: that awkward frozen moment when everybody in the restaurant sees exactly what is on their fork. iOS developers staring at the thing stuck on the tip of the App Store fork don’t like what they see: an Apple platform that’s supposed to be a level playing field, where the reality is that Apple plays favorites and cuts side deals, a losing game of lowering standards.

People far smarter than me already editorialized Tim Cook’s opening statement at the Congressional antitrust hearing. I won’t go into it here except to say, what did they expect? The whole affair, on all sides, was a bad lip read parody, an awkward Handsome Anthony moment without the humor.

Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) released an iOS Octopus app for tourists last week that perfectly illustrates what’s at stake in Apple’s losing game of lowering standards. The long delayed Apple Pay Octopus launch in June was very successful but OCL shut inbound visitors out by limiting the Apple Pay Octopus service to Hong Kong issue bank payment cards.

This is something that Apple Pay Suica has never done. All Apple Pay cards and iPhone users from around the world are welcome to use Suica. This is why Suica remains the gold standard of what a transit card on mobile should be.

Instead of following the Suica example, OCL took the low road for inbound iPhone users. Octopus Tourist app adds an Octopus card to Apple Pay Wallet with a non-Hong Kong issue card. However the currency charged to the users Apple Pay cannot be in local HKD currency. OCL forces users to choose another currency as the default currency for the life of the card. This adds an invisible surcharge over local currency transactions, 4% or more on average, which is OCL taking their cut.

This is called forced Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) and is a credit card compliance violation. Visa, Mastercard and all stipulate that merchants cannot impose any requirements on the cardholder to use a non-local currency. Why OCL is so brazenly breaking these rules, and why Apple is allowing this level of gouging in a major app from a major Apple Pay payment provider is not good at all. As FeliCa Dude says, “Apple should swiftly rebuke this kind of grasping banditry lest it poison their platform.”

If Apple does nothing, I think we have the answer Tim Cook didn’t give at the Congressional hearings, and many more embarrassing awful Handsome Anthony moments to follow. Okaaaay?