Japan Cashless 2021: the Wireless Android NFC Reader Suck Index

You too can have the whole transaction world in your hands with the Android based Square Terminal for just ¥46,980

Now that contactless is everywhere, wireless contactless readers have become very fashionable and popular. Nobody wants wires or checkout lines. All of these systems are built around an Android based reading device connected to the internet payment service via Bluetooth, WiFi or 4G with a main terminal, an iPad or a laptop running payment network software. Convenient though they may be, compared with hard wired NFC reader performance they all suck with different levels of suckiness:

  1. stera: this lovely little ‘NFC antenna under the screen’ piece of shit from SMBC, GMO and Visa Japan is so slow that checkout staff put their hand over the stera screen/reader to keep customers waiting until the device is ready to go. This is followed by the instruction ‘don’t move your device until the reader beeps.’ It’s a 2~4 second wait until it beeps. This is 2014 era ‘you’re holding it wrong’ garbage nonsense. I teased one store manager about the hard wired JREM FeliCa readers that were swapped out with stera, “Those were too fast,” he said. Too fast?!
  2. PAYGATE: Another payment provider associated with GMO, slightly faster than stera but still slow, PAYGATE does’t like Apple Pay Suica•PASMO Express Transit very much. Have of the time it ignores it altogether forcing customers into the 2016 era ‘manually bring up Apple Pay Suica’ authenticate and pay maneuver. Another ‘you’re holding/doing it wrong,’ when the fault is on the checkout system side. Passé and totally unnecessary.
  3. AirPay: It’s weird that the cheap AirPay hardware performs better than PAYGATE or stera, it’s even weirder that AirPay performs better than Rakuten Pay which uses the very same reader but is stera shitshow slow.
  4. Square Terminal has gotten lots of media attention in Japan. Too early to experience it in the field yet but I’m not hopeful. Square Terminal is Android based after all and the NCF antenna under the screen design is the worst performing reader design out there. As one Brazilian reader wrote: “I just don’t like the ones running Android because at least here the software is less reliable and I managed to crash a few one by just taping my phone.”

Yep, that observation matches my experience. Payment network providers need better Android readers, the current crop is too slow getting the payment transaction ready to tap. In this era of endless subcontractor layers in the development process, creating a fast reliable Android based NFC wireless reader might be a tall order, if not impossible. The all over the place wireless NFC reader experience certainly doesn’t boast well for open loop advocates.

UPDATE
I ran across another crappy reader experience (above) and retweeted it. A reader had some questions about it, answered here by an anonymous expert. It basically comes down to poorly executed reader polling or not following Sony polling recommendations for FeliCa cards. This is what is happening in the above retweet. It is also what is going on with PAYGATE Station readers, half of the time the proper code hasn’t loaded correctly although this issue seems to be fixed in new PAYGATE Station checkout installations. Which brings us to the point I was trying to make: these performance issues can be fixed with reader firmware updates or transaction system software updates, but never are.

Wildcard polling involves the reader making a request for system code 0xFFFF and expecting the card/device to list all the system codes that it supports. Wildcard polling won’t work on an Apple Pay device in Express Transit mode – instead, the system code must be explicitly polled for (0x0003 for CJRC, 0x8008 for Octopus). You can cause Suica/Octopus to be automatically selected by sending SENSF_REQ (Polling command, 06) for those services explicitly.

I have verified that doing so with Apple Pay will cause the emulated card to be switched out as appropriate – the IDm value will also change, since Apple Pay emulates each card separately, instead of with a common IDm as with Osaifu Keitai. If you read the Sony documentation, you will see that developers are cautioned to also poll for the specific service codes they want to access if there’s no response to a wildcard poll.

Perhaps your reader doesn’t do this, but it’s fairly big omission…it should be doing explicit polling. Simply polling for service code 0x0003 should wake up Suica if selected as an Express Transit candidate, even if you don’t send any other commands. I’ve verified this with an RC-S380 reader and NFCPay.

JR East Suica station admission service starts March 13

JR East Suica station admission service starts March 13. JR East stations will accept Suica and Transit IC cards, Apple Pay Suica•PASMO included, for 2 hour non-transit station admission.

The 2 hour station admission costs ¥140 (Kanto district in-station malls)~¥150 (everywhere else) and covers all Suica gated stations (flap gate stations). Non-JR East stations, JR East stations off the Suica grid and Shinkansen gated areas inside JR East stations are not supported.

Suica station admission is the transit IC equivalent of paper platform tickets. The origin of station entrance platform tickets was for tearful platform farewells seen in old classic movies, but the Suica version is more about enticing people to shop and use station malls. Ticketless is nice but I wish JR East had also figured out a way to waive the fee with Suica purchases over a certain amount, like free parking vouchers. That would be the ultimate station mall shopping motivation.

Suica has been around since 2001, what took JR East so long to do ticketless station admission? The background details are interesting. Paper station platform tickets are completely separate from regular tickets and clearly marked, but there is no way for the entry transit gate point to determine the difference between using Suica for transit or just stopping at the station. This can be a problem when there is a major stoppage due to weather, earthquake, etc. and station staff have to deal with large numbers of people stuck in the station or forced to use another line. Fortunately this doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’a a problem.

JR Central EX-Press Reserve eTicket upgrade ditches Shinkansen IC cards for Transit IC cards (Updated)

EX-Press Reserve service upgrade, no more double card tap

EX-Press Reserve (also called EX-Press Ride) is the sister service of smartEX that uses the same EX app and system with deeper discounts aimed at Japanese business travelers. It also comes with a special EX Transit IC card just for Shinkansen gates with a unique ‘double card’ tap (EX IC card + regular Transit IC card). Mobile Suica and Apple Pay Suica users with a View card also have the unique and slightly different Express View service by registering for EX-Press Reserve in Suica App for JR Central Shinkansen eTicket travel EX Transit IC.

Fortunately JR Central is streamlining the complex service to bring it in line with the simple smartEX approach: instead of the special IC card for Shinkansen gates, members register a plain old Transit IC card (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, Toica, etc.) and use that. Shinkansen IC cards can still be used of course but most people will probably just use Transit IC cards, including Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO.

For Apple Pay Suica users this means Suica App Ex-Press Reserve service ends March 6, which also means a Suica App update that removes the menu item should be landing soon. From that date Apple Pay PASMO users can register their card number for EX-Press Reserve use. Keep in mind that EX-Press Reserve membership costs ¥1,100 a year and is limited to JR Central/JR West issue Express Card, JR East View Card, and certain Japanese issue credit cards.

Other EX-Press Reserve system improvements on March 6 include group ticket purchases for Transit IC card use instead of paper, and the ability to change reservations via the EX App or web site in case of Shinkansen delays.


UPDATE
EX App v6 was released March 6 with Transit IC card support and QR options. EX-Press Reserve members have the option of setting a EX-IC or Transit IC card for Shinkansen boarding and can add up to 5 Transit IC cards to the account for group ticket use. Both EX-Press Reserve and SmartEX JP members have a QR Pick-up code option for paper ticket pickup at ticket vending machines. Inbound SmartEx account holders have the extra QR Code boarding option at QR marked Shinkansen gates, though JR Central recommends printing it out as one-time passcode entry is required to display it on the smartphone screen. For inbound transit users Apple Pay Suica • PASMO is the easiest single card option for Tokkaido Shinkansen + regular transit.

Starbucks officially adds Suica contactless payments…finally

Apple Pay Suica/PASMO finally joined the official Starbucks payment lineup, something that many people have wanted for a long time. Nothing beats Apple Pay Suica Express Transit for grabbing coffee on the run.

I knew something was coming when Panasonic JT-R600 all-in-one readers appeared in Starbucks stores starting last summer. Initially these were for EMV chip cards and came with ‘please don’t forget to remove your card’ reminder stickers. EMV contactless is missing though I suspect it will come at some point. Other FeliCa contactless payments such as iD, QUICPay, Waon, nanaco, and Edy are also missing. Line Pay QR is accepted at some store locations but remains limited for now.

Suica/PASMO (and other eMoney like Waon) has been accepted for years at Starbucks locations in stations and malls where tenants integrate payment+reward point systems provided by the landlord. Suica/PASMO support is not native however and bolted onto the Starbucks checkout system. For JR East station area locations tied into the JRE POINT system this means double entry Suica payments: once for the Starbucks checkout and once more for the Suica/JRE POINT payment reader. This will remain in place until JR East and other retail landlords (PAMSO, etc.) come up with a better system for integrating JRE POINT (etc.) with Starbucks’ native Suica support. The big takeaway is that Suica/Transit IC is officially supported and earmarked for all locations.

Contactless payments are a welcome step forward but I wish Starbucks integrated their own reward points via NFC VAS instead of barcode in Starbucks app nonsense. That way I could get JRE POINT and Starbucks point with a single Apple Watch Suica tap at JR East station Starbucks locations without the hassle of iPhone Face ID with face mask. And while we’re on the subject of NFC VAS reward point cards…JR East hurry up with that JRE POINT card for Apple Wallet please.

UPDATE
Starbucks is running a ¥100 One More Coffee refill campaign with Suica/Transit IC purchase from January 13~June 30, a ¥50 discount. A good reason to kiss the iOS Starbucks App barcode thing goodbye for the duration and use Apple Pay Suica/PASMO Express Transit instead.

JR East Ticketless Touch and Go Shinkansen expanding system wide

The yellow area is new

Another day, another Suica related announcement. JR East ticketless Touch and Go Shinkansen service for Suica and other compatible Transit IC cards will be expanding in March 2021. It will basically cover all Shinkansen lines directly managed by JR East. Previously it only covered the Kanto region. Touch and Go differs from Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets in that Touch and Go uses the Suica balance for Shinkansen fare, eTickets do not.

The service is very simple: register Suica, PASMO, etc. at any JR East station pink recharge kiosk for Touch and Go. Then waltz through the Shinkansen gate and get on a non-reserved Shinkansen seat. A typical use case looks like the diagram below.

Touch and Go Flow
Touch and Go Flow: recharge before you go

Of course the new service area comes with a campaign: 10% JRE POINT fare reward for Touch and Go travel in the new area for the first 3 months. As I have said before, JR East is busy ramping up for Super Suica. Now that we have expanded Touch and Go Shinkansen, a larger Super Suica stored value purse is a given. Do I hear ¥30,000? ¥40,000? The latter would put Suica on par with WAON.