Open loop wishful thinking trashes Apple Pay Express Transit reputation

The latest OMNY bump in the road perfectly captures the downside of making contactless credit/debit cards a one size fits all solution. As the New York Post piece (via MacRumors) points out, some Apple Pay Express Transit users are being double charged for fares. Perhaps they didn’t know that Express Transit was enabled in the first place, perhaps the iPhone passed too close to the OMNY transit gate reader. It’s a classic “you’re holding it wrong” situation that has nothing to do with Apple Pay Express Transit and everything to do with the current EMV architecture and how banks implement it.

Part of the problem is that OMNY is new, it’s not working across the entire MTA system yet, and open loop EMV bank cards will never replace all classic MetroCard fare options. That job is for the MIFARE based OMNY transit card due in late 2021. Until the system is complete Metro users will have to juggle different cards and deal with a very long transition. Transport for London (TfL) users have had MIFARE based Oyster cards since 2003, contactless credit/debit cards have been ubiquitous since the 2012 London Olympics when open loop was added to the TfL Oyster fare system.

To Biometric or not Biometric?
Open Loop credit/debit cards on transit gates instead of native transit cards always come with banking and credit industry baggage. Even in the contactless card heaven that is said to be London, there are a surprisingly number of gotchas: minimum limits for using cards, max limits that require PIN codes. It’s an endless loop of banks pushing one way and merchants pushing back.

The golden uptake for Apple Pay in Japan was Suica and is the same story everywhere: it’s all about getting rid of coins for transit, coffee, sandwiches, etc. The small stuff. This is the 20,000 JPY prepaid heavenly region where Apple Pay Suica sings and banks so desperately want to shut out all other players and keep all the marbles. But bank cards have an authorization problem: banks set spending limits not the card architecture. The line is always changing, what works today might not work tomorrow. The prepaid Suica architecture itself is the firewall that does away with user authorization because local processing transaction at the transit gate or store reader is all the authorization necessary.

Express Transit was developed for Apple Pay Suica in 2016, it remains the best matchup because the feature is a basic part of the Suica card architecture that is not a bank card. Apple Pay Express Transit for EMV payment cards that appeared with iOS 12.3 is a retrofit job that I predicted would have problems because retrofits are about dealing with baggage, not creating a better long term solution. 7 months later we are already there. This problem isn’t going away, not as long as banks and EMV keep operating the way that they do.

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Suica joins Coke ON IC, is it worth it?

Coke ON is one more point gimmick app that offers a free beverage for points, bottle top ‘stamps’, earned with purchases via FeliCa/Coke ON IC (Transit IC, Rakuten, nanaco, PiTaPa, WAON), credit cards and QR (LinePay, PayPay aka Line PayPayPay) linked via Coke ON. Up until now Suica was excluded from earning stamps but will join the other Coke ON IC cards starting January 14.

The Coke ON app is not particularly user friendly. It wants your data, your location and your Bluetooth to connect to Bluetooth enabled Coke vending machines. And it seems overly aggressive, at least according to a very long Twitter thread. I’m not sure what exactly the issue is for the user but it seems related to location services and suspect card reads.

Japanese users have complained about Apple Pay Suica location based transaction notification details since the default feature appeared with the iOS 12.2 Suica make over. I have no problems using Apple Pay Suica on iPhone 11 Pro to buy drinks without Coke ON. The problem described in the tweet thread could be a Coke ON incompatibility with Mobile Suica despite Suica compatibility listed on the vending machine side. Hopefully this is fixed for the Coke ON Suica debut, however I don’t plan on giving away my iPhone data to collect Coke ON app bottle top stamps.

2019 Tidbits

The end of the year season is down for the count. Barring any news items like Apple Pay Octopus really launching this year, this is probably my last news post for 2019. Not news really, just tidbits.

Lingnan Pass and ShenZhen transit cards coming to Apple Pay in 2020
This piece of news came from Twitter users noting that the Lingnan Pass will come to Apple Pay in 2020. The Lingnan Pass and ShenZhen Transit pages show announcements released today (December 11), a machine translation roughly says Apple Pay support is coming soon. China has had the PBOC 2.0~3.0 contactless standard and T-Union transit card architecture in place for some time, with local transit cards slowly being updated to the new format. Beijing and Shanghai transit cards arrived on Apple Pay with iOS 11.3. Additional China transit cards were tested in an early developer preview of iOS 11.4 but dropped before the developer beta. Beijing/Shanghai transit cards were labeled beta up until iOS 12.2. Apple Pay Lingnan Pass and ShenZhen Transit will likely follow the Beijing/Shanghai transit card model with bank card recharge limited to China Union Pay (Interesting side note: Octopus and Lingnan Pass have a dual mode transit card). If Tim Cook does visit Hong Kong and China on his trip, things might shape up to be an excellent Apple Pay transit card year end Asian adventure.

Tim Cook’s Excellent Asian Transit Adventure?
The Tim arrived unannounced in Tokyo a few days ago, his first public appearance here since September 2016 and the first public demo of Apple Pay Suica just before the service launch. With Tim’s arrival in Tokyo I noticed an odd uptick in views from Hong Kong. When Tim landed in Singapore, Hong Kong views ticked up again. Obviously Hong Kong iPhone users are hoping that Tim will visit Hong Kong and launch the long delayed Apple Pay Octopus. I hope so too. Update: Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit information is available to China mainland users after a long absence.

12/19 UPDATE: Apple Pay Octopus has been delayed to later in 2020.

1/8 UPDATE: Apple announces new transit cards for China but not Octopus

Apple Pay Ventra
This was promised as ‘coming later this year’ back in May. As of December 10 Ventra Twitter support is still promising users to “stay tuned.” Let’s hope Cubic is working overtime to make it happen. Update: Ventra has changed the Apple Pay Ventra blurb from ‘coming later this year’ to ‘coming soon,’ we’ll see Apple Pay Ventra in 2020.

JP POST going Cashless
This was announced some time ago but is worth repeating: Japan Post is going cashless starting February 2020 in select central post offices, rolling out to all branches by May 2020. Your favorite plastic credit cards, eMoney cards (iD, QUICPay, Suica, etc.) and QR Codes (The PayPayPay crowd) can be used to pay for postage, sending packages, stamps, postcards, catalog items, etc. It would be nice if cashless payments improve post office lines and wait times, but I guarantee that’s not going to happen.

The Super Suica Touchless Connection

The recent flurry of press releases and news reports for touchless walkthrough transit gates and handsfree touchless store payments sheds considerably more light on the next generation Suica architecture and FeliCa OS. The new Suica card due in spring 2021 does not have an official name. I call it Super Suica. Here’s what has been announced so far.

Next Generation Suica “2 cards in 1” architecture, new FeliCa OS, new IC card format announced by Sony, JR East, JR East Mechatronics (JREM) in September 2018.

Handsfree touchless Mobile FeliCa payments technology based on UWB+Bluetooth on Mobile FeliCa announced by Docomo, Sony, NXP Semiconductors in December 2019. A new JR East touchless transit gate was also reported by Kyodo News around the same time and was confirmed by JR East. The new touchless payments technology uses FeliCa for transactions but uses a UWB+Bluetooth front-end instead of NFC.

No delivery date for touchless gates or touchless payments has been announced but as Junya Suzuki pointed out in his recent article, Japanese transit infrastructure investment runs in 7~8 year cycles. The Takanawa Gateway station opening and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 are the kickoff for the next transit infrastructure cycle. I see 3 basic transitions for JR East and the other major transit companies.

  • Suica transition from legacy architecture to next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Super Suica staring in spring 2021.
  • FeliCa transition from NFC only front-end to incorporate UWB+Bluetooth radio technologies for handsfree touchless payments. News reports suggest deployment of JR East touchless walkthrough gates starting in 2023.
  • QR Code transition from legacy magnetic strip and other paper ticketing. Testing and evaluation is due to start at Takanawa Gateway station in 2020 with new Suica+QR Code dual reader transit gates.

Next generation Suica and Touchless Mobile FeliCa represent an interesting twist in that both require a new version of FeliCa. My take is that the new versions of FeliCa OS are one and the same, and that both Super Suica and Touchless incorporate UWB and Bluetooth protocols for transactions in addition to NFC-F.

Zero-sum Game Reset?
People are already complaining ‘oh no, not more JR East/FeliCa proprietary BS,’ but that snap judgement is way too early. Outside of the basic technologies we don’t know what standards are involved for handsfree touchless payments, but we do know that NXP is partnering with Docomo and Sony on the effort. That means MIFARE is already working on it too. JR East announced at the 2016 Tokyo NFC Forum conference that they are dedicated to working for open compatible transit payments (i.e. open ticketing between transit operators, not EMV).

Let’s take JR East at their word and assume that there is just one flavor of UWB+Bluetooth touchless, that it is fast, that it is open. In this scenario the same UWB+Bluetooth touchless front-end could be used by anybody from the large established proprietary players like EMV, FeliCa and MIFARE to open transit payment associations like Calypso. I hope this is the scenario that plays out. We don’t need a repeat of the ‘let’s make NFC A-B (Philips and Motorola) an open standard and shut NFC-F (Sony) out of the game’ nonsense that didn’t help anybody except QR Code players.

The Apple angle is interesting. Global NFC support put Apple Pay ahead of the curve. Apple putting UWB into iPhone 11 this year could be another ‘get ahead of the curve’ move so that everything is ready to roll with Super Suica on iOS 15/watchOS 8 in late 2021. I doubt anybody will see it this way, but I think touchless Mobile FeliCa and JR East plans for it are one factor in Apple’s decision.

Handsfree Touchless Smartcards?
One very important question: does this stuff work on smartcards? So far only smartphones have been mentioned in the press releases. Indications are that Super Suica is launching with new IC smartcard issue, by necessity it will have be backwards compatible with current transit card IC infrastructure.

If JR East plans to deploy touchless gates systemwide starting in 2023, Super Suica plastic transit cards must work seamlessly with the new gates. It doesn’t make any sense to issue yet another card, Super Duper Suica, to work with handsfree touchless. It also doesn’t make sense if touchless is only for smartphones. If it’s going to work in the minds of transit users and be used at all, all of it has to work perfectly, out of the gate.

The QR Code JR Gate Equation

The new Takanawa Gateway station transit gate pictured in the JR East press release

Every year my office sponsors a company trip. This ‘company spirit’ building practice used to be standard in Japan but the custom has eroded considerably since the end of the bubble era. It’s the first ‘unnecessary expense’ item inbound hedge funds always cut when they get a say in Japanese company management: it’s much easier to let staff go when said staff hasn’t spent any time getting to know each other outside of the company setting.

The Group Ticketing Dilemma
Most of the company trips are by Shinkansen but the tickets are group tickets arranged through a travel agency who negotiate with JR East/Central/West depending on the final destination. Group tickets are paper tickets with no mag strip on the back. A group ticket or similar paper only items like special discount passes for the disabled have to handled by a station gate agent booth. The standard transit gate layout for JR East stations is a mix of Suica only ‘IC’ gates, mag strip paper ticket + Suica gates and a single gate agent booth.

Gate agent booths are choke points. Because they can only handle one special task at a time, one person with a problem holds everybody up. Our company group nearly missed a Nagoya station Shinkansen transfer connection on the return leg when a Chinese woman tied up the one and only station agent for 10 minutes with a problem that could have been taken care of at a ticket sales window, not a gate agent.

The next generation Suica architecture (aka Super Suica) in 2021 will solve many problems but it won’t solve everything. Group ticketing, special passes for disabled users, and other one-off tickets don’t fit in the Suica box, or even the regular mag strip paper ticket box. This is one problem I suspect the new Takanawa Gateway station Suica + QR Code transit gates are designed to fix.

Disposable paper tickets with a QR Code solve group ticketing very nicely: the travel agent can print them out instead of going to the JR station, they can be reprinted in case someone loses one. An app version is certainly possible but only an extra option for people with smartphones (think school children on a day trip). QR Codes might work well as a replacement for inbound paper Japan Rail Passes.

It’s not about speed, Suica or smartphones. It’s all about freeing up those increasingly rare and harried transit gate agents from the mundane task of validating one off paper tickets so they can take care of transit users who really need their help. I can’t think of a better use case for putting QR Code readers on JR East Suica transit gates.

Regular Mag Strip Ticket Costs
The only question remaining in my mind is what strategy JR East will chose to retire regular mag strip tickets and reduce costs. Those intricate, and fast, OMRON mag strip ticket machines are an engineering marvel. However, even though QR Codes and central processing are slower, the front end machine is much less expensive and easier to maintain. The magnetic strip paper itself is also expensive and less environmentally friendly than other paper. We will find out what JR East is really planning when the new Shinkansen eTicket system launches next spring, just about the time that Takanawa Gateway station goes into operation.

Omron states the speed of their mag strip gate machine is within 600 Milliseconds, but how long will they be around?

Right now JR East has 2 basic ticketing systems:

  • Suica
    Fast, less expensive fare tier for regular transit, Mobile Suica support for Apple Pay and Google Pay credit/debit card recharge, Shinkansen eTickets and discounts, Green Car upgrades, commuter passes, etc.
  • Paper Tickets
    Slow, more expensive fare tier for regular transit, cash purchase only for local travel, credit card purchase for express train and Shinkansen tickets

I think the next step of migrating mag strip paper ticketing to QR Code is pretty clear. I’m sure JR East will continue to offer the same basic choice: faster cheaper Suica fares with a wide range of attached services and discounts vs. slower more expensive paper ticket fares with fewer services and discounts. They will probably offer an app with QR Code support as but I see it as a simple extension of QR Code paper tickets, i.e. it won’t get the less expensive Suica fares or services. And don’t forget the ultimate Suica advantage: touchless walkthrough gates.