Dear Jane, we fucked up, sincerely MTA

The piecemeal MTA OMNY rollout is a lesson how not to do a transition from old system to new system. A case where poor design, poor management choices and unanticipated user interaction, each insignificant in isolation, snowball into a nagging long term problem.

The problem goes like this:

(1) Apple Pay Express Transit is opted in by default and iPhone users don’t always know it’s on. They don’t care about using Apple Pay credit cards on OMNY anyway because fare options are limited and OMNY isn’t installed everywhere and won’t be until at least the end of next year. They use good old MetroCard and put iPhone away in the right pocket or purse carried on the right shoulder.

(2) When the user gets to a OMNY fare gate they swipe MetroCard with its peculiar forward swipe motion on the reader which is located above and behind the OMNY NFC reader, which is positioned low and angled at pocket level. As “MetroCard sucks, it may take several (forward) swipes to enter”, the user leans into the gate while doing this and boom: OMNY reader activates iPhone Express Transit and charges fare without the user knowing it.

Default opt in Express Transit has been with us ever since Apple Pay Suica arrived in 2016. But transit cards are not credit cards and everything was fine. Things got sticky when iOS 12.3 introduced EMV Express Transit that uses bank issued credit/debit/prepaid cards for transit on Apple certified open loop systems. Currently these are Portland HOP, NYC OMNY and London TfL.

HOP and TfL don’t have problems with Express Transit. Both systems use contactless exclusively. HOP has stand alone validators, not gates. TfL gates have the NFC reader located on the top. OMNY on the other hand will have MetroCard swipe cards around for years to come: the OMNY transit card replacement is still in development with no release date. With the slow transition pace and current gate design expect the OMNY Express Transit problem to be around until MetroCard is dead, and OMNY is complete with the new tap only card.

In retrospect MTA should have done it this way: (1) rollout out the OMNY card MetroCard replacement first and add open loop support as the very last thing, (2) design better OMNY gates in two kinds, dual mode NFC + swipe, and single mode NFC only. This way MTA stations could do what JR East stations do: start with single mode tap only express gates on the edges and dual mode gates in the middle. As the transition progresses the dual mode gates get fewer and pushed to the sides with single mode gates taking over.

Apple could help by keeping automatic Express Transit opt in only for native transit cards (Suica, SmarTrip etc.). EMV Express Transit should always be a manual opt in. I understand Apple’s perspective: they want to present Apple Pay Express Transit as a seamless one flavor service, not good/better/best Express Transit flavors. The reality however is that the current technology powering EMV open loop fare systems isn’t up to native transit card standards. Apple can’t fix that.

Unfortunately MTA has taken the dumb path of blaming Apple instead of fixing their own problems. New York deserves a world class modern transit system, OMNY is an important step in building one. MTA management performance so far doesn’t inspire much confidence. Let’s hope they focus on the rollout and deliver it without more delays or problems.


Smells like Super Suica: Sony unveils next generation FeliCa

Sony announced the next generation FeliCa chip on September 8. Next generation FeliCa was mentioned in the September 2018 next generation Suica, aka Super Suica, press release. This is the first glimpse into some of the new FeliCa features that Super Suica will use. The Japanese and English press released highlight different feature sets. A basic rundown:

  • Additional Security Options: state of the art encryption, integrity protection option for ‘cost-balanced system solution use cases where higher priority is given to high-speed transactions while meeting the required security needs’. The new chip also complies with Public Transportation IC Card Protection Profile (PTPP).
  • Extended Overlap Service: different service providers can share additional services, while making the most of existing systems.
  • Value-Limited Purse Service: purse data can be set as a negative numerical value, and enables “Upper Limit Value” and “Lower Limit Value” to be specified.
  • FeliCa Secure ID: on the surface this cloud based service sounds exactly like the digital car key feature Sony and NTT Docomo demoed at the Docomo Open House back in January and exactly like Apple Pay Car Key sharing. Dare I say there seems to be more web service functionality that might relate to the NFC Tag Maas Suica hinted at by AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara.

The new hardware chip is NFC Forum Type 3 Tag compliant and works with NFC Forum certified devices.

As I explained previously, one big aim of Super Suica is sharing resources and services to reduce costs. Right off the bat Extended Overlap Service looks exactly what Super Suica wants to do: host other transit company commuter passes and reward points. The new FeliCa Japanese press release graph illustrates this, it almost looks like dual mode services in a single mode card. I think Super Suica is going to leverage the shit out of it.

Another interesting feature is the Value-Limited Purse Service. Super Suica will certainly get a stored value purse upgrade from the current ¥20,000 limit. I’m curious to find out if next generation Suica uses the new feature for additional stored value services.

One big question is when does FeliCa Networks upgrade Mobile FeliCa with all these new features and when do licensed developers get the goods. Sony and NTT Docomo already demoed Android Osaifu Keitai smartphones using FeliCa Secure ID and digital car keys with Ultra Wideband ‘Touchless’ in January. I think it’s safe to assume licensees get new FeliCa chips and upgraded Mobile FeliCa at the same time.

This is just a cursory overview. I have fingers crossed that FeliCa Dude will post something to Reddit that will delight and enlighten us when he has the time. In the meantime we have Apple Pay PASMO coming down the pike very soon in what I hope is a preview of more to come in 2021.

UPDATE
FeliCa Dude has posted an excellent overview on Reddit covering the new features and what they mean for operators. More than ever I am convinced that the big new marquee features, Extended Overlap Service and Value-Limited Purse Service will be playing major roles in Super Suica.

Hama Pay adds dual NFC/QR as iOS 14 Apple Pay QR payments loom

The recent Bank of Yokohama Hama Pay app update created some buzz with the addition of an Apple Pay iD Prepaid card option. It’s similar to the Toyota Wallet approach: the bank app links the user’s bank account to an open front end bank payment service with QR code payment for debit and credit and NFC payment for prepaid.

The difference with the Hama Pay prepaid card is that VISA JP issues the iD card which means it cannot be used internationally the same way that the Toyota Wallet Mastercard iD card can; Mastercard supports iOS NFC switching, VISA JP does not.

Another weird thing: the Hama Pay ad blurb uses the ‘Touch Payment’ branding phrase with iD. Up until now VISA JP reserved that exclusively for EMV contactless card issue but not for FeliCa cards, which of course iD is. Does this mean VISA JP will finally sign with Apple Pay? Probably not.

The Toyota Wallet also uses a QR+NFC frontend

IT journalists approach the story as a NFC vs QR dilemma for banks, but I don’t think this captures the whole story. iOS 14 Apple Pay is adding QR code payments for the first time and this means that QR Code Wallet payments don’t need to launch an app, they will work directly from the lock screen just like any Apple Pay card.

This represents a big evolution of Apple Pay from NFC only to an open front end approach that includes NFC, Code payments and Ultra Wideband. It will be very interesting to see how bank apps evolve in the iOS 14 era as we move away from the plastic era ‘A vs B’ mind set to the bewildering variety of ‘A~Z take your pick’ era of mobile payments. We still have the Apple Pay/Face ID with face mask passcode nonsense…but that’s another post for another day.

iOS 14 Apple Pay is adding Ultra Wideband and QR into the mix

The Apple Pay monopoly debate: are we really comparing Apples with Apples?

Ruimin Yang’s detailed and thoughtful post, “Apple Pay monopoly, are we really comparing ‘Apples’ with ‘Apples?“, outlines the entire Apple Pay system architecture, how it compares to other digital wallet platforms, (Google Pay, Samsung Pay) and what ‘open vs closed’ means in the whole ‘Apple Pay is a monopoly’ debate. I highly recommend it if you have any interest in digital wallet payments.

As Yang explains, ‘open’ is not easily defined and the options are not easily implemented, especially when it comes to Apple’s highly customized and constantly evolving Apple Pay platform built around their A/S series chip Secure Enclave and Embedded Secure Element. Apple has spent a lot of time, money and effort in building the Apple Pay brand as the high benchmark standard for secure, private and easy to use digital wallet transactions and services. It is not your standard off the shelf NFC + Secure Element package.

It is telling that Germany, a country with one of lowest rates of credit card use and whose banks fought to keep Apple Pay out, is pushing for ‘open NFC’ the most. It sounds like an across the board move but it’s really aimed at Apple Pay.

This is European business politics in the age of digital wallet wars: mobile payments and digital wallets have disrupted everything and the traditional players, banks and card companies i.e. the real gatekeepers, are doing everything they can to keep the upper hand by using the open NFC argument to force their own branding on Apple’s platform in place of Apple Pay.

In the European tradition, regulation is invariably the go to strategy for keeping the status quo. I still think Junya Suzuki has it right: the EU would never demand the same thing of Samsung or Huawei that they are demanding from Apple. In other words, politics.

Previous coverage:
What does open Apple Pay NFC really mean? (11-17-2019)
The Apple Pay EU antitrust investigation (6-20-2020)

Why is MTA OMNY asking Apple to fix Face ID?

MTA is asking Apple to fix Face ID. We all know that using Face ID with face masks sucks but the MTA situation is special. It’s a perfect storm of 2 separate issues, the Face ID with face mask problem and the OMNY rollout problem combined in a COVID crucible.

The MTA OMNY rollout started in May 2019 with Apple Pay EMV Express Transit support, aka Open Loop. This means regular credit and debit Apple Pay cards work for transit on new OMNY readers. It sounds great but there are downsides: open loop doesn’t support the full set of MTA transit fare options so many users have to stick with the good old MetroCard swipe until the native OMNY smartcard arrives.

Lately we don’t hear much about the OMNY card. It seems delayed along with the rest of the OMNY rollout. And because the rollout is delayed, open loop isn’t really useful because the entire system doesn’t support it. The old chicken or egg problem.

One outcome of this mixed mode is the long running complaint of unwanted Express Transit fare charges that has been constant with OMNY transit gates since the very beginning. Many users who still use MetroCard may not be aware that Express Transit is on when going through an OMNY gate. If iPhone gets close enough to the reader, bingo.

This should not be happening, so the stock advice is ‘turn off Express Transit’. The mixed mode MetroCard/OMNY open loop rollout seemed like a nice idea but implementing Express Transit before the system was completed turned out to be a bad call compounded by the COVID crisis, a victim of poor gate design, poor planning and execution.

The irony here is that iPhone users riding MTA end up turning off Express Transit, the very thing that helps keep face masks on. MTA is asking Apple to help but a ‘how to use Face ID with face masks’ ad campaign courtesy of Apple isn’t going to fix anything.

Until the OMNY rollout on MTA is completed and Apple comes up with something better than the iOS 13.5 Face ID tweak, New Yorkers will have to deal with it and use passcodes. After all, commuters with Face ID iPhones in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China have been wrangling with face masks for years and Apple never lifted a finger. Get used to it.