Octopus is Out of Time

Is this the last time? Just a few thoughts as iOS 13.5 closes in on what hopefully will be a late May delivery, also rumored to be the launch iOS for Apple Pay Octopus. Recent beta test feedback says the minimal system for using Apple Pay Octopus was raised from iOS 13.2 to iOS 13.4.5 (rebranded by Apple to iOS 13.5). Also a new Schedule of Fees and Guidelines is due May 20. The Hong Kong Economic Times eZone site has taken this to mean that both iOS 13.5 and Apple Pay Octopus will launch on the May 20 Octopus Fees and Guideline update day.

The enthusiasm is understandable, but a similar situation happened in December with no launch. In short, hope for the best but don’t get your hopes up. We’ve been down this road before, but time is running out. If Apple Pay Octopus doesn’t launch in the iOS 13.5 timeframe, it’s not launching at all.

There aren’t any technical reasons for the delay; after all the Smart Octopus mobile service on Samsung Pay has been operating since December 2017 with Mobile SIM service before that. I believe it’s a result of the pressure politics facing Hong Kong, pressures both economic and governmental.

Out of Time Octopus
Octopus was the world’s first transit platform business that extended the transit smartcard to include payments and many other services but 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 really 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 comprehensively mobile which it did with the O! ePay service in early 2019. But it’s not the only pressure: with so much traffic and business from the mainland, OCL owner MTR is looking to add QR Code Open Loop transit support (paywalled link) at some point. There is also the pressure of creating a Greater Bay Area transit card, and pressure from credit cards and banks. Every player wants a piece of the action.

Perhaps MTR gates will eventually look like the ones in Guangzhou with PBOC/FeliCa/QR Code readers supporting Octopus, China T-Union, AliPay/WeChat Pay, perhaps even EMV contactless bank cards:

At which point I say OCL doesn’t have a viable transit platform business anymore. Mainland China dumped the MIFARE based Beijing and Shanghai card architecture for their own slower PBOC 2.3/3.0 China T-Union standard, I don’t think it’s a stretch to see the same thing happening to Hong Kong Octopus at some point.

Supporters will undoubtably point out the technical merits of China using a single transit standard but that’s just a red herring. Smart devices and digital wallets handle all protocols and will continue to incorporate new technologies. The deciding factors will be good old money and politics: is it more profitable to keep Octopus in place or junk it in favor of QR and China T-Union, and who benefits from it all?

Octopus is living on borrowed time. If it doesn’t aggressively expand services on digital wallet platforms, it doesn’t have a future. Apple Pay Suica turned things around for Suica, let’s hope the Apple Pay Octopus launch can do the same for Octopus.


Apple Pay Suica had a huge impact on Mobile Suica use
Modern digital wallets like Apple Pay seamlessly support multiple payment technology protocols

UPDATE: on May 18 at 4:30 PM, an Octopus system glitch temporarily showed an option to add Apple Pay Octopus cards to Wallet to some iOS Octopus app users, but the feature not functional on the Apple Pay Wallet end. The glitch was quickly fixed but this is a sign that a service launch is imminent post glitch rumors say June 2. (Edit: June 2 did turn out to be Apple Pay Octopus launch day)

The Octopus Waiting Game

UPDATE: Apple Pay Octopus launched June 2, latest details here

The release of Apple Pay China T-Union cards this week with the iOS 13.4.1 update was accompanied with a new Apple Pay China transit page that completely rebrands Apple Pay China as a transit experience. Considering the popularity of QR Code use in China and the slow speed of the China T-Union PBOC protocol, it makes sense for Apple to go all in promoting Express Transit: it’s the only real advantage Apple Pay has over QR Code AliPay and WeChat Pay.

The rollout was also accompanied by some Hong Kong anguish and mocking of the Apple Pay Octopus delay that has become a sad joke. Karen Chiu of SCMP drily noted that, “Apple Pay users in Hong Kong are out of luck,” and Octopus Cards Limited is just a big tease. Ouch!

Octopus Cards Limited made a joke but iPhone users are not laughing

There was sarcasm from others as well, best seen in the comments section of a trite lazy MacRumors piece Apple Pay’s Express Transit Feature Now Supported in 275 Chinese Cities that appears mostly lifted from an equally trite Benjamin Mayo 9to5 Mac post, both borrowing from the Karen Chiu piece without giving credit, so lazy that MacRumors used a MTA OMNY transit gate picture for a China transit story.

The comments are golden however and way more interesting than the story post. They illustrate not only frustration with the Apple Pay Octopus delay waiting game, but also note the seismic shift of Hong Kong in 2019:

Still no news for (Apple Pay Octopus) support in Hong Kong

>At least we know they are testing it. It has more to do with delays on stupid Map Transit

>Really can’t wait to use Octopus for Apple Pay Transit in Hong Kong! Its seriously taking them way too long to implement. This feature was rumored for so long and was already leaked before iOS 13 was released last year, yet we still do not have it.

>>They (Apple) are basically neglecting the HK market. Unacceptable to take so long

>>Hong Kong is so behind on this. Octopus Card company is flexing its monopoly power to the fullest extent. They work with Samsung in exclusive deals so Samsung users can use their phone to pay.

>>>Exactly. Totally unacceptable. At one point, I considered switching to Samsung just for this feature. (of course its impossible to climb over the high walls of the apple ecosystem garden, especially iCloud)

Hong Kong has delusions of grandeur because of its status as a place to buy Apple products for mainlanders when they weren’t so readily available on the mainland… as a market nowadays, it isn’t large at all. The focus is rightly on bigger markets.

>Bruh Hong Kong is jewel of the East, so it certainly deserves Apple’s focus on the market. And mainlanders can buy Apple products on the mainland, they are not welcomed in HK.

>>Perhaps in the past… If the various signs of HK fast losing its foothold isn’t obvious, I dunno what else is. Signs of big brands leaving HK, newer brands going direct to China and bypass HK, and months of protests+riots+bombing driving foreigners to rethink or left amidst COVID-19, etc…..

>>Shall see if HK is still relevant after the global COVID-19 is more or less over and as we march straight into a global recession.

Apple Pay’s Express Transit Feature Now Supported in 275 Chinese Cities

Is there any good new out there? The latest rumors now say Apple Pay Octopus will launch in May on iOS 13.4.5 iOS 13.5 that may, or may not be, the iOS release for the rumored iPhone SE (edit: iPhone SE went on sale with iOS 13.4).

The waiting game continues.


Apple Pay Octopus Waiting Game Timeline

Apple Pay China T-Union Transit Cards arrive with iOS 13.4.1 Update

Apple Pay China T-Union transit cards for Shenzhen along with an updated Beijing area card have been added for mainland China region users. It represents the first true release of China T-Union cards on Apple Pay that are already on Huawei, Xaiomi and other domestic smartphones. Shanghai remains in the older City Union format. Apple Pay China T-Union cards for Guangzhou and Foshan are listed as coming soon on the Apple Pay China page, China T-Union transit cards were announced in December. The release is simultaneous with the iOS 13.4.1 update but it’s not clear if updating is a requirement. iOS 13.4 is listed as required on the Shenzhen transit page, Apple Support recommends using the latest iOS.

China T-union cards are interoperable transit cards that work across the country, covering subway and bus transit for 275 mainland Chinese cities, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc., that work across the entire country. Unlike Japan IC transit cards however, China T-Union cards are limited to transit, they cannot be used for regular contactless store purchases or eTicket Shinkansen travel.

China T-Union uses the PBOC 2.0/3.0 protocol, the Chinese variant of EMV with the slowest NFC transaction speeds. All China T-Union transit cards on mobile are limited to Union Pay issue credit/debit cards for recharge and physical cards cannot be transferred, which makes them basically useless for inbound iPhone visitors to China, unlike the open inbound friendly Apple Pay Suica. Apple Pay has supported Beijing and Shanghai City Union transit cards since iOS 11.3 but were initially labeled beta because they did not fully implement the complete PBOC 2.0/3.0 spec. This is fixed with the China T-Union additions.

Once the long delayed Apple Pay Octopus for Hong Kong is released the Wallet transit card additions will eventually deliver Express Transit convenience to Greater Bay Area iPhone/Apple Watch users who were previously limited to China Union Pay (CUP) cards without Express Transit. Having 2 different Apple Pay transit cards in Wallet would not exactly be the same as the dual mode Sold Octopus•Lingnan Pass but it should be close once Apple Pay Octopus is released. It will be interesting to hear what the Apple Pay Greater Bay Area transit experience is like after all area services are rolled out.

There has been endless speculation about the release of Apple Pay Octopus after the planned launch was delayed in December, just after China T-Union Apple Pay cards were announced. Apple Pay Octopus was first announced in July 2019 but has yet to see release on iOS 13.4.x, the last major iOS 13 release.

Update: see the fun on YouTube (from the 1:44 mark), covers adding a China T-Union card to Wallet and using it on transit gate in comparison with QR Codes.

Transit Cards on Mobile

Transit cards on mobile devices first appeared in 2006 with the launch of Mobile Suica, the world’s very first comprehensive transit card on mobile service. With the arrival of digital wallet platforms from Apple, Google and Samsung in 2015, mobile transit cards have gradually become widely available outside of Japan. The first mobile transit card on Apple Pay was Suica in 2016.

The chart below lists native transit cards hosted on embedded secure element (eSE) mobile digital wallets by service launch year. Entries are limited to native transit cards defined as reloadable virtual transit cards by service date or formally announced by wallet platform vendors (Apple/Google/Samsung/etc.) and/or transit agencies. Open Loop service is not listed. The chart is best viewed in landscape mode.

YearCardAreaOperatorDigital WalletNFCProtocol
2006
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai SymbianFMobile FeliCa
2011
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai AndroidFMobile FeliCa
2015
TmoneyKoreaTmoney Co. LtdSamsung PayAMIFARE
cashbeeKoreaHanaro Card Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
2016
Apple Pay SuicaJapanJR EastApple PayFMobile FeliCa
China T-UnionChinaVariousHuawei Pay Samsung PayAPBOC 2.0
2017
Beijing
Shanghai Transit
ChinaBMAC
SPTCC
Apple PayAPBOC 2.0
2018
iPassTaiwaniPass Co.FitBit Pay Garmin PayAMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Garmin PayAMIFARE
HOPPortlandTriMetGoogle PayAMIFARE 2GO
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLSamsung PayFMobile FeliCa
2019
HOPPortlandTriMetApple PayAMIFARE 2GO
Mobile mykiVictoriaPublic Transport VictoriaGoogle PayAMIFARE 2GO
NavigoParisÎle-de-France MobilitésSamsung PayBCalypso
2020
ShenzhenGreater Bay RegionShenzhen Tong LimitedApple PayAPBOC 3.0
GuangzhouGreater Bay RegionGuangzhou Yang Cheng Tong LimitedApple Pay APBOC 3.0
FoshanGreater Bay RegionApple Pay APBOC 3.0
SmarTripWashington DCWMATA/CubicApple PayAMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
Mobile PASMOTokyoPASMOOsaifu KeitaiFMobile FeliCa
Mobile SuicaTokyoJR EastGarmin PayFMobile FeliCa
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLApple PayFMobile FeliCa
TAPLAMETRO/CubicApple PayAMIFARE
Apple Pay PASMOTokyoPASMOApple PayFMobile FeliCa
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicApple PayAEMV
2021
FebruaryClipperBay AreaMTA/CubicApple PayAMIFARE
MayClipperBay AreaMTA/CubicGoogle PayAMIFARE
MayVentraChicagoCTA/CubicGoogle PayAEMV

Mobile transit card protocol overview
The current lineup of transit card payment mobile protocols are

  • FeliCa
  • MIFARE
  • PBOC 2.0/3.0
  • Calypso

As explained in detail below, FeliCa and Calypso are the fastest protocols, MIFARE is in the middle and PBOC, the Chinese variant of EMV, is the slowest of the protocols, as EMV was originally designed for leisurely supermarket checkout not rush hour transit gates. Transit has special needs for fast fare processing at the gate to keep people moving and operations safe. In theory all protocols can process transactions at more or less the same speed, but the reality of NFC+protocol OS integration+antenna and gate design is that there are big differences. The truth is in the tap. Here is a rundown of the technologies and real life tap times.

While transit gates and NFC processors are found worldwide, what makes the Japanese gates different from the rest of the world is they don’t use global standard ISO 14443 (never mind Type A which uses Miller bit coding, the least efficient bit coding method) protocol which is common in many transit and bank cards issued worldwide.

The tap time with ISO 14443 Type A (née Philips) and B (née Motorola) varies greatly: from 200 to 500 milliseconds (ms) with 200 ms only achievable with Type B/Calypso. But it never reaches the short as 100 ms which is only achieved with Felica developed by Sony, also designated NFC-F and NFC Tag Type 3 by the NFC Forum and compatible with ISO 18092 which is commonly found in smartphones and NFC wearables since 2013. In this video passengers maintain their walking pace but never overshoot and trigger a gate closure nor slow down not even a bit.

It may be a minor difference but due to the high volume of passengers per gate (comparison example of large crowds at gates in Malaysia and Japan) and to reduce gate maintenance requirements, taps times really matter. Companies such as JR East have specified tap time of 200 ms but Suica is actually faster and this allows real life speed tolerances: some passengers tap faster than others due to walking pace, the higher speed tolerances are only possible with the 100 ms tap time of FeliCa.

Open Loop NFC ticketing (in its current form, EMVCo Contactless specifications are adopted in contactless bank cards issued worldwide including China UnionPay QuickPass which is PBOC derived from the EMVCo Contactless spec and uses the ISO 14443 Type A at 106 kbps only for 500 ms tap time, which is adopted in cities worldwide such as London, New York, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro is never supposed but as seen here, transit cards in Japan such as Suica, PASMO and ICOCA are supported for ultra hight speed and precise account verification and fare processing. Transit cards use offline Stored Fare (SF) which includes the amount of funds stored in the card’s IC smart chip data storage, NOT backend on a server like a bank card, and stored commuter passes.

YouTube comment explaining the speed differences between NFC types (blocked outside of Canada), edited for clarity

Japan and China have de facto national transit card standards. Japan has Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc., which share the same basic architecture that gradually evolved from 2001 into the mutual compatible Transit IC interoperability standard in 2013. PBOC 2.0 China T-Union is a Chinese Ministry of Transport initiative for interoperable transit cards on plastic and mobile, managed by Beijing China Communications Gold Card Technology that started in 2015, cards are prepaid Union One issue. With the rollout, China T-Union replaced existing MIFARE and FeliCa based mainland China transit cards.

The interesting thing about the latter is that many Greater Bay Area transit cards were FeliCa based cards and users really noticed the difference when China weeded out and replace them with the slower PBOC 2.0 powered China T-Union cards:

Compared to other contactless smartcards in use, the data transmission of <PBOC 2.0 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.

Wikipedia Yang Cheng Tong

The slower China T-Union speed is one factor driving the popularity of QR codes for transit in China: there isn’t any speed difference between the two so most people choose AliPay and WeChat Pay for the convenience of reward points, campaigns and more services.

This Wikipedia chart needs to be updated but illustrates how many China T-Union cards there are

Mobile transit cards vs Open Loop
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 and now Garmin Pay Suica. MIFARE has a shorter history on mobile. PBOC 2.0/3.0 is basically new. The key period is 2015~2016 which saw transit card debuts on Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Huawei Pay.

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 with cash or renew a pass. The more payment options supported on the recharge backend, the more convenient the card is.

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 some 257 China T-Union transit card compatible transit authorities already on mobile? The answer: Open Loop.

Blame the slow mobile transit card rollout on open loop
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, Transport for NSW and New York MTA have focused primarily on Open Loop EMV card support as their mobile solution instead of hosting native virtual transit cards.

Publicly run transit system resources are limited so using bank cards for open loop transit is seen as a way to reduce costs for both fare collection and plastic card issue. The downside is that open loop support adds a layer of complexity and cost that stymies native digital transit card support. As with all transit agencies that are run by, or receive movement funds, resources are limited, choices have to be made as to which mobile transit solutions receive funding. The end result is that precious system development funds are spent on EMV open loop development with native transit card mobile support a secondary priority, if at all.

However open loop cannot cover all fare options as bank cards were not designed for transit. This is why Oyster, Opal and Ventra have had to keep good old stored value plastic MIFARE cards around for fares that don’t fit in the ‘one size fits all’ open loop box. To address this shortcoming Cubic has created a new mobile transit solution: closed loop EMV bank cards for digital wallets.

Cubic’s very first mobile transit card effort, the long delayed Apple Pay Ventra, is the world’s first EMV closed loop transit card. It’s basically a Mastercard debit card with an account candy wrapped as a Ventra digital card. This same configuration is being tested for digital Opal. As closed loop EMV transit cards are bank card account based schemes, they still come with all the EMV on transit shortcomings, bank managed accounts, slow transaction speed, poor user feedback at the transit gate, etc. Because of the EMV open loop/closed loop priority, native transit cards on mobile will continue to arrive in a slow trickle.

China T-Union: centralized straightjacket for mobile
The large deployment of PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-Union cards on mobile has been cited as proof that it’s ‘better’ at mobile than FeliCa and MIFARE, but the reality has nothing to do with protocols or smartphone hardware. It is all about the Ministry of Transport China T-Union card nationwide standard managed by a single entity: Beijing China Communications Gold Card Technology (BCCGCT) using prepaid Union One issue for plastic and digital issue:

  • All China T-Union cards have a single recharge backend provided by UnionPay via BCCGCT. It’s the reason why China T-Union only support UnionPay recharge and sport a similar logo with local transit agency branding. It’s all one package.
  • China T-Union digital cards on mobile have to be created on the device, plastic card transfers are not supported. Local transit agency transit card apps are intentionally crippled and do not support any NFC transfer features, Apple Support pages do not mention plastic card transfer.

Eliminating plastic card transfers reduces management overhead and the UnionPay recharge backend shared by all transit cards issued by the same company makes it simple as BCCGCT runs everything. The various local transit operators simply plug into it. They don’t have to host anything or build a cloud backend from scratch, and there’s nothing to negotiate because UnionPay runs the payment network. China T-Union illustrates the power a national transit card run by a single government run enterprise monopoly that’s a streamlined straitjacket.

Every country and region has their own priorities and services for local transit, as it should be. My position is a simple one: one size does not and should not fit everyone. A transit platform business model can be adapted to local regions and business conditions for long term sustainable transit in the mobile payments age.