Out of Time (Updated)

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. You might remember that Apple Pay Octopus was announced in July 2019, promised to launch “as soon as possible within the year,” in September, then delayed to “later in 2020” on December 19.

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.

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 could be a sign that a service launch is imminent (edit: post glitch rumors say June 2).

The latest word from beta tester code leakers is that virtual Octopus creation and recharge in Apple Pay Wallet is limited to Hong Kong issue Mastercard, Union Pay and VISA. The May 20 Schedule of Fees and Guidelines update should show any changes for Smart Octopus (edit: “new restriction, 21 (cb), blocks the transfer of money from a Smart Octopus to O! ePay, probably to prevent the abuse of credit card cashbacks since service fees are waived for Apple Pay”).

PS: Barring the Apple Pay Octopus launch or official announcement, this is my last post on the subject.

The Octopus Waiting Game

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

Recent Hong Kong rumors say the long delayed Apple Pay Octopus will finally launch in March April May 2020 along with the recently announced Apple Pay support for Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Foshan China T-Union transit cards. The rumors also say that putting China T-Union cards on Apple Pay is easier than Octopus. Is this true? Let’s take a look.

The chart below lists native transit cards hosted on mobile digital wallets by service launch year, limited to reloadable virtual transit cards already in service or formally announced by wallet platform vendors (Apple/Google/Samsung/etc.) and/or transit operators. Best viewed in landscape mode.

YearCardAreaOperatorOS/Digital WalletNFCProtocol
2006Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai/SymbianFMobile FeliCa
2011Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai/AndroidFMobile FeliCa
2015TmoneyKoreaTmoney Co. LtdSamsung PayAMIFARE
cashbeeKoreaEB Card Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
2016Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastApple PayFMobile FeliCa
China T-UnionChinaVariousHuawei Pay/Samsung PayAPBOC 2.0
2017Beijing/Shanghai TransitChinaBMAC/SPTCCApple PayAPBOC 2.0*
2018iPassTaiwaniPass Co.FitBit Pay/Garmin PayAMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Garmin PayAMIFARE
HOPPortlandTriMetGoogle PayAMIFARE
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLSamsung PayFMobile FeliCa
2019HOPPortlandTriMetApple PayAMIFARE
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLApple Pay (announced/delayed)FMobile FeliCa
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicApple Pay (announced/delayed)AMIFARE
Mobile mykiVictoriaPublic Transport VictoriaGoogle PayAMIFARE4Mobile
2020ShenzhenGreater Bay RegionShenzhen Tong LimitedApple PayAPBOC 3.0
GuangzhouGreater Bay RegionGuangzhou Yang Cheng Tong LimitedApple Pay (announced)APBOC 3.0
FoshanGreater Bay RegionApple Pay (announced)APBOC 3.0
SmarTripWashington DCWMATA/CubicApple Pay (announced)AMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicGoogle Pay (announced)AMIFARE
Mobile PASMOTokyoPASMOOsaifu KeitaiFMobile FeliCa
*iOS 11 Apple Pay Beijing/Shanghai transit cards were not full spec PBOC 2.0 and listed as ‘beta’, Beijing was updated to China T-Union PBOC 3.0 with iOS 13.4.1

Transit card payment mobile protocols are FeliCa, MIFARE and PBOC 2.0/3.0, the later is the Chinese variant of EMV which uses Type A NFC with the slowest grocery store checkout transaction speeds of the three protocols:

Each card organization has formed its own specifications based on the EMV specification based on its own business refinement and expansion, such as China UnionPay’s PBOC 2.0 specification…PBOC based on the EMV standard, combined with the needs of domestic banks, the People’s Bank of China promulgated the PBOC series of standards:
1 PBOC1.0: e-wallet / electronic passbook / magnetic stripe card function
2 PBOC 2.0: E-wallet extension application, debit/credit application, personalization guide, contactless IC card standard
3 PBOC 3.0: Cancel e-wallet and electronic passbook application, cancel downgrade transaction, multi-algorithm extension, multi-application extension, mobile payment standard

Super Lu

Compared to other contactless smartcards in use, the data transmission of <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
YouTube comment lucidly explains the speed differences between NFC types (blocked outside of Canada)
This Wikipedia chart needs to be updated but illustrates how many China T-Union cards there are

Some China transit cards used FeliCa and MIFARE protocols in the past but have been migrated to the PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-union card spec for interoperable transit cards that work across the country, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc. 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. 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. Initial Apple Pay support for Beijing and Shanghai transit cards was listed as beta on iOS 11.3. The early Apple implementation was not the full PBOC 2.0/3.0 spec, apparently fixed in iOS 12.3 when the beta label was removed.

One of 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 or renew a pass. The more payment options supported on the recharge backend, the more convenient. 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 cards already on mobile?

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 and Transport for NSW have focused primarily on Open Loop EMV card support as a mobile solution instead of native virtual transit cards.

Publicly run transit system resources are usually limited so using bank cards for open loop transit is seen as a way to reduce system costs. The downside is that banks get a cut from transit gate transactions and transit cards for mobile are slow in coming, if at all. Cubic’s very first virtual transit card effort, the long delayed Apple Pay Ventra, is all the evidence you need when open loop is a priority and transit cards are not. Despite the recently announced Google Pay and Cubic alliance, I think transit cards on mobile will continue to arrive in a slow trickle. Let’s face it, HOP is the only American transit card that has gone mobile so far, and it’s not managed by Cubic. It’s the same story in Australia with Melbourne myki Google Pay.

Putting aside the open loop fad for a moment, I think the large deployment of China T-Union cards on mobile comes down to a few simple things that has nothing to do with protocols or smartphone hardware: all China T-Union cards share a common recharge backend cloud provided by Union Pay. It’s the reason why China T-Union sports a similar logo, the Union from Union Pay, and can only be recharged with a Union Pay card. It’s all one package. And China T-Union cards have to be created on the device, plastic card transfers are not supported. From Apple Support:

You can create a new transit card in Wallet to use with Apple Pay. The first transit card that you add to Wallet automatically becomes your Express Transit card.

Add a transit card to Apple Pay in mainland China

Eliminating plastic card transfers and a common Union Pay recharge backend cloud shared by all transit cards with the same card architecture makes hosting virtual cards much easier, the various transit operators don’t have to host everything directly or build a cloud backend from scratch, and there’s nothing to negotiate because Union Pay is the only payment network.

China T-Union in the cards for Hong Kong Octopus?
China T-Union illustrates the power a national transit card standard backed with a shared cloud resource but it’s a streamlined straightjacket: Union Pay is the only payment network allowed, there are far fewer service options than Suica or Octopus systems. The real interesting development here is that QR Codes (AliPay/WeChat Pay) for transit, and everything else, are mainstream in China. There are many reasons for this outcome but on the transit gate QR Codes and PBOC-EMV transit cards are pretty much the same speed. There isn’t enough difference to care, and AliPay/WeChat Pay represent a choice outside the Union Pay straitjacket with all kinds of incentives to use QR.

Another interesting development is the pressure from QR Code players like Alipay for a piece of MTR transit gate action, and the Greater Bay Area transit card negoiations with Yangchengtong on the Hong Kong MTR/Octopus Card Limited mobile strategy roadmap. QR is mobile only of course, but a dual mode FeliCa/PBOC card approach for the Greater Bay Area is much cheaper and easier to implement on mobile than plastic.

Unfortunately in the face of pressure MTR/OCL, a world leading transit platform business model and innovator, has been surprisingly slow rolling out virtual Octopus card service on digital wallets to encourage the migration from plastic cards with new kinds of mobile services. It’s a troubling turn of events because OCL has all the necessary transit on mobile infrastructure in place to move forward quickly, and has for some time.

The Hong Kong protests followed by the COVID-19 crisis have certainly slowed things down. In the end however, growing mobile services is the best way forward for Octopus to remain a viable Hong Kong MTR business in these uncertain times. Because if it does not, Octopus risks becoming just another China T-Union card. Put another way, if OCL doesn’t innovate and invest it its future as a world’s leading transit platform, it does not have one.