The Contactless Payment Turf Wars: tapping the potential of TAP

The recent MacRumors report that the Los Angeles Metro Transit Access Pass card is coming to Apple Pay was not entirely new information, the Source blog and Curbed reported back in May 2017 that TAP was coming to smart devices with a system upgrade:

Cubics (sic), the company handling TAP technology, is developing Nextlink, a “cloud-based connection system,” that will link the existing TAP fare infrastructure to an upcoming mobile payment app. The app is expected to be released, “as early as 7-9 months from the start of development.”

“Metro’s TAP card system is getting a major upgrade” Curbed May 2017

As Curbed explains it, Cubic is developing a backend cloud system that enables online transit accounts with credit/debit cards attached to TAP cards for anywhere anytime mobile recharge with the eventual goal of TAP cards being hosted on mobile devices. In other words it sounds just like Mobile Suica, the world’s first contactless transit card system on mobile, which has been around since 2006 and on Apple Pay since 2017.

The MacRumors Apple Pay information was new but also vague and unclear:

MacRumors can confirm that LA Metro, the transit agency that manages integration of the TAP card system in the Los Angeles Area, said it is working with Apple to support mobile payments for iPhones, with rollout scheduled for this fall…and eventual support for Android phones with NFC, although the timeframe for the latter is unknown.

The process is similar to using Apple Pay for in-store payments. Depending on the iPhone, that means double-pressing the home button or side button, authenticating with Touch ID or Face ID, and holding the device near the card reader. Apple Watch payments are also activated by double-pressing the side button. 

Cubic is the 800 pound gorilla of public transit gate and fare systems in America, Europe and Australia with long and profitable history of creating and operating fare systems. Cubic builds client IC transit card systems with MIFARE technology, which has made MIFARE a de facto standard in those regions. As Cubic literature says, “Over 60% of public transit rides in the US, UK and Australia are taken using Cubic systems.”

So far Cubic has not hosted any client transit card on digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay or Google Pay. Instead of native digital cards Cubic and clients have chosen ‘open loop’ EMV contactless credit/debit cards as their digital wallet strategy. Transit for London (TfL) went open loop in 2012, other Cubic operated systems such as Opal and Vancouver Compass have added it as well. The New York MTA and Cubic plan the same strategy for replacing the venerable New York Subway Metro Card.

There are huge business model and operational differences between the 2 approaches but from a Apple Pay user viewpoint the difference boils down to an Express Card-like experience (Suica, China Transit, Contactless Student ID cards) for going through a transit gate versus a Touch ID/Face ID credit-card-at-cash-register experience. That’s because EMV contactless was originally designed for cash registers, not transit gates. EMV contactless is a slow and very stupid smart card.

The MacRumors piece suggests that TAP on Apple Pay is Cubic TfL flavored EMV contactless, not native TAP Express Cards. But if TAP on Apple Pay turns out to be a native express card, it could be one of the largest express card deployments outside of Asia. In America and Europe there are only 4 native transit express cards on a digital wallet platform, all of them Google Pay only: Portland HOP, Las Vegas Monorail Network West Midlands Swift and Transport for Victoria Myki.

What’s fascinating to me is that smaller agencies like Transport for Victoria (TFV) are accomplishing what the mighty Cubic has not by launching native transit cards on digital wallets. Why? One possible explanation is that TFV understands the value of acquiring and managing online accounts while TfL dumps them in the Thames along with Oyster in favor of bank cards. I think we can look at LA Metro’s digital TAP rollout in the same way: if LA Metro is going to the trouble of building a cloud backend to migrate from plastic card management to online account management, does this mean they understand the business value of it? After all Apple, Amazon, Google, FaceBook and every other online business understands the value of online accounts with attached credit cards for building platforms, why not transit companies?

The Transit Platform Difference

One building block of a transit platform that follows the Japanese business model is migrating from plastic transit cards to a mobile account acquisition cloud backend that connects the customer transit card with credit/debit cards for anytime anywhere mobile recharge. The next step is loyalty reward goodies and bonus points with preferred cards, or better yet house brand cards. JR East Mobile Suica for example plugs and plays with a huge variety of cards but offers JRE bonus points for recharging with a JR East View card. Major retailers at major stations issue branded View cards with store points in addition to JRE points both of which help drive transit use and station area retail traffic.

The next crucial step is interoperable transit cards (TAP, EZ Rider, Compass, etc.) that are key to making transit easy to use statewide and eventually nationwide. This can only happen if there is good business planning and development behind the transit account acquisition process, and a management that understands the importance of how all the different infrastructure pieces need to integrate: California High-Speed Rail, regular lines, subway, buses, station retail, services, Mobile TAP, etc. The business vision has to create a whole that is much larger than the sum of various infrastructure parts.

Unfortunately this kind of business development and promotion comes hard for government run transit authorities. Egon Terplan of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) came to Tokyo and studied the business model:

By 2017, Japanese trains carried nearly 30 percent of all rail passengers in the world, more than all of Europe. But unlike many European countries, Japanese rail companies are privatized, with for-profit publicly traded companies running separate rail lines all around the country.

JR East, the largest of the JR companies, carries 17 million passengers per day on 12,300 trains. (By comparison, Amtrak carried just 31.3 million passengers during all of 2016, a record year in ridership; the New York City subway averages 5.5 million daily rides and BART, 430,000.) And JR East’s $26 billion in annual revenue includes no government subsidies.

I have lived in Japan since 1984 and am lucky to have witnessed the amazing transformation from Japan National Rail, dingy stations and paper tickets punched at the gate, to JR, Apple Pay Suica, constantly upgraded infrastructure and stations stuffed with and surrounded by all kinds of retail and delicious food. The transformation and integration continues and not only infrastructure.

The next generation ‘Super Suica’ transit card format under development by JR East and Sony aims to solve cost and remaining compatibility problems with all Japanese IC transit cards. But Super Suica isn’t just for Japan, it’s part of the vision JR East unveiled at the July 2016 NFC Forum Japan meeting that starts with the Public Transportation Workshop created NFC specification to eventually create a transit payment standard that works everywhere while meeting transit operation needs. If that goal is achieved, the whole argument for EMV contactless, a standard created for retail, as an open standard for transit payments falls away.

Note how the agent keeps his punch going at a constant speed

The choice between keeping TAP transit card accounts ‘in-house’ and closed loop on Apple Pay/Google Pay vs. EMV contactless open loop may sound trivial, but the decision will reveal whether LA Metro values transit online accounts as a business resource to build on, or a giveaway to banks and credit card companies. It comes down to what the famous Japanese daimyo Uesugi Yozan (a favorite of John F. Kennedy by the way) had to say about government and economic planning: always plan 50 and 100 years ahead. Think and plan for the generations to come.

Update: edit updated with NFC Forum Public Transportation Workshop and Super Suica information

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More Smart Octopus

I assumed the Smart Octopus Coming to Apple Pay post would be ignored in the end of year rush period. However the timing perfectly coincided with an Octopus Cards Limited press conference where the CEO demurred any Octopus tie-up with Apple and the post got much more attention than I ever anticipated. Obviously there are lots of iPhone users in Hong Kong who want Smart Octopus Apple Pay. A few readers were confused by the situation and asked for some clarification.

First of all the source who correctly predicted last years Smart Octopus on Samsung Pay launch tipped me about the Apple Pay launch. That in itself was enough for me but here’s the thing: if Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) is really serious about expanding Octopus use on mobile platforms, taking the next step of getting Smart Octopus on Apple Pay is the only way to achieve that.

Digital Wallets like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay are the most tightly integrated NFC software and hardware digital wallet platforms out there with integrated FeliCa, but Apple is the only one to implement the necessary Secure Element on their own A Series/S Series hardware with FeliCa Networks keys, and sell the package globally. All the major NFC technologies are standard on Apple Pay: NFC A-B-F, EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, VAS.

Smart Octopus on Google Pay might look nice on paper but it can’t achieve anything of scale yet because of the highly fragmented nature of Android: to date hardware manufacturers have yet to produce an answer to Apple’s global FeliCa iPhone and Apple Watch, even though everybody’s smartphone has a NFC A-B-F chip. Not even Google has pulled it off. Huawei says they are planning to add global Felica but it will take time.

OCL is playing coy because majority shareholder Hong Kong MTR has added QR Codes and EMV contactless to the transit gate mix removing the exclusive Octopus Card franchise, but the technology and market politics don’t mesh. On one hand you have a fast, established and ‘open’ in-house contactless payment system (as in anybody can buy a plastic Octopus card and ride) basically run by public transit companies. On the other hand you have slow and ‘closed’ contactless payment systems (as in only people with certified credit cards and bank accounts can ride) run by major outside credit/debit network companies chipping off money from both customers and transit companies.

In this context putting Smart Octopus on Apple Pay isn’t just adding a card to a digital wallet platform, it is also a statement of who ultimately controls, operates and benefits from the public transit gates. It’s more about market politics than technology, in other words another battle in the contactless payment turf wars. The outcome will be fascinating to watch but determines whether Octopus will remain a great transit payment platform for Hong Kong with a future, or not.

Update
It looks like we’ll have to wait a while longer for Smart Octopus on Apple Pay.

Tweet of the Day

Line Pay QR Codes can now be used with, some, vending machines. It is just 3 easy steps and 1 minute of your time. Gotta love the gadget geeks who test this stuff. File under: #what’s the point

For reference here is Apple Pay Suica:

PAYGATE Station Android based smart payment reader

It’s rather unusual that a company would hold a press conference for a payment terminal but Daiwa House Group subsidiary Royal Gate Inc did just that last week for their new PAYGATE Station smart reader. Japanese IT journalist Satoshi Tanaka covered the rollout for IT Media.

The ‘thin client’ mobile Android based smart reader handles every payment protocol there is.

Contactless: EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE
Hardware: EMV IC, Magnetic stripe
QR Codes: D-Harai, Pay Pay, Line Pay, Ali Pay, WeChat Pay, Origami Pay, Rakuten Pay
Reward Cards: D-Point, Ponta, Rakuten

GMO Payment Gateway provides the payments processing backend for Royal Gate and Daiwa House Financial handles the business client support side. The product video shows the business target: small cafes, restaurants, boutiques. With the ever-widening rollout of EMV contactless and QR Code payments, Japan is turning into a very interesting and unique intersection point of Western EMV payments, home-grown FeliCa and China market driven QR Code payment schemes.

I don’t think having home grown QR Code payment systems around is a bad thing even though most Japanese don’t use them. The value is that it gives Japanese banks and companies a bargaining tool to use with Apple, Google, Amazon, Alibaba Group and WeChat. Never get in a sword fight without a sword.

Global FeliCa vs Galapagos Syndrome QR Codes

Back in the pre-iPhone era Japanese manufactures were busy churning out internet connected, e-wallet capable handsets with high quality cameras (for that time) that most of the western IT media pooh-poohed: ‘nobody needs all that fancy stuff’.

Unfortunately the Japanese IT media paid way too much attention to it all endlessly handwringing over the Galapagos Syndrome of Japanese technology that nobody seemed to need or want. Worse than that, people actually bought the media con. Then something strange happened in 2016 when Apple unveiled FeliCa Apple Pay and went global with it in 2017.

Google is now following the same path with a FeliCa Pixel 3 in Japan. Why would Apple and Google do that if FeliCa was stranded in the Galapagos? There is business value there, otherwise they would not be spending resources to do it. Most of the Japanese IT media has ignored this fascinating turn of events, focusing instead on the new darling of manufactured “QR Code mania” payment platforms: AliPay, Origami Pay, Docomo d-PAY (d-HARAI), Line PayRakuten Pay, Pay Pay. The merits are dubious:

Demerits of OR Code Payments

  • QR requires a good network connection
  • Slow transaction speed
  • Weak Security and QR Code Chinese payment apps keep transaction records in Mainland China
  • Device needs be on and screen active
  • No ‘on the spot’ refunds

Merits of FeliCa (NFC-F) Payments

  • Works without network connection
  • Very fast transactions
  • High security and transaction records stay in Japan
  • Device can be in battery reserve mode sleep or screen off
  • On the spot refunds

Fortunately there is one Japanese journalist who is calling it: Masahiro Sano. Sano san’s latest piece on Nikkei notes the irony of Japanese companies falling over each other to roll out useless redundant QR Code platforms because QR Codes are “standard in China” (and nowhere else), while Apple and Google are deploying FeliCa as one more standard checklist item on their digital wallet platforms.

Fake QR Code payment mania confuses customers. Put another way QR Code payment platform apps are about de-centralizing the digital wallet into an ever-growing collection of apps while Apple Pay and Google Pay are about centralizing different technologies into a unified and smooth user experience for payments, tickets, IDs, reward cards and more. Which approach do you think will win in the long run?

Sano san thinks QR Code payment platforms in Japan are not about public demand or customers actually using them. They’re just a fad that will fade and eventually be shipped off to the Galapagos. I think he is right. The evidence so far certainly backs him up.