While the screen is on: Background Tags and Apple NFC Evolution

Background NFC tags work when the iPhone screen is on

NFC background tag support that allows users to scan NFC tags without an app arrived with A12 Bionic iPhone XS/XR and iOS 12, but the feature is only becoming truly useful with the enhanced NFC tag support in iOS 13 Core NFC. The Japanese and UK governments have already announced ID card NFC tag support for iOS 13, Jennifer Bailey previewed a new NFC tag Apple Pay feature in May, and the iOS 13 Shortcuts app lets users deploy NFC tags to create their own HomeKit automations. These are exciting developments that are just the start of new powerful and innovative NFC services on the Apple platform.

Apple’s strong point is the tight integration of software services across different devices that no other platform can match. Apple Pay Suica works on iPhone and Apple Watch, but the latter combination of technology, function and size makes it a completely different and beguiling experience. Apple Pay on Apple Watch is its own special thing.

A Temporary Split in the NFC Evolution Line?
The evolution of Apple NFC on both iPhone and Apple Watch was in lockstep up until the arrival of A12 Bionic in 2018. The A12 Bionic NFC powered background tag and Express Transit power reserve features only work on iPhone XS/XR. Apple Watch Series 4 does not support these NFC features, nor does watchOS support the Core NFC framework, this means that NFC tag Apple Pay on Apple Watch is out of the question.

Is the feature split temporary or does it represent a different line of NFC evolution for Apple Watch? The absence of Core NFC makes sense because watchOS does not support 3rd party apps, at least not yet. Express Transit power reserve however, would be a great feature to have on Apple Watch as iOS 13/watchOS 6 Apple Pay Express Transit rolls out to Chicago Ventra, Brisbane myki and Hong Kong Octopus.

Getting that feature on Apple Watch depends on how quickly Johny Srouji’s A team can implement the A12 Bionic Secure Enclave design that handles basic Apple Pay transactions directly and bypasses the OS, on the S Series chip. I cannot believe they are not pushing hard to deliver the goods as soon as possible, perhaps even with Apple Watch Series 5 featuring a S5 Bionic chip.

Delivering a S5 Bionic would get Express Transit power reserve on Apple Watch with NFC performance gains as well. It would also give Apple the option to add NFC background tag reading later on as watchOS becomes more powerful and independent.

The iPhone 7 FeliCa Question
There is one fuzzy area of iOS 13 Core NFC and it is iPhone 7 FeliCa support. At WWDC19 Apple announced that all devices, iPhone 7 and above, would support the enhanced NFC tag lineup: NDEF, FeliCa, MIFARE, ISO 7816, ISO 15693, VAS. But this does not match up with Apple’s own device specs for adding a FeliCa Suica card to Apple Pay:

Apple is telling developers that all iPhone 7 models are good for FeliCa but telling customers that only iPhone 7 JP models are good for FeliCa. This means we get one of two scenarios:

  • iOS 13 retroactively adds FeliCa support to all non-JP iPhone 7 models. Apple can do this by adding device specific FeliCa keys as iPhone 7 NFC hardware is the same for all models worldwide.
  • iOS 13 Core NFC FeliCa tags work but non-JP iPhone 7 models (without FeliCa keys) do not work for FeliCa transactions at the terminal.

The latter ‘FeliCa keys vs. No FeliCa keys’ scenario is illustrated in a comment post by Reddit user FelicaDude, if I understand correctly, that without device specific FeliCa keys iPhone 7 only works in basic Read/Write mode without encryption, with FeliCa keys iPhone 7 works in Read/Write encryption mode necessary for local offline processing with payment terminals (i.e. Suica):

The international iPhone 7s can do basic FeliCa read/write without encryption, because they embed a FeliCa-capable CLF <contactless frontend>. Apple has chosen not to provision them with Osaifu-Keitai keys, probably to avoid paying royalties to FeliCa Networks for each device.

FelicaDude Reddit

The initial iOS 13 beta 3 release build (17A5522f) did not support iPhone 7 but the revised build (17A5522g) released yesterday does. I am intrigued that something is going on with iOS 13 and iPhone 7. It’s probably a vain hope that it could be connected with the upcoming Apple Pay Octopus transit card launch which requires a FeliCa capable device, though it does makes sense for Apple to launch the Apple Pay Octopus with a wide footprint of supported devices. Let’s keep fingers crossed that iOS 13 adds full FeliCa support to all iPhone 7 models and transforms them to the global FeliCa iPhone devices they deserve to be.

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iOS 13 and the Transition to Global NFC

Crowd Cast president Takashi Hoshikawa updated his Japan Cashless map introduced back in January, the cacophony of QR Code payment platforms continues to grow. Just like any gold rush, QR will crash and burn at some point. Big players will gobble up the smaller ones and things will settle down.

But something else is going on. There’s a small but important difference, so small that Takashi Hoshikawa is not aware of it: he labeled the FeliCa section in the upper left corner as NFC.

This is the result of using Apple Pay on a global NFC iPhone where all the necessary hardware and software is seamlessly unified. The old plastic card mentality of different walled off technologies: contactless credit card (EMV), transit card (FeliCa, MIFARE), ID card (ISO 7816), NFC A/B or F, etc. slips away and becomes one seamless NFC Wallet in the mind. This mindset is also on display in SearchMan co-founder Naoki Shibata’s recent article on Rakuten Pay Suica: no mention of FeliCa anymore, it’s just one NFC thing.

This is an important and natural, but quiet progression that will accelerate with the enhanced NFC support in iOS 13 and expansion of new services like Apple Pay Octopus. iOS 13 Apple Pay Wallet will set the standard for global NFC that just works, a standard that Google Pay will struggle to match because of Android hardware fragmentation.

Players that leverage the advantages of global NFC and offer new services based on them, like JR East (Inbound Apple Pay Suica), and Mastercard (NFC switching dual mode bank card services) will gain, while companies that stick with the old ‘one thing’ contactless plastic card mentality, like Visa, will lose. It’s that simple.

WWDC19 iOS 13 Apple Pay Wish List

(Note: iOS 13 Core NFC documentation has been released with NFC tag support for: ISO 7816, ISO 15693, FeliCa, MIFARE and NDEF)

Now that full 3rd party NFC access is reportedly coming with iOS 13 tag support for ISO 7816, FeliCa and MIFARE, does this mean developers get supercharged Core NFC and PassKit NFC Certificates generously handed out like condoms at a gay sex party? Probably not, the only new things in those rumors are ‘full access’ and ‘ISO 7816’, but let’s take a look at some possibilities based on the 3 NFC Forum defined NFC Modes: Card Emulation, Reader/Writer and Peer to Peer.

NFC technology lineup in iOS 13

It’s useful to remember that A12 Bionic powered iPhone is one of the most compelling ‘Global NFC’ devices on the market, with all the important technologies in one package sold everywhere: NFC A-B-F hardware and EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, PBOC and VAS (value added service protocol) software. Android is fragmented, especially when it comes to FeliCa support.

Apple has invested a lot of time and money to guarantee everything is there and ‘just works’. A12 Bionic added Express Cards with power reserve that support certain NFC transactions without iOS up and running. A12 Bionic also added Background Tag Reading and the ability to read NFC tags ‘out of the box’ without a separate app.

The big frustration for developers has been that iPhone NFC is all dressed up with no place to go. iOS 12 NFC supports Card Emulation and Reader/Writer but severely limits the Secure Element access necessary for Card Emulation with NDA covered PassKit NFC Certificates, while Core NFC is a limited Reader/Writer Mode sub-set.


Card Emulation

New Apple Card Wallet UI
After using Apple Card UI flavored Apple Pay Suica in iOS 12.2 with even more tweaks in iOS 12.3, I feel sure that new PassKit controls for Apple Pay Wallet card customization: detailed transactions, summaries, balance payments, new card options and other UI goodies of the recently announced Apple Card, will be made available for all developers and iOS 13 Wallet cards.

The Apple Card UI and Wallet UI design language in iOS 12.2 and later, is so different from the rest of iOS 12 that I’m surprised nobody in the Apple tech blog space picked up on it. There are lots of useful card options and information that can be piped into Wallet cards from the card provider cloud, instead of sitting in a separate app.

This applies to card artwork as well. Static card artwork in iOS 12 doesn’t do anything and gobbles up precious screen space. The dynamic card art of Apple Card UI can be used to give important information to users while solving the wasted space problem.

Multiple Express Cards in iOS 13 Wallet
There are major Japanese eMoney prepaid cards on Android that are missing on Apple Pay: WAON, Rakuten Edy and nananco. One ‘missing on Apple Pay’ reason is that iOS 12 Apple Pay Wallet lacks a smart way to deal with multiple Express Transit and Express eMoney Cards. Wallet can hold multiple Suica cards but only one of them can be Express Transit. It’s the same for eMoney cards.

This started to change in iOS 12.3 with the addition of Express Transit with Payment Cards. The massive rebuilt of iOS 12.3 Wallet means that iOS 12.3 is basically iOS 13 Wallet already, and the heavy work continues with the temporary removal of Payment Card Express Transit in iOS 12.4 Public Beta.

iOS 13 Wallet will complete the journey, hopefully delivering a vastly improved and unified Wallet UI that elegantly solves the multiple Express Transit/Express Card issue, and eliminates card clash. At a transit gate the user should only have to tap, at checkout the user should only have to select a payment logo on a screen or tell the sales clerk Suica, Mastercard, etc., and pay.

Unified iPhone and Apple Watch Wallet
I do have one more wish for the iOS 13 Wallet UI: please integrate the separate iPhone and Apple Watch Wallets into a single Wallet. It’s incredibly convenient to control all transit card recharge/reload and other options on iPhone instead of fiddling with the tiny Apple Watch screen to recharge a Suica card for example. Suica App manages separate Suica cards on iPhone and Apple Watch incredibly well in one place.

Easy Card Emulation
I am less sure how Apple plans to make card emulation easier for developers:

  • New functions in PassKit that do more
  • Less stringent and easier to obtain PassKit NFC Certificates
  • A combination of the two or
  • Something new altogether

Whatever the approach, I hope it keeps everything secure while making it easy for developers to add all kinds of non-EMV cards to Wallet, the major categories include…

  • Transit Cards: Transit cards have been tricky because up to now each one has been a kind of custom in-house job by Apple in cooperation with the transit company. HOP launched May 21 and Ventra will arrive this summer. Clipper has been rumored for Apple Pay inclusion for some time. Hong Kong Octopus (FeliCa) and Los Angeles area TAP (EMV only?) should arrive shortly after the iOS 13 launch in September. It would be great if iOS 13 PassKit makes it easy to add all kinds of native transit cards like Taiwan EasyCARD and Melbourne Myki (both MIFARE) and more (like Calypso for example) to the mix, with Apple having to do less for a real transit card coming out party. Unfortunately I don’t see Singapore’s EZ-Link card ever joining the party unless iOS 13 PassKit makes it very easy to support customized payment technology like the Singapore only CEPAS.
  • Prepaid Reward Cards: There are lots of these everywhere. In Japan we have: Edy, nanaco, WAON (all FeliCa), Dotour (MIFARE), Ueshima (Mag strip) and Starbucks (FeliCa and Mag strip). Most of these have apps that let users attach credit cards to the backend for online recharge. None of them are on Apple Pay but need to be, urgently, to combat manufactured QR code mania stealth marketing. The challenge for Apple here is the same as transit cards: make it easy for developers to do more, with open API access and easy to obtain PassKit NFC Certificates. I suspect one hold up has been that every single one of these prepaid reward cards wants to have an Express Card option to bypass authentication at the reader. iOS 12 Wallet only supports a single Express card at a time. Hopefully iOS 13 Wallet solves the problem.
  • Regular Reward Cards: There are tons of these everywhere, mostly mag strip. My real wallet has JRE POINT, WAON POINT, Tomod’s, plus a crazy collection of stamp/point cards. How nice it would be if it was super easy for developers to port these to Wallet with NFC capability.
  • ID Cards: This is where ISO 7816 tag support fits in. Contactless Student ID cards in iOS 12 were a MIFARE only custom in-house job, transit cards without transit, by Apple in cooperation with Blackboard. Hopefully Apple will greatly extend ID card support in all NFC flavors for many companies and institutions, for all manner of ‘company only’ Wallet ID cards.
  • VAS: Apple Value Added Service protocol has been around a few years but uptake has been slow, almost as slow as VAS works on NFC readers and POS systems. This is more of an performance issue on the POS side than PassKit, nevertheless anything Apple can do to help increase VAS performance would be welcome. So would VAS working with Express Transit.

Reader/Writer

Android has a huge advantage over iOS because Android apps have the NFC access to do what they want. From RFID Insider:

Below are all the abilities/formats available for writing to a tag:

Business Card
Link/URL
Wi-Fi
Bluetooth
Email
Telephone Number
Geo Location
Launch an Application
Plain Text
SMS

How to Write an NFC Tag RFID Insider

A fully functional Core NFC could do all this, but the important question is how would Apple want to do all this. NFC tags are great technology but they remain deeply geeky for the majority of users. The key is making NFC tags as friendly, easy and secure to use as Apple Pay. This is exactly what Apple plans to do.

At the TRANSACT 2019 conference Jennifer Bailey announced NFC tag Apple Pay. NFC tag Apple Pay works with or without apps. All the user does is tap a NFC tag and Apple Pay takes care of the rest as shown in the demo video using a SmartPlate NFC tag.

The easiest way to think of it is that instead of tapping a dedicated NFC reader to pay with Apple Pay, NFC tag Apple Pay turns your iPhone into the reader. An NFC tag and iPhone is all that you need to Apple Pay at a store.

What does this sound like to you? Yep, this is enhanced Core NFC Read/Write for NFC tags that does exactly what QR Codes do. NFC tag Apple Pay is aimed right at the ‘but the store doesn’t need an expensive NFC reader to use QR’ sweet spot that QR Codes have occupied up to now. NFC tag Apple Pay levels the play field, neatly eliminating the QR advantage while offering security that QR Codes cannot match.

However don’t assume that the QR players are chained to QR Codes, it’s an inexpensive and convenient technology for building payment system app services, nothing more, not particularly sacred. Enhanced Core NFC and NFC tag Apple Pay works in an app and this offers Japanese QR Code payment systems such as Line, PayPay, etc., a way to incorporate Apple Pay NFC support in their app, if they choose to do so.

A12 Bionic iPhone XR/XS are the only devices that support background NCF tag reading and the native ability to read tags without an app. The big question in my mind is how Apple plans to implement enhanced Core NFC and NFC tag Apple Pay on older devices

Peer to Peer

iOS 12 does not support NFC Peer to Peer. I don’t see that changing in iOS 13 if it can’t be part of a new Apple Pay or related service. AirDrop already works well across devices that do not have NFC capability. That’s probably enough real world peer to peer for most people.


Summary

The Apple Pay theme for WWDC18 was ‘move Passes into Wallet, get rid of the QR Codes and replace them NFC.’ The new Apple Card UI improvements in Wallet and NFC tag support suggest the Apple Pay theme for WWDC19 will be: ‘move card functionality out of apps and into Wallet cards with new iOS 13 PASSKit controls, or get rid of apps altogether and replace them will all kinds of NFC enabled cards and NFC tags.’

It certainly makes sense. Apple Pay is NFC for the majority of iPhone users, the NFC thing that people use. Apple devoting iOS resources into making card emulation easier and better for 3rd party developers to add all kinds of cards to Wallet, and migrate functions out of separate apps to the Wallet card itself, will give the most bang for the development buck. NFC tag Apple Pay will finally bring NFC tags into the mainstream while eliminating the remaining advantages of QR Codes. It’s going to be a very interesting WWDC for all things Apple Pay.

We’ll find out at the WWDC19 keynote on June 3 at 10:00 a.m. PDT.

UPDATE
WWDC19 Apple Pay scorecard

New Core NFC Capabilities for iPhone XS and iPhone XR

New Core NFC tricks for new iPhones

Another quick note: Apple has uploaded a new Core NFC Tech Talk in the WWDC App and online for background reading of NFC tags with iPhone XS and iPhone XR.

UPDATE
There is much much more: Welcome the new era of A12 Bionic NFC and iOS 12

WWDC18 Apple Pay

iOS 12 Apple Pay Wallet and PassKit NFC Certificates

Door locks…check, ID…check, transit…oops. The Information got 2 out of 3 right but the transit stuff was a bust. We won’t get the whole iOS 12 and watchOS 5 story until new products are announced this fall but it looks like open developer access to Apple Pay and NFC is coming via an enhanced Core NFC, or some other method to be revealed later this week at WWDC18. A lot of developer heads would turn if Apple completely opens the doors to full 3rd party access with all 3 NFC Modes: Card Emulation, Reader/Writer and Peer to Peer.

The only thing clear so far is that contactless Student ID cards are coming to Apple Pay Wallet. There are lots of FeliCa and MIFARE based ID badge security systems out there but I could not find who provides the technology for Temple University’s OWLCard or John Hopkins J-Card, but there are clues how they will work:

  1. Contactless student ID cards are Stored Value (SV)
  2. Because they are SV cards, they can be recharged

Since they will reside in Apple Pay Wallet this probably means contactless student ID cards can be ‘recharged’ with an Apple Pay credit card instead of running to the nearest ‘refill/recharge’ station. Anytime, Anywhere Recharge.

Sound familiar? My goodness it’s just like Apple Pay Suica that you can recharge on the go and use for JR East Suica coin lockers. The only real difference is that Apple Pay Student ID cards cannot be used for transit. At least not yet. The Apple Pay Developer page says, “discover how to create contactless passes for rewards cards, gift cards, tickets, and more.” Contactless passes for reward cards eh? Sounds like that JRE POINT card in Apple Pay Wallet will be possible after all.

UPDATE: Contactless Passes are made possible with NFC Certificates and appear to the method for some 3rd party access to NFC in iOS 12 and watchOS 5.

Apple Pay and Core NFC Developer News