End of the line for Suica and the native Japan Transit IC smartcard standard?

There is a consistent theme among some Japanese tech journalists: the native Japan Transit IC smartcard system is obsolete and destined for that fabled junk heap, the Galapagos island of over-engineered irrelevant Japanese technology. The arguments always boil down to cited higher costs of maintaining the ‘over-spec’ proprietary FeliCa based inflexible transit IC architecture in face of ‘flexible, lower cost’ proprietary EMV contactless bank payment tap cards and smartphone digital wallets used for open loop transit. Is Suica really ‘over-spec’ or is it clever stealth marketing sponsorship from EMVCo members and the bank industry disguised as journalism? Logically the same argument applies to proprietary MIFARE smartcard transit systems as well but is never mentioned, presumably because it was invented in Europe instead of Japan.

Despite all the digital ink on the subject I have yet to see a single article where said costs are actually shown and compared. Smartcard deposit fees are a standard way to offset plastic issue costs and Japanese transit companies like to earn interest off the float of card deposits and unused stored value. But this is never discussed nor the fact that digital wallet issue is free of hardware costs.

Bank payment cards and smartcards have very different business models. EMVCo members and their card issuers can hide associated hardware and licensing costs in bank transaction fees that NXP, FeliCa Networks and other smartcard technology solution providers cannot. Without hard numbers we can only take journalist claims at face value, that transit smartcards are not smart at all, but expensive obstacles to lower cost open loop centralization nirvana.

I don’t buy the ‘one solution fits all’ argument and neither should you. One constant issue in our internet era is that too much centralization is not only a technology monoculture security risk, cloud services fail, and cloud centralization is abused to limit human rights. As speech is censored on SNS platforms and online profiling is used to limit freedom of travel with politically biased no fly lists, it is inevitable that face recognition transit gates will be used to track people and implement ‘no ride’ or ‘limited ride’ policies. These are issues that people must be aware of in the relentless rush towards online centralization of transit payments and services.

Nevertheless there are articles with valid criticisms well worth reading. I ran across one recently by Masanoya Sano on Nikkei that asks a good question: ‘Does taking 14 years to deliver Mobile PASMO mean the transit IC card foundation is crumbling? While I don’t agree with everything Sano san says he makes a good case that Japan Transit IC association members are failing in the face of a hydra-headed crisis: declining population with less ridership, fierce competition from other payment services such as PayPay and EMV based VISA Touch, and ridership killing COVID lockdowns. He argues that transit companies must fix some basic problems if the Japan IC Transit standard is to survive:

  • Increase coverage: get all transit on the Transit IC card service map
  • Go mobile: for all transit cards
  • Improve the transit IC card architecture: improve compatibility and loosen up current restrictions for 200 km and cross region transit, and the ¥20,000 stored fare limit

I believe most, if not all of these can be addressed with next generation FeliCa + 2 in 1 Suica (aka Super Suica) launching this year and deeper payment infrastructure sharing between transit companies. Nothing is guaranteed of course but here’s a look at each category and possible solutions.

Coverage
The transit IC coverage gap is the biggest failure of Japanese transit companies and there are big gaps. Suica only covers major population areas in Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai, roughly half of the stations on JR East are not wired for Suica. A similar situation applies to the other JR Group companies. JR East has promised to get their entire rail network on Suica with a simplified lower cost cloud based Suica in the 2020 fiscal year ending March 2021 but has yet to announce any details (they are specifically referenced in the new Suica Terms and Conditions effective March 27).

On the plus side JR West is expanding ICOCA coverage with a light rail approach of incorporating NFC readers installed in the train car for tap in/tap out for unmanned stations. No wires. SMBC and VISA use the same strategy for their VISA Touch transit boutique marketing program. It’s a practical low cost strategy for lightly traveled rural lines that reduces the hard wire requirement. Only stations that need it get wired and even those installations can use the lower cost JR East cloud based system.

JR West ICOCA area expansion includes on train NFC readers starting March 13, 2020

All major transit companies need to install these lower cost solutions to fill the transit IC gaps and integrate remaining isolated regions. VISA Touch transit boutiques are marketed as a solution for inbound and casual users, but these EMV only installation leave those transit areas off the transit IC grid for regular users and don’t work for wider area travel.

Mobile
Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO combined represent 80% of the current transit IC card market. Mobile ICOCA (JR West) is due to launch in 2023. There is no word yet about mobile for TOICA (JR Central), manaca (Nagoya City Transit rail/bus), PiTaPa (Kansai region private rail/bus), Kitaca (JR Hokkaido), Sugoca (JR Kyushu), nimoca (Nishitestsu), Hayaken (Fukuoka City Transit). This is a big challenge but the borrowed Suica infrastructure used for Mobile PASMO is a strategy that can be applied to the other major cards.

Improving Transit IC
JR East is releasing the 2 in 1 Suica card architecture that incorporates new FeliCa OS features the most important being the “2 cards in 1” Extended Overlap Service. New regional transit card using this new FeliCa OS and Suica format are launching this month in Aomori, Iwate and Utsunomiya. The next challenge for JR East is expanding 2 in 1 Suica to existing and important region transit cards inside the JR East transit region such Niigata Kotsu Ryuto and Sendai City Transportation Bureau icsca.

The ultimate long term success of the Japanese Transit IC systems depends on infrastructure sharing and integration. For this to happen other JR Group companies and private rail outside of the JR East regions have to incorporate the 2 in 1 Suica format and improvements for their own cards and regions. Only when all Transit IC Mutual Use Association members are using the new format can they link and combine services in new ways, and add new features such as raising the stored fare card value above the current ¥20,000 limit.

Will it be enough? I have no idea. Immediately I see problems for the Kansai region PiTaPa card association companies (Hankyu, Hanshin, Keihan, Kintetsu, Nankai) as they have to make fundamental changes to use the new card format. I don’t see a Mobile PiTaPA in its current incarnation and this is why SMBC (who run PiTaPa card accounts) and VISA are targeting the Kansai area for VISA Touch transit: non-JR Kansai transit companies have their backs against the wall and no way easy forward to mobile except for going all in with JR West Mobile ICOCA, or taking what SMBC offers them.

Open Loop competition
Kansai area private rail companies never managed to create the equivalent of PASMO. PiTaPa is a postpay card that has credit card issue checks and cannot be purchased at station kiosks like all other transit cards for casual use. Issue is limited, so Kansai transit companies issue JR West ICOCA commuter passes for people who can’t use credit cards. This is the context surrounding the SMBC VISA Touch transit for Nankai announcement that got lots of press attention as the first major test deployment of open loop on a Japan Transit IC card system.

Junya Suzuki’s latest Pay Attention installment has a deep dive on the VISA Touch Japanese open loop transit system solution powered by QUADRAC Q-CORE server technology. It is the solution also used for the Okinawa Yui Rail monorail fare system that integrates Suica/Transit IC and QR support. He argues that open loop EMV is good enough because, (1) we don’t need the over-spec FeliCa 200 millisecond (ms) transaction speed (it’s actually faster, between 100~150 ms), (2) it has a leg up on future MaaS and cloud integration. Holding onto Suica local transaction performance as ‘faster/better’ is a myth holding back progress.

I have tremendous respect for Suzuki san and his work but his arguments fall down for me here. He completely ignores the white elephant in the room: closed loop is here to stay because the open loop model cannot support all fare options. Even on the open loop systems that he champions, Oyster and Opal for example, closed loop cards are still essential and are transitioning to a closed loop EMV model for digital wallet issue. The only change is the closed loop card transition from MIFARE to EMV because bank partners are running the transit system account system backend instead of the transit company. In other words it has nothing to do with technology at all, it is bank system convenience. Bank convenience is what it all boils down to.

Making the right technology choices are essential in our era of limited resources, ride the right horse and you succeed. I want to believe the cloud holds the promise to extend transit IC to low transit volume rural areas that don’t have it now, but every time I use a slow cloud based stera payment terminal I’m reminded how impractical that approach is for stations with high transit volume.

Does it make cost sense to replace the current transit IC system and re-create it with EMV open loop when Opal, Oyster and OMNY systems will always need closed loop cards? The practical thing is leveraging a good system already in use. Upgrade the Japan Transit IC system we have now, spend precious resources that fix current limitations and extend it with new technologies like UWB Touchless.

The strength and weakness of the Japan Transit IC standard is that it’s not top down but based on mutual cooperation. It’s not one entity but association members have to move forward as if they are one. JR East has been the technology leader and is working to improve and share it at lower cost. 2021 is not the make or break year for Japan Transit IC, but it will be an important and challenging one that will set its future direction.

The good old Japan Transit IC card mutual use map, all the little one way arrows marked with the ‘IC’ logo pointing outside the main IC area indicate transit system compatibility.

Rethinking Face ID in the Face Mask Touchless Era (Updated)

When iPhone X came out in November 2017, IT journalist Tsutsumu Ishikawa named Suica the Apple Pay winner. What he really meant to say was that Suica Express Transit was the only easy way to use Face ID Apple Pay. It took me a long time to get used to Face ID Apple Pay but now with the COVDID-19 crisis and regulation face masks, the choices are back at square one: (1) yank down the face mask to Face ID anything, (2) use a passcode instead, (3) use Apple Pay Suica set with Express Transit. Yeah, the last one. More people have Express Transit now in China, TfL-land and little bits of the MTA OMNY system but nobody has it for purchases. Except Apple Pay Suica, still the only Express Transit card for contactless payments at stores.

In the sudden era of face masks and plastic curtained checkout areas, dealing with Face ID as little as possible, and using Apple Pay Suica as much as possible, makes life easier and safer: experts in Japan instruct people not to touch face mask surfaces and you don’t want to be yanking down a face mask to use Face ID Apple Pay at close proximity checkout. The interim solution is Apple Pay on Apple Watch which does not use Face/Touch ID at all. But there is that social distance problem: your arm has to reach the reader. That’s the thing about NFC, it’s close proximity technology. So are QR Codes.

The Touchless Distance
When I first saw the NTT Docomo Ultra Wideband Touchless Mobile FeliCa demo I though why would anybody want to pay a few feet away from the reader? Outside of paying while sitting in the drive thru I could not think of a reason. After living with Face ID, face masks and COVID-19 social distancing, I see the reason now at every checkout at every store. I want it. You will too (the 1:20 mark):

And for cars too, CarKey will work like this at some point (0:13 mark):

Touchless Transit Gate vs Facial Recognition
The COVID-19 crisis upends another Face ID related technology fantasy: facial recognition transit gates. NEC is working on face recognition that works with face masks. If anybody can deliver viable face recognition with face masks NEC will certainly be one of the first, but there are cost, performance and privacy issues to consider for transit gates: how fast is the transaction speed, how well does it scale for commuter rush, how do you register faces? Who controls all that transit gate face data and is it stored domestically or data farmed out internationally?

Mobile FeliCa and MIFARE Touchless is the same device level security model we have now with Apple Pay Suica and Student ID, and what we will have with CarKey and shared ‘keys’. UWB is a new hardware layer on top of what already exists, it bridges the NFC infrastructure and contactless payment methods we have now and extends it to the future instead of junking it.

Osaka Metro plans to have face recognition transit gates deployed in time for Osaka Expo 2025. It’s a risky transition plan. Touchless transit gates are the safer bet. Sony, Docomo, NXP, JR East, JREM are doing the necessary hardware and software development with the same embedded secure element security and local processing architecture we have now. Osaka Metro can buy the finished goods from them instead of reinventing the wheel.

Fixing Face ID Shortcomings
On the smartphone side Apple already has the Ultra Wideband U1 chip in iPhone 11. The next step is Apple Pay support as outlined in the iOS 14 Apple Pay post. I hope Apple uses the opportunity of adding UWB Touchless Apple Pay to enhance Face ID with improved technology and controls. Express Card/Express Transit is the Apple Pay method to bypass Face/Touch ID for transit, purchases (Suica) and ID door access (Student ID and CarKey). Extending the Express Card/Express Transit model as much as possible, while keeping the high level of security, is one practical way Apple Pay can address some of the Face ID in face mask era pain points.

Longer term, Face ID has to evolve to securely read faces with face masks reliably. If Face ID cannot be secure, intuitive and face mask user friendly, I don’t see a future for it, or being the iPhone model that customers want to buy. This is why iPhone SE is looking like Apple’s most important product launch of 2020.

Last but not least I don’t see Open Loop transit ever working with Touchless technology. Open Loop will likely remain a NFC only service because EMVCo partners are invested in lower common hardware standards like ISO14443 and plastic cards and probably loath to update them. Certainly they don’t want to lose the plastic card issue business because it’s more profitable than issuing digital ones. EMVCo certainly didn’t see the current situation coming, nor did Apple of course. But then again who did?


UPDATES

iOS 13.5 Face ID tweak
iOS 13.5 beta 3 has a Face ID tweak: when it detects a face mask it no longer delays the swipe up Passcode pop up with a 2nd read attempt, it goes straight to Passcode pop up. This small tweak remove a tiny bit of Face ID with face mask stress, but tiny things add up when unlocking iPhone many times a day. But for me Passcode pop up was only one stumbling block, a second bigger stumbling block is Passcode entry via the numeric keyboard.

There is a curious lag between what your fingers are tapping, the feedback click sound and what tap the iPhone actually registers. If you closely inspect the visual tap feedback, it flashes white then fades slowly, while the click just clicks.Taken all together, my brain wants to type fast and tells me the my 2 thumb input is going fast, but the iPhone Passcode numeric keyboard wants me to type slow with 1 thumb. Perhaps it’s just me but I only get correct passcode entry 50% of the time unless I slow way down and type with 1 thumb.

Overall the Face ID with face mask tweak seems more for iPhone unlock, it’s much less useful for Apple Pay. I hope Apple continues to tweak Face ID before iOS 13.5 ships but the reality is Apple can’t do very much in a short time.

John Gruber had an interesting observation regarding another iOS 13.5 beta 3 tweak, this one for Group FaceTime:

methinks a lot of folks at Apple (executives included) are using group FaceTime chats more than ever before lately, and have realized that in practice, especially in larger groups, it’s not a good experience.

Daring Fireball: ANOTHER IOS 13.5 BETA TWEAK: AN OPTION TO DISABLE ‘AUTOMATIC PROMINENCE’ FOR THE CURRENT SPEAKER’S TILE IN GROUP FACETIME

Unfortunately it’s the same for Face ID: Apple is only addressing it because Apple execs are wearing face masks. It’s very frustrating that Apple is only dealing with the Face ID with face mask issue now that it’s on their face. Customers in Asia have been wrestling with it since iPhone X day one November 2017. At any rate I hope Apple puts the experience to good use for a better future version of Face ID.

The return of Touch ID?
The release of iPhone SE and iPad Air with Touch ID on the power button has some tech bloggers speculating if this means a dual biometric approach for future iPhone models. I don’t think so.

Tokyo Cashless 2020: Blame the Japan Cashless Payments mess on VISA and EMVCo, not FeliCa

1️⃣ Dear JR East, we need a new Suica Charge App
2️⃣ Consumption tax relief with the CASHLESS rebate program
3️⃣ Are Apple Maps and Siri really Apple Pay level ready for the Tokyo Olympics?
4️⃣ > Blame the Japan Cashless Payments mess on VISA and EMVCo, not FeliCa

Tokyo Cashless 2020 is a series covering all things cashless as Japan gears up for the big event. If there is a topic that you’d like covered tweet me @Kanjo


Japanese journalist Akio Iwata just published a piece explaining why VISA has not signed with Apple Pay in Japan. It is paywalled and I have not read it, but Japanese readers noticed similar points in my earlier piece Why Visa refuses to join Apple Pay Japan and tweeted about it. The subject is timely and worth visiting again after the events of the past year.

Some western business journalists and industry pundits look at the Japanese payments market and write about failure: the failure of FeliCa to be universally accepted, the failure of Japanese society to use cashless payments instead of hard cash. It’s a kind of cut and paste narrative construct journalism that you see too much of these days, like the recent Financial Times piece, or worse the NFC TIMES. The narrative is persuasive enough to blind some Japanese journalists as well.

This kind of reporting plays to the expectations of a certain readership, but it completely fails to capture or explain the massive changes happening in Japan right now, set in motion by the arrival of Apple Pay in late 2016. The bulk of the cut and paste argument is that FeliCa failed to take off in Japan and because Japan failed to switch to the EMV ‘world standard’, that’s why we have the current messy situation. End of story. I don’t buy this argument at all.

FeliCa was around long before the EMVCo consortium got it’s NFC act together in the early 2000s. NFC-A is Philips, NFC-B is Motorola, NFC-F is Sony. The ISO/IEC 14443 standard was supposed to include NFC-F but the ISO ultimately decided not to include it. EMVCo created the EMV contactless standard on ISO/IEC 14443 NFC A/B.

With lots of help from JR East, NFC-F was added to the ISO/IEC 10373-6 and GSMA/GCF (Global Certification Forum) TS. 26, TS. 27 specifications. From April 2017 GCF certification for all NFC mobile devices requires NFC-A, NFC-B and NFC-F support.

It is this later development, and especially the fruit of that development, Apple Pay Suica, that I believe is unacceptable to VISA and by extension EMVCo. VISA cooperates with Apple Pay in other countries because it promotes EMV, VISA refuses to cooperate with Apple Pay in Japan because it promotes FeliCa. Instead of promoting bank card use and new services VISA is promoting technology.

I have long suspected that VISA simply does not want anything to do with Apple’s support of the Global NFC standard put in place by the NFC Forum and GSMA/GCF in 2017. It’s not only Apple…VISA refuses to support dual mode (EMV/FeliCa) Docomo iD/NFC for Android Osaifu Keitai users abroad which Mastercard, American Express and JCB do. VISA simply wants to bide time until NFC Pay/EMV contactless support in Japan is everywhere and then simply ignore FeliCa (NFC-F) all together…

Unfortunately this strategy has only accomplished one thing: it provided an opening for QR Code payment system players…

Why Visa refuses to join Apple Pay Japan

My argument is simple. The VISA and EMVCo mindset is stuck in the one size fits all single mode plastic card era. This is easy to understand as the plastic card issuing business is a very lucrative one.

But like all things there is a downside: instead of embracing the full promise of global NFC digital wallets that can match the best NFC technology for the job with multiple mode cards that do everything and ‘just work’ everywhere, we have the contactless payment turf wars which are really just plastic era fighting moved to a digital arena.

Instead of pursuing the advantages of digital wallets that merge the best of native transit cards on the front end with the best of bank cards on the back end, where they perfectly complement each other, we have bank cards fighting to be everything, which they are not and will never be. This is why Apple markets Apple Card as ‘a new kind of credit card, created by Apple, not a bank.’ It’s the reason why Apple Card is Mastercard brand, not VISA.

In Japan specifically we have VISA refusing to join Apple Pay Japan and for the most part Google Pay, and VISA Japan key player Sumitomo Mitsui fighting on and off with Mobile FeliCa key player Docomo. And the result? None of this nonsense helped strengthen VISA Japan’s market position one bit. On the other hand VISA’s arrogance pulled all the other card companies down with it and provided a huge opening for the Japanese QR Code players like PayPay.

When I wrote Why Visa refuses to join Apple Pay Japan the frenzy of Japanese QR Code payments was just getting underway. Over a year later I think this conclusion is stronger than ever and the only one that explains the reality of the current market. VISA may like to think that the Tokyo Olympics is the last great opportunity to finally kill FeliCa. That’s not going to happen.

Only by setting aside the past and embracing the multimode digital future with forward looking cooperation, can VISA (and by extension EMVCo) help bring order to the payments chaos of the Japanese market. Only cooperation can deliver the promise of cashless payments to Japan, and strengthen the long term market opportunities for all players.