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Apple Pay Octopus Launching in Hong Kong with iOS 13 and Apple Maps Transit Integration

UPDATE: Hong Kong OCL has officially announced Apple Pay Octopus

It’s finally happening. Hong Kong iPhone users have waited eagerly for the ubiquitous Octopus transit card to arrive on Apple Pay ever since the first global FeliCa iPhone models were announced in September 2017. They were disappointed when Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) unveiled the first smartphone wallet version of the FeliCa based Octopus as Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay in December 2017, reportedly an exclusive deal. Needless to say, there was no mention of Apple Pay.

After Apple and OCL set things in motion in December 2018 with tests for a tentative Chinese New Year launch but then put things on hold, Hong Kong iPhone users are finally getting their wish: Octopus on Apple Pay will launch in Hong Kong with iOS 13. The iOS 13 beta contains specific Apple Pay Octopus references along with Apple Pay server side references (link now closed) which indicate that OCL is field testing with the latest beta:

Screenshot of live Apple server link JSON code June 25 10:00 am Japan local time, link was terminated by 3 pm

The June 25 code leak forced their hand and OCL officially announced Apple Pay Octopus on July 11 after not answering earlier requests for a comment, the press release promised more details soon:

Suica Similarities
Octopus is based on the same FeliCa technology used for Suica and both cards are very similar. Octopus is used extensively for fast transit and contactless payments of all kinds. According to Wikipedia there are over 33 million Octopus cards in circulation as of 2018 used by 99 per cent of Hong Kong residents. The addition of the Octopus transit payment platform to Apple Pay will drive its adoption in Hong Kong far more than regular credit/debit cards can ever accomplish, as it has in Japan with Apple Pay Suica.

The digital Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay is very similar to Apple Pay Suica, with fast Express Transit-like use and performance, but the setup is a little more user friendly for inbound visitors: a new virtual Octopus card can be created directly in Wallet without using a separate app like SuicaEng or HOP App. You can transfer a plastic Octopus card, but just like Suica and HOP, the plastic card cannot be used after transfer, and the same virtual card can only be used on a single device at a time. The Apple Pay Octopus experience will be the same and Express Transit a given.

Apple Maps Transit Integration
Earlier Apple Pay Octopus reports mentioned Hong Kong Apple Maps Transit launching at the same time. Sources confirmed that Apple Maps Hong Kong transit directions were ready to roll a long time ago but have been held back for a simultaneous release with Apple Pay Octopus. It makes sense for Apple to offer both services as an integrated whole as they did for the Apple Pay Suica launch. If the Japan launch is anything to go by, confirmation won’t come until very late in the beta test cycle, if at all, Transit will simply appear.

Global FeliCa iPhone and Apple Watch
The Apple Pay Octopus device profile will be the same as Suica: iPhone 7/7 Plus purchased in Japan (models A1779/A1785), iPhone 8/8 Plus, iPhone X, iPhone XS/XS Plus, iPhone XR set up with Face ID or Touch ID, and Apple Watch Series 3 and later. There is a chance that iOS 13 will retroactively enable FeliCa for all iPhone 7 models to support the Apple Pay Octopus launch.

The iPhone XS and XR models have the A12 Bionic exclusive Express Transit with power reserve feature that gives users an additional 5 hours of Express Transit use when iPhone in low battery power reserve mode. A12 powered FeliCa performance is also much improved over previous iPhone models. My experience with Apple Pay Suica performance on iPhone XS has been as fast and reliable as plastic Suica with none of the iOS issues of previous iPhone models, performance on iOS 12.3 is stellar. Apple Pay Octopus performance on iPhone XS/XR models will have the same advantages.

Hong Kong iPhone X users need to be aware of the iPhone X NFC hardware problem found on early production devices that causes endless issues with Apple Pay Express Transit. Apple has quietly provided replacement Revision B iPhone X devices for users who experience Express Transit gate errors in Japan and China. Hopefully Apple will offer the same courtesy to Hong Kong iPhone X users who encounter the issue.

The First Transit Platform Business Model
The Hong Kong Octopus card was the first real transit platform (contactless transit and eMoney) that had a tremendous impact on the development of Transit for London (TfL) Oyster card, Opal in Australia and other transit card fare systems around the world. It’s great for Hong Kong users that OCL is expanding the Octopus platform to include more digital wallets. I hope OCL continues to expand both the service on other digital wallets, and the business opportunities. For Apple this is an important opportunity to kick Hong Kong Apple Pay use into high gear and will certainly drive Apple Pay credit/debit card use on the recharge end far more than regular bank card Apple Pay, last but not least it’s a vindication of Apple’s global NFC “it just works” anywhere vision for Apple Pay.

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Deep Secrets of Apple Pay Express Transit

Apple Pay Suica on A12 Bionic iPhone XS/XR works even in the middle of a recharge

Apple Pay Suica on A12 Bionic iPhone XS/XR is different from other devices because basic FeliCa transactions bypass iOS and go directly to the Secure Enclave. You can see this in action with Express Transit power reserve, but if you observe carefully you can catch it in other ways.

I caught a glimpse today buying ice coffee at a JR station NewDays shop (supplied by Doutor btw). I was recharging Suica with Apple Pay and forgot it was still processing when I touched iPhone XS to the reader. The payment went through without a problem, the recharge completed a few seconds later.

Is this a iOS 12.4 beta thing or did A12 Bionic iPhone do this all along? I suspect it did all along and makes sense: the payment transaction bypassed iOS which was busy processing the Apple Pay recharge and wasn’t ready to post a balance update to the Secure Enclave. Prepaid and postpay processing at the same time…very interesting.

Most people think all Express Transit is the same, but Suica Express Transit prepaid is very different from EMV Express Transit postpay. Suica settles the transit bill in less than 200 milliseconds (ms) locally right at the transit gate, while EMV Express Transit leisurely (500 ms) tells the gate, ‘I am bank card XXX, put it on the bill’ for settlement later between the bank and the transit agency. For EMV there is a lot of backend system work to make that happen, and even then the user sometimes has to tap twice:

EMV Express Transit Option Returns in iOS 12.4 Public beta 4

The temporary absence of EMV Express Transit in iOS 12.4 betas 1~3 has ended, the option has finally returned in iOS 12.4 public beta 4 (16G5046d). OMNY users in New York can use the beta for transit now, but since OMNY itself is one big beta system why bother with beta on beta? I think it’s better to wait for the official release. Portland HOP iPhone users need not bother as they can put real HOP card in Wallet. It’s way better than using a credit card, faster and cheaper too.

The only question remaining is, what kind of Wallet grunt work were they up that they had to remove EMV Express Transit temporarily in the first place?

Apple Pay Suica Service Mode

Apple Pay Suica Service Mode is a weird function that doesn’t have a counterpart on the Android Suica side. The JR East Apple Pay Suica help page mentions this. The iPhone Service Mode explanation says, “Service Mode will allow station agents and kiosks to help with any issues with your card.” The street reality is that station agents don’t need you to put the device in Service Mode, just fork it over and they can fix any Suica issue for you.

This difference exists because Osaifu Keitai smartphones (and the candy wrapper Google Pay Suica) have a dedicated FeliCa chip. Apple created it’s own custom FeliCa implementation hosted on the iPhone A Series and Apple Watch S Series SOC. But the Apple implementation did not really mature until A12 Bionic and the Express Card (Student ID)/Express Transit cards with power reserve feature. The A12 Bionic Secure Enclave supports limited NFC transactions that bypass iOS. It’s the same way a dedicated FeliCa chip works on Android.

This means that Apple Pay Suica on non-A12 devices requires iOS/watchOS to be up and running for Suica to work. Unfortunately this also means that different iOS versions sometimes have performance issues on non-A12 devices and that iOS occasionally drops the ball. Fortunately iOS 12.3 fixes all issues and has great Apple Pay Suica Express Transit performance. iOS 12.3 is a highly recommended update.

The Dead Suica Notifications/No Suica Balance Update problem happened occasionally and the way to fix it is to turn on Service Mode and leave it until it turns off automatically in 60 seconds or the screen goes dark, whichever comes first.

In this case Service Mode syncs and reconciles iOS with the Suica Stored Fare (SF) balance information from the FeliCa embedded Secure Element implemented inside the A Series/S Series Secure Enclave.

Service Mode seems pretty useless on A12 Bionic devices. I imagine it’s there more for show than actual functionality, although Service Mode is useful for cash recharge on 7-Eleven ATM machines where you have to put the device upside down to capture the ATM NFC antenna hit area.

Tweet of the day: I want my Oyster

Reports of the Apple Pay EMV Express Transit option coming to TfL in ‘coming months’ notwithstanding, it does nothing for the many TfL users who need to use Oyster. Oyster card on Apple Pay and Google Pay is kinda like Brexit, endlessly discussed but never decided. TfL would like to get rid of Oyster altogether, I imagine the banks like it that way. Hoping that EMV will evolve and fix things is wishful thinking. Either way a decision has to be made at some point about native Oyster on digital.