Dear Jane, we fucked up, sincerely MTA

The piecemeal MTA OMNY rollout is a lesson how not to do a transition from old system to new system. A case where poor design, poor management choices and unanticipated user interaction, each insignificant in isolation, snowball into a nagging long term problem.

The problem goes like this:

(1) Apple Pay Express Transit is opted in by default and iPhone users don’t always know it’s on. They don’t care about using Apple Pay credit cards on OMNY anyway because fare options are limited and OMNY isn’t installed everywhere and won’t be until at least the end of next year. They use good old MetroCard and put iPhone away in the right pocket or purse carried on the right shoulder.

(2) When the user gets to a OMNY fare gate they swipe MetroCard with its peculiar forward swipe motion on the reader which is located above and behind the OMNY NFC reader, which is positioned low and angled at pocket level. As “MetroCard sucks, it may take several (forward) swipes to enter”, the user leans into the gate while doing this and boom: OMNY reader activates iPhone Express Transit and charges fare without the user knowing it.

Default opt in Express Transit has been with us ever since Apple Pay Suica arrived in 2016. But transit cards are not credit cards and everything was fine. Things got sticky when iOS 12.3 introduced EMV Express Transit that uses bank issued credit/debit/prepaid cards for transit on Apple certified open loop systems. Currently these are Portland HOP, NYC OMNY and London TfL.

HOP and TfL don’t have problems with Express Transit. Both systems use contactless exclusively. HOP has stand alone validators, not gates. TfL gates have the NFC reader located on the top. OMNY on the other hand will have MetroCard swipe cards around for years to come: the OMNY transit card replacement is still in development with no release date. With the slow transition pace and current gate design expect the OMNY Express Transit problem to be around until MetroCard is dead, and OMNY is complete with the new tap only card.

In retrospect MTA should have done it this way: (1) rollout out the OMNY card MetroCard replacement first and add open loop support as the very last thing, (2) design better OMNY gates in two kinds, dual mode NFC + swipe, and single mode NFC only. This way MTA stations could do what JR East stations do: start with single mode tap only express gates on the edges and dual mode gates in the middle. As the transition progresses the dual mode gates get fewer and pushed to the sides with single mode gates taking over.

Apple could help by keeping automatic Express Transit opt in only for native transit cards (Suica, SmarTrip etc.). EMV Express Transit should always be a manual opt in. I understand Apple’s perspective: they want to present Apple Pay Express Transit as a seamless one flavor service, not good/better/best Express Transit flavors. The reality however is that the current technology powering EMV open loop fare systems isn’t up to native transit card standards. Apple can’t fix that.

Unfortunately MTA has taken the dumb path of blaming Apple instead of fixing their own problems. New York deserves a world class modern transit system, OMNY is an important step in building one. MTA management performance so far doesn’t inspire much confidence. Let’s hope they focus on the rollout and deliver it without more delays or problems.


Why is MTA OMNY asking Apple to fix Face ID?

MTA is asking Apple to fix Face ID. We all know that using Face ID with face masks sucks but the MTA situation is special. It’s a perfect storm of 2 separate issues, the Face ID with face mask problem and the OMNY rollout problem combined in a COVID crucible.

The MTA OMNY rollout started in May 2019 with Apple Pay EMV Express Transit support, aka Open Loop. This means regular credit and debit Apple Pay cards work for transit on new OMNY readers. It sounds great but there are downsides: open loop doesn’t support the full set of MTA transit fare options so many users have to stick with the good old MetroCard swipe until the native OMNY smartcard arrives.

Lately we don’t hear much about the OMNY card. It seems delayed along with the rest of the OMNY rollout. And because the rollout is delayed, open loop isn’t really useful because the entire system doesn’t support it. The old chicken or egg problem.

One outcome of this mixed mode is the long running complaint of unwanted Express Transit fare charges that has been constant with OMNY transit gates since the very beginning. Many users who still use MetroCard may not be aware that Express Transit is on when going through an OMNY gate. If iPhone gets close enough to the reader, bingo.

This should not be happening, so the stock advice is ‘turn off Express Transit’. The mixed mode MetroCard/OMNY open loop rollout seemed like a nice idea but implementing Express Transit before the system was completed turned out to be a bad call compounded by the COVID crisis, a victim of poor gate design, poor planning and execution.

The irony here is that iPhone users riding MTA end up turning off Express Transit, the very thing that helps keep face masks on. MTA is asking Apple to help but a ‘how to use Face ID with face masks’ ad campaign courtesy of Apple isn’t going to fix anything.

Until the OMNY rollout on MTA is completed and Apple comes up with something better than the iOS 13.5 Face ID tweak, New Yorkers will have to deal with it and use passcodes. After all, commuters with Face ID iPhones in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China have been wrangling with face masks for years and Apple never lifted a finger. Get used to it.

If you need to enter your passcode

A reader asked me about using face masks with Express Transit. The great thing about Express Transit with Suica and Octopus is that the user doesn’t need Face ID or Touch ID to use transit or buy stuff. It’s very convenient to have, especially in our face mask era. iOS 13.5 added a small Face ID tweak for easier passcode entry when wearing a face mask. It helps with the basic unlock but for me regular Apple Pay authentication is still a pain.

The reader wanted to know if the iOS 13.5 Face ID tweak affected Express Transit. It does not. You don’t need Face ID to use Apple Pay Express Transit. But Face ID needs to be ‘on’ in order for Express Transit to work and finding the right information on Apple support pages is a little confusing. The reference page you want is If Face ID isn’t working on your iPhone or iPad Pro>If you need to enter your passcode:

The key sentences are outlined in red. Wearing a face mask is not a problem with Express Transit and Face ID turned on. However, “five unsuccessful attempts to match a face,” turns off Face ID and Express Transit. You need to enter your passcode to turn on Face ID and Express Transit again.

Unfortunately turning off Face ID wearing a face mask with five unsuccessful attempts without realizing it is easy to do and trips up a lot of Express Transit users who are not aware of it. That’s why I suggest turning off the ‘Raise to Wake’ option in Settings > Display & Brightness. Doing so reduces the chance of ‘five strikes’ and makes Face ID with face mask life a little easier.

Apple Pay Octopus launch…for real

Good news for long suffering Hong Kong iPhone users: press invitations labeled ‘Redefining Mobile Payments’ that went out to local media outlets on May 28 signaled Octopus for Apple Pay would finally launch on June 2, which it did in tandem with Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit directions just before 1 am June 2 local Hong Kong time. The press event took place at 12:30 pm.

Didn’t we do this already?

OCL teased everyone when it first announced Apple Pay Octopus as ‘coming soon’ in July 2019, then ‘as soon as possible’ in September, finally postponing it in December for ‘later in 2020’ without explanation. This despite endless beta test leaks that indicated everything was ready to roll and endless launch rumors that never panned out. A timeline:

Global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch
Apple Pay Octopus is just like Apple Pay Suica with Express Transit. It can be used on iPhone 8 and later with iOS 13.5, and Apple Watch Series 3 and later with watchOS 6.2.5. Apple devices from anywhere can add and use Octopus thanks to Apple global NFC support but practical use is limited to having a Hong Kong issue Mastercard, Visa or UnionPay bank card already in Wallet.

iPhone 11 Pro/11/XR/XS have the A12/A13 Bionic exclusive Express Transit with power reserve feature that gives users an additional 5 hours of Express Transit use when iPhone is in low battery power reserve mode. A12/A13 Bionic powered transit card performance is also much improved over previous iPhone models because the Bionic Secure Element directly handles transactions that eliminate iOS overhead. If Octopus on iPhone X doesn’t work well, check this support post.

Apple Watch is the first time Octopus has landed on a smartwatch. As a long time Apple Pay Suica user I can tell you that it’s the Apple Watch killer app. Octopus users will really enjoy the experience on Apple Watch especially when hooked up with auto recharge/Automatic Add Value Service (AAVS).

Similarities with Suica
Octopus is based on the same FeliCa technology that powers Suica, both cards are very similar in scope and use for fast transit and contactless payments of all kinds. According to Wikipedia over 33 million Octopus cards were in circulation as of 2018 used by 99 per cent of Hong Kong residents. The ubiquity of Octopus with Express Transit for transit and purchases will drive Apple Pay use in Hong Kong far more than regular credit/debit cards.

Apple Pay Octopus and Apple Pay Suica both have the same fast Express Transit performance that no other Express Transit cards can match with faster gate performance than the recently added Apple Pay China T-Union mainland transit cards.

New virtual Octopus cards can be created directly in Wallet just like Apple Pay Suica cards or added via the Octopus app (v6). Plastic Octopus cards can also be transferred to Wallet but cannot be used after transfer.

Some attached services are not supported. Be sure to check Important Notes to Customers before transferring a plastic Octopus. Another issue to be aware of is that the Octopus card number changes when transferred which can cause problems with some card ID# linked services.

Not Inbound Friendly
OCL limits Apple Pay Octopus card creation and recharge to having Hong Kong issue Mastercard, UnionPay and Visa cards already added in Wallet. It’s clearly not geared for inbound visitors. This is a shame because Apple supports global NFC on all devices which Samsung and Android devices do not, a key difference.

In practice this means any iPhone 8 and later from anywhere can use Apple Pay Octopus but only when a Hong Kong issue bank payment card is already loaded in Wallet. Suica is very different in this regard: it can be created and recharged in Wallet with any Apple Pay loaded card no matter the brand or country of issue, all without service fees. It’s a very inbound friendly deal for Japan visitors with iPhone.

Unfortunately OCL was limited by restrictive Hong Kong bank agreements and didn’t offer any Apple Pay inbound friendly solutions at the press event. Hopefully they will expand inbound bank card support down the road as banks realize the value of enticing tourists to use Hong Kong transit (see Updates for Octopus for Tourists).

Octopus was the first real transit platform (contactless transit and eMoney) that had a tremendous impact on the development of other transit card fare systems around the world such as Transport for London Oyster. However, OCL needs to aggressively expand Octopus services on other mobile digital wallets like Google Pay especially as MTR moves to add QR Code payment Open Loop support.

Apple Maps Transit Integration
Hong Kong Apple Maps Transit directions launched in tandem with Apple Pay Octopus. It makes sense for Apple to offer both services as an integrated package as they did for the Apple Pay Suica. In Japan, Google Maps transit directions offer more detail and a better UI than Apple Maps Transit even though they use the same data suppliers. Your milage may vary but Google Maps transit directions for Hong Kong has been in place for some time and offers extras like crowding info. Another limitation shared with Apple Maps in Japan: no indoor station mapping.

Greater Bay Area Apple Pay Transit Compatibility
Apple Pay Octopus is the last piece of the transit puzzle that delivers Express Transit convenience to Greater Bay Area iPhone/Apple Watch users who, up until iOS 13.4.1, were limited to China Union Pay (CUP) cards without Express Transit and plastic Octopus cards.

The recently released Apple Pay China T-Union transit cards are interoperable transit cards that work across the country, some 257 mainland cities, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO. China T-Union uses the PBOC 2.0/3.0 protocol, the Chinese variant of EMV with the slowest NFC transaction speeds, they are limited to UnionPay issue credit/debit cards for recharge and cannot be used for purchases. Octopus uses the faster FeliCa protocol and offers an open Apple Pay recharge backend for Hong Kong issue cards.

The advantage for wide area travelers is that they can now add both Apple Pay Octopus and China T-Union cards in Wallet. Having 2 different Apple Pay transit cards in Wallet may not be exactly the same as the dual mode Sold Octopus•Lingnan Pass but it should be close. It will be interesting to hear what the Apple Pay Greater Bay Area transit experience is like using both services.

Why the long wait?
There has been endless speculation regarding the reasons for the Apple Pay Octopus delay. Technically it could have launched on iOS 12 but was held back for an unbelievably long test period over 2 major iOS versions, running from December 2018 and iOS 12 all the way to May 2020 and iOS 13.5, the last major release before iOS 14.

Why? Personally I always felt the unexplained November 2019 Smart Octopus service outage was an ominous sign that OCL plans were under political pressure. Other possible delay reasons include Apple Pay recharge card support and fee negotiations, and lining up Apple Map transit data. There’s no question that the go-slow OCL approach was not helped by the ever-deteriorating political situation.

The Apple Pay Octopus launch story was a long winding road with many ups and letdowns in the very difficult year of 2019. 2020 is also a very difficult year in a different way, though I hope it can still turn out to be a time of recovery.

I’d like to thank all the readers who shared Octopus tips and comments that let me report a complex, ever changing situation. I learned many things, the most important of which is that Hong Kong people are very kind and very smart. Wish you all a safe, healthy and happy transit wherever you go.

‘Redefining Mobile Payments’ June 2 press event invitation
Mobile Suica has a long history dating back to 2007. Mobile use growth had stalled until the Apple Pay Suica launch in 2016. Octopus on Apple Pay will likely drive a similar spurt of mobile use.

UPDATES

July 30: OCL released the Octopus App for Tourists, this is an iOS app for inbound iPhone users to add a digital Octopus to Apple Pay and recharge it. The app requires a foreign issue Mastercard, Union Pay or Visa and the user must select a non HKD currency when adding the card. This is forced dynamic currency conversion and is a card compliance violation: card users should be able to make purchases in the local currency.

While OCL does not charge an upfront Octopus recharge fee, the forced currency exchange average adds 4% compared with direct HKD purchases. This is customer gouging. Why Apple allows this on their App Store and Apple Pay platforms is baffling. The app adds and locks an Octopus card to a non-HKD currency for recharge and cannot be changed. See the Octopus on iPhone and Apple Watch tourist page for details.

June 3 8:00 JST: Octopus issues apology, “Due to the overwhelming response to the launch of Octopus on iPhone and Apple Watch, some customers could not add their Octopus between 11:30 am and 12:19 pm on 2 June,” and compensating some Octopus users
June 2 12:00 JST: Octopus Card Limited site updated for Apple Pay Octopus and a press release
June 2 09:00 JST: Apple Pay Octopus page added to Hong Kong Apple site with instructions for creating, transferring and topping up Octopus cards in Apple Pay
June 2 03:20 JST: Octopus App v6 update released
June 2 01:50 JST: Apple Pay Octopus has launched, rollout expanding in stages
June 2 00:46 JST: Apple Pay Transit directions for Hong Kong appearing in advance of the Apple Pay Octopus

The Transit Platform Argument

A reader asked some very good questions regarding the Suica Transit Platform model and Open Loop:

1) Thinking about this recently – is there a non-techie argument for introducing Suica-type cards in the current day in places with preexisting open-loop infrastructure, wide debit card adoption (even kids), and little overcrowding at ticket gates due to lower volumes?

2) As a tech & transit nerd, I obviously love them, but what could be a convincing, economically sound pitch to a transit operator for creating/adopting an integrated transit&e-money system, given the significant expense and questionable added value?

3) Answers to possible q’s about EMV contactless: 1. 定期券 (commuter passes) & discounts can be tied to card no.; 2. solution for visitors: in-app/paper/multi-trip tickets (like in SG). Obv., Suica has superior privacy & speed, but where speed is not an issue, what’s the killer argument?

I tweeted a response but Twitter is a terrible vehicle for long form discussion. I have many posts on the subject scattered over 2 years, it might be convenient to summarize a few things here.

Any argument for building a Transit Platform or going all in with Open Loop transit comes down to transit company priorities for safe operation, better customer service and long term business goals. A few crucial points to consider.

Whose customer?
A vital point that many people miss in the Open Loop debate is that transit users end up as the bank card customer, not the transit company customer. That might seem like an insignificant difference but ‘owning the customer’ is the whole game and key to growing any kind of business, in our era or any era. Which brings us to the next point because the best way to own the transit customer is…

Cards
Cards are the delivery vehicle for all kinds of service goodies from transit, to points, rewards and all kinds of services. The beauty of a non-bank transit pre-paid card is its flexibility, it can be a simple ticket that customers buy with cash from a station kiosk, it can be linked to an online account with credit cards, extended transit services and beyond. Cards are convenient but not transformative however, until they land on a smartphone…

Digital Wallets
The most powerful card incarnation is the digital wallet transit card with a flexible recharge backend, where any bank card can used, or even cash, and a flexible front-end that can be any flavor of NFC, UWB Touchless or even QR. I say it’s better for the transit operator to decide what payment technology works best for their needs and how to deliver better customer service with new payment technologies, not banks.

Value Capture
Value Capture applies to rail and transit operators with the rights to develop the land around their stations, I include station retail development and operations. Owning a transit + payment card like Suica or Octopus combined with retail opens up a whole new levels of value creation and capture.

It’s also important to remember a few other dynamics, (1) Transit is the golden uptake path for contactless payments, (2) Contactless payments are most successful when a transit payment platform, like Suica, is matched with a mobile wallet platform, like Apple Pay. The key is building better services tied to transit cards that benefit customers and businesses of the entire transit region.

Other Details
Regarding detail questions such as attaching commuter passes to EMV cards and special ticketing, I am no systems design expert but a few things come to mind. First of all we have not seen Open Loop commuter passes because the EMV spec doesn’t store anything locally and there are always security and performance issues to consider when everything is done in the cloud with soft-linked registration to system outside numbers.

The classic catch 22 here is that when the soft-linked number changes on one system, everything attached to it on the other system stops working. This is a constant weakness of the SmartEx and new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service. And what happens if the bank pulls a card mid-transit? These things happen. They are endless headaches when linking to any outside system, for this reason Open Loop sticks with the simple stuff while transit operators keep the more complex stuff in-house. In general the more complicated the fare configuration, the less likely it can be synced with an outside system or be hosted on Open Loop.

For low volume specialty ticketing QR Codes are the easiest step up from paper but they can be printed on ordinary paper for transit users without smartphones and needs to be there. This is why JR East is deploying QR code readers in some gates as they prepare to end mag strip ticketing.

NFC Contactless Passes might sound like a good idea but Apple Pay VAS and Google Pay Smart Tap were designed more for retail in mind, and the transit gate reader system would have to juggle a different protocol that isn’t EMV, FeliCa or MIFARE. It could be done, but judging from my experience of using Apple Pay VAS PONTA and dPOINT cards, QR Codes are faster and likely easier to implement.

In the long run there are no easy solutions. The risk of Open Loop is that it is sold as a general easy ‘fix all’ and mobile solution, which it’s not. This lulls transit operators into complacency instead of improving Closed Loop ticketing systems and extending them to the mobile digital wallets. The bigger and more complex the transit system, the less Open Loop can accomplish.

Relevant Core Posts
The Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Transit Platforms (an intro)
Transit Gate Evolution: Do QR Codes Really Suck for Transit? (a deeper dive into transit cards, gates and technology)
Value Capture and the Ecosystem of Transit Platforms (the bigger picture)
The Japanese Transit Platform Business Model (an outside perspective)