With the proliferation of wearables JR East has been busy adding new devices to Mobile Suica. A timeline:
2006: Mobile Suica for Osaifu Keitai
2016: Apple Pay Suica for iPhone and Apple Watch
2018: Google Pay Suica for Android Osaifu Keitai
2020: Garmin Pay Suica, wena 3 Suica
2021: Fitbit Pay Suica
The first hardware standard for Mobile Suica was Osaifu Keitai first on Symbian feature phones in 2006 followed by Android in 2013. This is the basic FeliCa chip in phone approach.
Apple Pay Suica in 2016 brought a new hardware model: a Apple custom embedded secure element (eSE) with licensed Mobile FeliCa for iPhone and Apple Watch. Pixel 3 and later models employ a somewhat similar arrangement using NXP multi-protocol NFC controllers with preinstalled Mobile FeliCa but Osaifu Keitai software is only activated on Japanese Pixel models.
So how does JR East host Gamin Pay Suica, wena 3 Suica and Fitbit Charge 4 Suica wearables without Osaifu Keitai? The answer is what I call Mobile Suica Lite, a prepackaged service that supports some basic Mobile Suica features but has limitations:
New digital issue of regular non-registered Suica cards only, no transfer of plastic Suica cards.
No transfer of Suica to new devices
Deleting Suica from the device comes with a SF balance refund option (¥200 service fee + transfer to a Japanese bank account) but once the card is deleted it is gone forever.
No supplemental Suica services
Google Pay recharge backend
For wearables in the COVID era with teleworking and less reliance on commuter passes, Mobile Suica Lite is surprisingly useful despite the limitations. If you migrate to a new wearable simply run the SF balance down to zero, delete the old card, then issue a new digital card on the new device.
How exactly is JR East doing this? We know for certain that it is not Osaifu Keitai or HCE-F. My theory is we are witnessing Mobile FeliCa Cloud in action. According to FeliCa Networks Mobile FeliCa Cloud is:
…a service platform that connects NFC FeliCa Devices with Mobile FeliCa services. With Mobile FeliCa Cloud, the seamless provision of Mobile FeliCa services becomes possible regardless of OS or platform for smartphones and wearable devices…
What is a ‘NFC FeliCa’ device exactly? All NFC certified devices must support NFC-A, NFC-B and NFC-F. Any Global Platform certified secure element on a device also supports Mobile FeliCa. I suspect that any manufacturer with NFC and Global Platform certifications can pick Mobile FeliCa Cloud services à la cart from FeliCa Networks: i.e. I’ll have a Mobile Suica lite with a side order of Rakuten Edy but hold the iD.
Mobile FeliCa Cloud doesn’t come with all the Osaifu Keitai bells and whistles, but it also streamlines and eliminates Osaifu Keitai support headaches with prepackaged services. A Mobile FeliCa lite option for lite wearables…I hope we see more of it on more devices with more services.
These limitations are not deal breakers. With many company people teleworking during the COVID crisis there is less need for commuter passes. For users who want the complete Mobile Suica service on a wearable, Apple Watch is still the only game in town. Nevertheless this is a welcome addition for many Android users in Japan.
The Fitbit JP page has a few Suica details. It appears to be a Japan model only device, not a global NFC device…and only the black model support Suica. It’s too early to tell if this development has anything to do with Google finally closing the Fitbit acquisition or if this is the first step towards supporting major FeliCa payment services like iD, QUICPay, Waon, etc. Robust seamless global NFC support across Pixel and Fitbit devices from anywhere would be the first real challenge to Apple Pay Suica on iPhone and Apple Watch.