Mobile Suica Lite

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.

A shortcoming of the Osaifu Keitai standard is that it only works on Osaifu Keitai ready Android smartphones. In 2016 Google released the HCE-F specification for Android 7.0. Japanese tech media at the time assumed HCE-F would become widespread for delivering FeliCa services to low-end Android devices without Osaifu Keitai support but that didn’t happen. As FeliCa Dude points out, “HCE-F is not useful for emulating existing FeliCa cards because the API has been needlessly crippled.” The HCE strategy is questionable and comes with security risks. In the pre-Apple Pay, pre-Google Pay era it seemed like a viable path, but things haven’t panned out in the embedded secure element era of today.

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.

Garmin Pay Suica aka Google Pay on iOS

Garmin Pay Suica went live May 21, effectively breaking the 4 year Apple Watch/Apple Pay Suica monopoly. As any Apple Watch user in Tokyo will tell you, Apple Pay Suica is the killer Apple Watch app. The real secret of course is Express Transit payments. Even now I get the occasional oh and ah from store staff when I hold Apple Watch up to the reader. They really appreciate the speed and social distance. So do I.

Since Garmin only does smartwatches, there are inherent limitations and big differences from Apple Pay Suica: (1) there is no way to transfer a plastic Suica to Gamin Pay, users have to create an account and a new virtual Garmin Pay Suica card, (2) Garmin Pay Suica does not support Suica Commuter Passes, (3) Garmin Pay Suica can only be recharged with Google Pay, (4) Garmin Pay Suica is limited to Japanese Garmin models, it is not global NFC like iPhone and Apple Watch.

Outside of that Garmin Pay Suica is a regular Suica with ‘Rapid Pass’ instead of Express Transit, different name, same thing. It can be registered for SmartEX and Ekinet Shinkansen eTicket travel. iOS users setup and recharge via the Garmin Connect Mobile app.

Garmin Pay Suica limitations limit its appeal for iPhone users who already have the full range of Mobile Suica service on Apple Watch. It’s a boon for Android users who have lusted after a Suica smartwatch. It very weird that it has taken 4 years for Android based device makers to even attempt matching the killer combo of Apple Watch and Apple Pay Suica. I hope Garmin works to improve the service and remove the limitations. Android users would really appreciate having the full Mobile Suica experience on a smartwatch.

UPDATE: there’s some gray area whether all Asian models support Suica or just the devices sold in Japan. I’ll update any discoveries here. Other limitations like Suica Commuter passes are also interesting and suspect they shed some light on the Google Pay~Osaifu Keitai relationship. In many ways Google Pay Suica is a UI skin on top of the Osaifu Keitai stack. In the case of Garmin Pay, no Osaifu Keitai stack means no Commuter Pass support even though it depends on Google Pay for recharge.

UPDATE: All APAC models support Suica