While the screen is on: Background Tags and Apple NFC Evolution

Background NFC tags work when the iPhone screen is on

NFC background tag support that allows users to scan NFC tags without an app arrived with A12 Bionic iPhone XS/XR and iOS 12, but the feature is only becoming truly useful with the enhanced NFC tag support in iOS 13 Core NFC. The Japanese and UK governments have already announced ID card NFC tag support for iOS 13, Jennifer Bailey previewed a new NFC tag Apple Pay feature in May, and the iOS 13 Shortcuts app lets users deploy NFC tags to create their own HomeKit automations. These are exciting developments that are just the start of new powerful and innovative NFC services on the Apple platform.

Apple’s strong point is the tight integration of software services across different devices that no other platform can match. Apple Pay Suica works on iPhone and Apple Watch, but the latter combination of technology, function and size makes it a completely different and beguiling experience. Apple Pay on Apple Watch is its own special thing.

A Temporary Split in the NFC Evolution Line?
The evolution of Apple NFC on both iPhone and Apple Watch was in lockstep up until the arrival of A12 Bionic in 2018. The A12 Bionic NFC powered background tag and Express Transit power reserve features only work on iPhone XS/XR. Apple Watch Series 4 does not support these NFC features, nor does watchOS support the Core NFC framework, this means that NFC tag Apple Pay on Apple Watch is out of the question.

Is the feature split temporary or does it represent a different line of NFC evolution for Apple Watch? The absence of Core NFC makes sense because watchOS does not support 3rd party apps, at least not yet. Express Transit power reserve however, would be a great feature to have on Apple Watch as iOS 13/watchOS 6 Apple Pay Express Transit rolls out to Chicago Ventra, Brisbane myki and Hong Kong Octopus.

Getting that feature on Apple Watch depends on how quickly Johny Srouji’s A team can implement the A12 Bionic Secure Enclave design that handles basic Apple Pay transactions directly and bypasses the OS, on the S Series chip. I cannot believe they are not pushing hard to deliver the goods as soon as possible, perhaps even with Apple Watch Series 5 featuring a S5 Bionic chip.

Delivering a S5 Bionic would get Express Transit power reserve on Apple Watch with NFC performance gains as well. It would also give Apple the option to add NFC background tag reading later on as watchOS becomes more powerful and independent.

The iPhone 7 FeliCa Question
There is one fuzzy area of iOS 13 Core NFC and it is iPhone 7 FeliCa support. At WWDC19 Apple announced that all devices, iPhone 7 and above, would support the enhanced NFC tag lineup: NDEF, FeliCa, MIFARE, ISO 7816, ISO 15693, VAS. But this does not match up with Apple’s own device specs for adding a FeliCa Suica card to Apple Pay:

Apple is telling developers that all iPhone 7 models are good for FeliCa but telling customers that only iPhone 7 JP models are good for FeliCa. This means we get one of two scenarios:

  • iOS 13 retroactively adds FeliCa support to all non-JP iPhone 7 models. Apple can do this by adding device specific FeliCa keys as iPhone 7 NFC hardware is the same for all models worldwide.
  • iOS 13 Core NFC FeliCa tags work but non-JP iPhone 7 models (without FeliCa keys) do not work for FeliCa transactions at the terminal.

The latter ‘FeliCa keys vs. No FeliCa keys’ scenario is illustrated in a comment post by Reddit user FelicaDude, if I understand correctly, that without device specific FeliCa keys iPhone 7 only works in basic Read/Write mode without encryption, with FeliCa keys iPhone 7 works in Read/Write encryption mode necessary for local offline processing with payment terminals (i.e. Suica):

The international iPhone 7s can do basic FeliCa read/write without encryption, because they embed a FeliCa-capable CLF <contactless frontend>. Apple has chosen not to provision them with Osaifu-Keitai keys, probably to avoid paying royalties to FeliCa Networks for each device.

FelicaDude Reddit

The initial iOS 13 beta 3 release build (17A5522f) did not support iPhone 7 but the revised build (17A5522g) released yesterday does. I am intrigued that something is going on with iOS 13 and iPhone 7. It’s probably a vain hope that it could be connected with the upcoming Apple Pay Octopus transit card launch which requires a FeliCa capable device, though it does makes sense for Apple to launch the Apple Pay Octopus with a wide footprint of supported devices. Let’s keep fingers crossed that iOS 13 adds full FeliCa support to all iPhone 7 models and transforms them to the global FeliCa iPhone devices they deserve to be.

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Tweets of the Day: QR Code Tipping Point

I think we are witnessing the QR Code tipping point in Japan. After yesterday’s 7pay ‘latest in a series of QR Code payment system security meltdowns’, IT journalist Tsutsumu Ishikawa tweeted, “It’s time to promote FeliCa for Japanese cashless.” Ishikawa san also retweeted Twitter user S: “QR is so over,” who goes on to say that the low bar QR Code entry point only resulted in incompetent players setting up payments systems. The resulting mess and confusion ends up destroying the very cashless migration momentum the industry worked hard to create.

Mobile FeliCa has a 15 year track record of fast secure transactions that just work. Ishikawa san is right, the Japanese payments industry needs to leave any remaining Galapagos syndrome nonsense (which was a setup btw) in the past and focus on promoting FeliCa again. Apple Pay is a global NFC platform with FeliCa support as a given on every iPhone and Apple Watch it sells. Google Pay supports FeliCa too. For Apple and Google, it’s just one NFC thing. That’s all the support and encouragement necessary for the industry to march confidently into the future and ignore the QR Code sideshow.

Apple Pay Octopus and the Pixel 4 Global NFC Question

Apple Pay Octopus on iOS 13 this fall puts Pixel 4 and Google Pay in an awkward market position. Pixel 3 is a success in the Japanese market because of the inclusion of a dedicated FeliCa chip in Japanese models. Non-JP Pixel 3 models have a global NFC ready NXP PN81 chip but FeliCa is not activated for some reason, inbound users cannot use Google Pay Suica, or anything else, in Japan.

The question for Pixel 4 is this: will Google Pay use all the features of the NXP PN81 chip, or go with a custom implementation of FeliCa on their own chip for a global NFC device along with an enhanced Google Pay that seamlessly incorporates and builds on Osaifu Keitai software (killing off JP carrier Osaifu-Keitai SIM nonsense for good) instead of simply candy wrapping it, like they do for Pixel 3 JP Google Pay.

If Google goes with the first choice, Google Pay Octopus becomes a future possibility. It would also force other Android smartphone manufacturers to follow suit.

If Google keeps that same Pixel 3 arrangement they have for Pixel 4, a separate hardware model for Japan, Google Pay Octopus becomes a murky proposition. More of the same would be a shame. I hope Google does the smart thing and the right thing: global NFC on all devices is the way to go.

iOS 13 and the Transition to Global NFC

Crowd Cast president Takashi Hoshikawa updated his Japan Cashless map introduced back in January, the cacophony of QR Code payment platforms continues to grow. Just like any gold rush, QR will crash and burn at some point. Big players will gobble up the smaller ones and things will settle down.

But something else is going on. There’s a small but important difference, so small that Takashi Hoshikawa is not aware of it: he labeled the FeliCa section in the upper left corner as NFC.

This is the result of using Apple Pay on a global NFC iPhone where all the necessary hardware and software is seamlessly unified. The old plastic card mentality of different walled off technologies: contactless credit card (EMV), transit card (FeliCa, MIFARE), ID card (ISO 7816), NFC A/B or F, etc. slips away and becomes one seamless NFC Wallet in the mind. This mindset is also on display in SearchMan co-founder Naoki Shibata’s recent article on Rakuten Pay Suica: no mention of FeliCa anymore, it’s just one NFC thing.

This is an important and natural, but quiet progression that will accelerate with the enhanced NFC support in iOS 13 and expansion of new services like Apple Pay Octopus. iOS 13 Apple Pay Wallet will set the standard for global NFC that just works, a standard that Google Pay will struggle to match because of Android hardware fragmentation.

Players that leverage the advantages of global NFC and offer new services based on them, like JR East (Inbound Apple Pay Suica), and Mastercard (NFC switching dual mode bank card services) will gain, while companies that stick with the old ‘one thing’ contactless plastic card mentality, like Visa, will lose. It’s that simple.