Are Google Pixel 5 and Fitbit up to the Global NFC Challenge? (Update: Pixel 5 not)

It’s that time of year again to think about FeliCa support on the Google Pixel platform as Pixel 5 approaches. Ever since Pixel 3 things have been the stuck in a rut: the same global NFC (A-B-F) chip and Mobile FeliCa is in all Pixel models, but only Osaifu Keitai apps launch and run on Japanese SKUs. No Suica for you if you don’t have one of those.

I used to think that Google was going cheap instead of deep. Google is cheap here actually, and lazy, but there are some other reasons. It goes back to the problem many people had with Google Pay Japan FeliCa support to begin with: it’s only a UI candy coating on top of the aging Osaifu Keitai stack and apps. Instead of doing a true top to bottom Google Pay global NFC solution like Apple did, Google Pay Japan FeliCa support is just surfing on the Osaifu Keitai board. And of course the Android Pay HCE-F thing is long since dead, it’s eSE or nothing now.

One problem is this: Osaifu Keitai is a domestic platform, Osaifu Keitai apps (Suica, etc.) are domestic apps. The various Osaifu Keitai partners and developers don’t want to deal with the extra expense of multi-lingual localization and support. Neither does Google, hence the logjam.

Google’s recent purchase of Fitbit might be the agent of change that finally changes the situation. The Osaifu Keitai model doesn’t extend to wearables. Google Pay has to come up with something new to replace Fitbit Pay, something that works across paired devices seamlessly if Google Pay Suica is to exist on a Fitbit smartwatch paired with Pixel.

There is something new this time around that didn’t exist, or at least didn’t exist as a marketed developer product back in 2018: Mobile FeliCa Platform and Mobile FeliCa Cloud for supporting all kinds of Mobile FeliCa services worldwide. This arrangement got us Suica on Garmin Pay.

Taken together I think there is a better chance Google will go deep instead of cheap, hopefully sooner than later. Google Pay Suica and Google Pay PASMO on Pixel and Fitbit devices from anywhere would be a very welcome development.

Update: Not labeled on diagram

Pixel 5 was announced and FeliCa support is still limited to JP models, more cheap instead of deep. Pixel support pages (screenshots) list FeliCa support in the ‘Not labeled on diagram’ section with Osaifu Keitai links and this new bit: “To use FeliCa on Pixel 4 and later Pixel phones you’ll need 4 apps that should automatically open during setup.” This is the enablement step that Google blocks on non-JP Pixel models. The strange thing is that Mobile FeliCa is hiding in plain sight on all Pixel models, if Google wanted to they could allow enablement remotely.

This confirms the FeliCa situation won’t change for Pixel until Google builds their own Google Pay replacement for Osaifu Keitai software instead of candy wrapping it. It all comes down to what Google wants to do regarding Suica support on Fitbit. Something will have to change in Google Pay if they want to do that.

Special warning to Hong Kong Octopus users: don’t buy a Pixel device for using the Octopus Mobile SIM. FeliCa Dude reported that Google purposely crippled Pixel 4 SWP support for products like Octopus Mobile SIM and this is the case for Pixel 5 as well. Only use officially supported devices for Octopus Mobile SIM.

T-POINT? We don’t need no stinkin’ T-POINT

In the ephemeral COVID era we live in assurance don’t come easy, especially with JP cashless market data. Half the fun is taking the crumbs you find, a 1000 person web survey here and there, and seeing what trends you can tease out of it.

First of all the usual disclaimer: cashless use is highly regional, depending on transit use and many other factors like age group, shopping habits, and reward points. It’s this last item that makes the CreditCard no Yomimono survey so interesting.

Reward points are the dangling carrot all Japanese cashless players use to drive card use. New comers like PayPay use them shamelessly to capture customers and build their platform. Japanese customers love to play the ‘what combo gets me the most points’ game but they are also notoriously cold shoulder when they feel gypped. And once they drop something, they never come back.

The survey skips over regional point systems like JRE POINT (though I think that’s debatable considering Mobile Suica on Apple Pay/Google Pay/Osaifu Keitai), and examines ‘national’ point systems: d POINT, T-POINT, Rakuten POINT and PONTA with a simple question. Which one do you use? 2,271 people said:

  • Rakuten POINT: 59.9%
  • d POINT: 18.4%
  • T-POINT: 14.4%
  • PONTA: 7.3%

It’s clear to see why JR East cut that special deal for Rakuten Pay Suica: the different online Rakuten businesses for shopping, travel, etc. mesh well and there are a lot of people invested in Rakuten POINT. The deal puts Super Suica in a good 2021 launch position for new local transit partners, MaaS NFC Tag Suica and more as the platform grows.

It’s a bittersweet deal however for JRE POINT. It’s a real shame and missed opportunity that the major IC transit cards (Suica, ICOCA, TOICA, etc.) are compatible for transit and eMoney, but not for points. Even if they all kept their own point branding and simply offered 1=1 point exchanges, people would use them more.

The decline of T-POINT is not surprising, dropping from 60% in a 2015 survey. Culture Convenience Club (CCC) and SoftBank ran T-POINT into the ground and it’s not coming back. It’s only a matter of time before SoftBank kisses T-POINT (and CCC) goodbye and unveils PayPay POINT.

PONTA is another major that has not gained much traction so far but this might change with the recent LAWSON Bank PONTA Plus branded credit card push. All of the point systems need to add Apple VAS and Google SmartPay support and drive acceptance on the merchant POS level. The less we have to deal with separate plastic point cards, all the better.

Transit Platform Basics

I have attempted to explain the unique Japanese ‘transit platform’ business model in many posts scattered over 3 years. It’s a model that didn’t exist outside of Japan for a long time because Japan was the first country to move beyond plastic cards and launch them on mobile devices in 2006. There are transit systems that are close to what the Japanese transit platform does, Hong Kong Octopus in particular, but none that combine the elements of private enterprise transit, a mobile platform and a nationwide footprint.

A reader asked some very good questions regarding JR East Transit Platform model basics and how they compare to Open Loop. I’ll try to summarize the essential points.

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?

My response:

Simple choice: moving people quickly and safely by transit, managed wisely, is a license to make money. A transit company can use that license to build something of greater long term value for the users and businesses of the transit region, a win-win, or give it away to someone else.

A transit platform is the best approach if a company wants to achieve the former. Investing everything in Open Loop as the only strategy is the latter.

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.

Who owns the customer?
A vital point many people miss in the Open Loop debate is that transit users end up as the bank card customer, not the transit company customer. This 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 one of the best ways to own the transit customer and build a business far beyond simple fare collection is a transit card.

Transit Cards: micro bank account without the bank
Prepaid transit cards are a delivery vehicle for all kinds of service goodies, a mini non-bank account if you will, from transit to points rewards and a growing portfolio of services. The beauty of a non-bank transit prepaid card is its flexibility and security. It can be a simple ticket that customers buy with cash from a station kiosk, or it can be linked to an online account for extended transit services and users can further extend it by attaching a credit card and earn reward points.

eMoney micro bank accounts for all kinds of payments and services that float
The important transformation here is evolving the card beyond transit fares to eMoney payments that can be used throughout the transit region, pioneered by Suica and Octopus. Japanese transit companies and Hong Kong Octopus have built those micro bank account transit cards into a very nice transit payment platform business that combines transit, payments and other services attached to the card which means there’s a lot more stored fare floating around than plain old transit-only cards.

One benefit not discussed much in the open is that by encouraging heavy use and ‘recharge’ of the transit/eMoney card, the transit company earns interest on the ‘float’, the combined total of all those unused prepaid balances sitting in all of those transit cards in the system. The next transformative step is mobile, which is key.

Digital Wallets: extending the reach
The most powerful transit card incarnation is the digital wallet transit card with a flexible recharge backend, where any bank card can attached in an app, or on the fly (Apple Pay, Google Pay, etc.), or even cash recharge at stations, convenience stores and such. The addition of digital wallets means there’s ever more e-money transactions moving through those cards with short term parking…more float for transit companies to earn interest.

Once the transit card goes mobile it can extend beyond the restraints of plastic card technology. It can have a flexible front-end that can be NFC, UWB Touchless or even QR. My basic position regarding open loop bank cards for transit is that doing so eliminates these options for the transit company. I say it’s better for the transit operator to decide what payment technology works best for their long term needs and how to deliver better customer service with new payment technologies, not banks. More on that in the open loop section below.

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 payment services tied to transit platform cards that benefit customers and businesses of the entire transit region.

The limitations of Open Loop EMV cards
Open Loop is sold as the cost effective future of transit ticketing but it adds a layer of complexity and cost that stymies native digital transit card support. Complexity and higher cost means fewer choices, delays, and mediocre performance. Steve Jobs explained it best in his last public appearance: a great product or service comes down to focus and choices, either you can focus on making certain technologies work great on your platform versus just okay when you’re spreading yourself too thin. Open Loop means transit system resources too thin, simple as that.

My basic position is that the arguments for open loop are plastic era constructs that ignore how mobile digital wallet platforms and mobile apps have changed everything. For example the oft cited open loop benefit of plastic smartcard issue cost savings completely overlooks the cost savings of digital transit cards on smartphones.

Regarding detailed questions such as attaching commuter passes to EMV cards and special ticketing, I am no systems 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 cancels 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.

Paper ticketing and NFC passes
For low volume specialty ticketing, QR codes are the easiest step up from mag strip paper and QR can be printed on ordinary paper for transit users without smartphones. 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 for retail and are far too slow for transit use. The transit gate reader system has to juggle different protocols. It could be done, but from my experience of using Apple Pay VAS PONTA and dPOINT cards the technology hold promise but the current version isn’t there yet. QR Codes are faster and easier to implement.

Summary
In the long run there are no easy solutions which demands a clearly defined strong but flexible business vision. The most important take away is balance with each piece of technology doing what it does best to create a greater whole. For mobile transit this is: 1) a credit/debit/prepaid on the recharge backend, 2) a stored value micro bank account in the middle with a rich set of services attached, 3) a fast flexible NFC front end with fast tap times that can evolve to Touchless and other technologies.

The risk of Open Loop is that it is sold as a monolithic ‘fix all’ mobile solution, which it is not. This lulls transit operators into complacency instead of improving Closed Loop ticketing systems and services, extending them to the mobile digital wallet era for long term gain and sustainable transit.

The simplest sum up: if you ignore Closed Loop and mobile digital payments, you’re ignoring a business opportunity.

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)
Road to Super Suica (evolution of the Japanese transit platform business)
Value Capture and the Ecosystem of Transit Platforms (the bigger picture)
The Japanese Transit Platform Business Model (an outside perspective)

Pixel 4 goes cheap instead of deep

As I tweeted earlier today, the updated Pixel Phone Help hardware pages tell the whole story: if you purchased your Pixel 4, 3a or 3 phone in Japan, a FeliCa chip is located in the same area as the NFC.

This is a little misleading because as FeliCa Dude pointed out in tweets, the Pixel 3 uses the global NFC PN81B ‘all in one chip’ from NXP. There is no separate ‘FeliCa chip’:

All the Pixel 3 devices have an eSE…A teardown of the global edition Pixel 3 XL (G013C) reveals a <NXP> PN81B.

FeliCa Dude

Pixel 4 teardowns will certainly reveal a PN81B or similar all in one NFC chip from NXP. Google could have gone global NFC with Pixel 4 and given Android users everywhere access to Google Pay Suica. Unfortunately Google went cheap instead of deep, sticking with the same Pixel 3 policy of only buying FeliCa keys for JP Pixel models.

Why is Google turning off FeliCa on Pixel models outside of Japan? I doubt it is a licensing restriction because the whole point of NXP PN81 is having all the global NFC licensing pieces, NFC A-B-F/EMV/FeliCa/MIFARE, all on one chip, all ready to go. It could have something to do with Google Pay Japan. For Apple Pay Japan, Apple licensed all the necessary technology and built it into their own Apple Pay.

Instead of that approach Google Pay Japan is a kind of candy wrapper around the existing ‘Osaifu Keitai’ software from Docomo and FeliCa Networks, and all of the existing Osaifu Keitai apps from Mobile Suica to iD to QUICPay. That’s why having a ‘Osaifu Keitai’ Android device is a requirement for using Google Pay Japan. Perhaps Google is content in candy wrapping things instead of retooling it all as basic Google Pay functionality and letting Android OEMs benefit from that.

Whatever the reason, the moral of this story is that Google Pay Suica will not be a transit option for inbound Android users during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Unfortunately, the Android equivalent of the global NFC iPhone has yet to appear.

UPDATE
Pixel 4/4a all have the same NFC hardware and Mobile FeliCa software, but non-JP models block Mobile FeliCa apps from running.

Tokyo Cashless 2020: Blame the Japan Cashless Payments mess on VISA and EMVCo, not FeliCa

1️⃣ Dear JR East, we need a new Suica Charge App
2️⃣ Consumption tax relief with the CASHLESS rebate program
3️⃣ Are Apple Maps and Siri really Apple Pay level ready for the Tokyo Olympics?
4️⃣ > Blame the Japan Cashless Payments mess on VISA and EMVCo, not FeliCa

Tokyo Cashless 2020 is a series covering all things cashless as Japan gears up for the big event. If there is a topic that you’d like covered tweet me @Kanjo


Japanese journalist Akio Iwata just published a piece explaining why VISA has not signed with Apple Pay in Japan. It is paywalled and I have not read it, but Japanese readers noticed similar points in my earlier piece Why Visa refuses to join Apple Pay Japan and tweeted about it. The subject is timely and worth visiting again after the events of the past year.

Some western business journalists and industry pundits look at the Japanese payments market and write about failure: the failure of FeliCa to be universally accepted, the failure of Japanese society to use cashless payments instead of hard cash. It’s a kind of cut and paste narrative construct journalism that you see too much of these days, like the recent Financial Times piece, or worse the NFC TIMES. The narrative is persuasive enough to blind some Japanese journalists as well.

This kind of reporting plays to the expectations of a certain readership, but it completely fails to capture or explain the massive changes happening in Japan right now, set in motion by the arrival of Apple Pay in late 2016. The bulk of the cut and paste argument is that FeliCa failed to take off in Japan and because Japan failed to switch to the EMV ‘world standard’, that’s why we have the current messy situation. End of story. I don’t buy this argument at all.

FeliCa was around long before the EMVCo consortium got it’s NFC act together in the early 2000s. NFC-A is Philips, NFC-B is Motorola, NFC-F is Sony. The ISO/IEC 14443 standard was supposed to include NFC-F but the ISO ultimately decided not to include it. EMVCo created the EMV contactless standard on ISO/IEC 14443 NFC A/B.

With lots of help from JR East, NFC-F was added to the ISO/IEC 10373-6 and GSMA/GCF (Global Certification Forum) TS. 26, TS. 27 specifications. From April 2017 GCF certification for all NFC mobile devices requires NFC-A, NFC-B and NFC-F support.

It is this later development, and especially the fruit of that development, Apple Pay Suica, that I believe is unacceptable to VISA and by extension EMVCo. VISA cooperates with Apple Pay in other countries because it promotes EMV, VISA refuses to cooperate with Apple Pay in Japan because it promotes FeliCa. Instead of promoting bank card use and new services VISA is promoting technology.

I have long suspected that VISA simply does not want anything to do with Apple’s support of the Global NFC standard put in place by the NFC Forum and GSMA/GCF in 2017. It’s not only Apple…VISA refuses to support dual mode (EMV/FeliCa) Docomo iD/NFC for Android Osaifu Keitai users abroad which Mastercard, American Express and JCB do. VISA simply wants to bide time until NFC Pay/EMV contactless support in Japan is everywhere and then simply ignore FeliCa (NFC-F) all together…

Unfortunately this strategy has only accomplished one thing: it provided an opening for QR Code payment system players…

Why Visa refuses to join Apple Pay Japan

My argument is simple. The VISA and EMVCo mindset is stuck in the one size fits all single mode plastic card era. This is easy to understand as the plastic card issuing business is a very lucrative one.

But like all things there is a downside: instead of embracing the full promise of global NFC digital wallets that can match the best NFC technology for the job with multiple mode cards that do everything and ‘just work’ everywhere, we have the contactless payment turf wars which are really just plastic era fighting moved to a digital arena.

Instead of pursuing the advantages of digital wallets that merge the best of native transit cards on the front end with the best of bank cards on the back end, where they perfectly complement each other, we have bank cards fighting to be everything, which they are not and will never be. This is why Apple markets Apple Card as ‘a new kind of credit card, created by Apple, not a bank.’ It’s the reason why Apple Card is Mastercard brand, not VISA.

In Japan specifically we have VISA refusing to join Apple Pay Japan and for the most part Google Pay, and VISA Japan key player Sumitomo Mitsui fighting on and off with Mobile FeliCa key player Docomo. And the result? None of this nonsense helped strengthen VISA Japan’s market position one bit. On the other hand VISA’s arrogance pulled all the other card companies down with it and provided a huge opening for the Japanese QR Code players like PayPay.

When I wrote Why Visa refuses to join Apple Pay Japan the frenzy of Japanese QR Code payments was just getting underway. Over a year later I think this conclusion is stronger than ever and the only one that explains the reality of the current market. VISA may like to think that the Tokyo Olympics is the last great opportunity to finally kill FeliCa. That’s not going to happen.

Only by setting aside the past and embracing the multimode digital future with forward looking cooperation, can VISA (and by extension EMVCo) help bring order to the payments chaos of the Japanese market. Only cooperation can deliver the promise of cashless payments to Japan, and strengthen the long term market opportunities for all players.