Pixel 3 Global NFC Evolution

Reader feedback and discussion from my earlier post analyzing the fuzzy state of iPhone 7 FeliCa and its possible support of Apple Pay Octopus, resulted in some interesting information about the Pixel 3 Japanese FeliCa model. From FeliCa Dude’s epic Reddit Octopus on iPhone 7 post:


<reader comment> Regarding the Pixel though, are you sure that the non-Japanese Pixel 3 models even have an eSE <embedded secure element>? I was under the impression that these were HCE <host card emulation> only.

<Felica Dude answer> All the Pixel 3 devices have an eSE, but it might not be able to be enabled by the end-user, and even if it is possible, it won’t be provisioned. A teardown of the global edition Pixel 3 XL (G013C) reveals a <NXP> PN81B.

The NXP PN81 announced in February is all-in-one off the shelf global NFC chip that includes both the frontend NFC A-B-F hardware and the necessary embedded secure element (eSE) + keys for EMV, FeliCa and MIFARE. The odd thing is that the Google Pixel 3 Japanese model apparently doesn’t use the PN81 for FeliCa, and has a separate FeliCa chip sitting in the fingerprint sensor assembly inside the back case.

Google Pixel 3 JP SKU iFixit teardowns do not exist but I did run across an interesting article from the Keitai Watch site showing a Pixel 3 JP SKU being taken apart for repair at an iCracked repair shop.

Just for kicks, I called the iCracked shop and asked about repairing a faulty FeliCa Pixel 3 device. The Pixel 3 repair technician explained that a FeliCa chip replacement was not expensive because it is not on the motherboard, “it’s attached to the fingerprint sensor assembly.” Look carefully at the picture from Keitai Watch piece and you can see the back case with fingerprint sensor assembly that the technician was referring to.

Disassembled Pixel 3 JP model from Keitai Watch

This presents a very strange situation. All Pixel 3 SKUs have the FeliCa ready PN81 chip but don’t use it, while Pixel 3 Japan SKUs apparently have another separate FeliCa chip attached to the back case finger sensor assemble. Google alludes to this on the Pixel 3 support page: If you purchased your Pixel 3 or Pixel 3a phone in Japan, a FeliCa chip is located in the same area as the NFC. There is also the recent batch of Pixel 3a Japan SKUs with bad FeliCa chips, but reports of bad NFC (EMV) Pixel 3a international SKUs have not surfaced; this also suggests a separate FeliCa chip. Why have two FeliCa chips in a device when one will do?

My take is different from FeliCa Dude: the Pixel 3 does not use the PN81 eSE or ‘pie in the sky’ HCE for anything. Instead, Google Pixel 3 uses the Titan M chip Secure Enclave as the virtual eSE for EMV and MIFARE, similar to what Apple does with the A/S Series Secure Enclave. Titan M FeliCa support was either not ready, or Google wanted to test the Japanese market before making a custom hardware commitment.

The point of all this is that Google has laid the foundation for a global NFC Pixel 4 made possible by a custom Google chip. The Titan M is Google’s answer to Apple’s A/S Series Secure Enclave that can host any kind of virtual embedded secure element for any kind of transaction technology, from EMV to PBOC.

I might be wrong, but even if my virtual eSE on Titan M take is incorrect, taken all together with the NXP PN81 development, I think Pixel 4 will finally be the global NFC Android device that many have hoped for.

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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.

Rakuten Pay Super Suica Connection

IT journalist Junya Suzuki wrote an interesting piece for Impress Watch detailing the recent Rakuten Pay Suica announcement. Unfortunately there was a major missing piece of analysis: Super Suica. I asked him about it.

I look forward to reading Suzuki san’s take, meanwhile here is mine. It has everything to do with the Japan Transit IC card standard and the common eMoney purse that I wrote about in the Apple Card piece.

(The) Japan Transit IC card standard occupies a very special category, 255 transit companies form a common interoperability standard which started from Suica. There are more issued Transit IC cards than people in Japan, everybody has one.

The core group of 9 major cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, TOICA, Kitaka, manaca, SUGOCA, nimoca, HAYAKEN) also share a common prepaid purse: Transit IC eMoney. The national coverage and scale of the major cards transforms Transit IC eMoney into something special found nowhere else: a de facto national prepaid card standard.

File:ICCard Connection en.svg
Japan Transit IC Map, a very cool animated timeline is also available

Pay close attention to the transit cards that encircle the pink area, with the exception of PiTaPa. These are local rural area transit cards that are currently orphaned from both the common eMoney purse, and transit interoperability.

In April 2021 Super Suica will enlarge the pink area to include these orphaned cards. They will join the common eMoney purse and be compatible with all the pink area cards for transit and purchases. These will also be on Apple Pay Suica, Google Pay Suica and Osaifu Keitai.

That is a huge change in and of itself, but there is another very important aspect. All of these orphaned rural area transit cards are basically cash recharge only. Rural area transit companies operate on shoe string budgets and cannot afford the infrastructure cost to host credit card recharging on the back end even for kiosks.

Super Suica will solve this problem and what better solution than Rakuten Pay Super Suica for all rural Rakuten Pay users, and there are lots of them. This is the major sweet spot that Rakuten and JR East are aiming for. It merges the Rakuten Pay backend with the Super Suica frontend into one convenient service for transit and eMoney purchases while leveraging lucrative Rakuten loyalty points. Rakuten has the best integrated point system in Japan and JR East wants to use it to extend the Suica Platform nationwide. Rakuten Pay and Super Suica belong together, like peanut butter and jelly.

Suica tops cashless use for the younger generation

There is a universal law that whenever you post anything with recent market data, newer better market data appears the next day. Just after posting the latest Contactless Payment Turf Wars installment focusing on Suica eMoney, TesTee Lab released a new market survey focusing on prepaid eMoney use (Suica, WAON, nanaco, etc.) in younger people ranging from teens to twenty somethings. The sample is small, only 3,396, and does not mention if the sampling is regional or national, but it runs from 2017~2019 which makes it possible to tease out some trends.

The first graph looks at overall spending methods: cash, eMoney, plastic credit cards, etc. Cash is still king but is closely followed by FeliCa eMoney (mostly prepaid, some postpay) and plastic credit cards. Unfortunately there is no spending category information (convenience stores, restaurants, etc.).

The next category focuses on eMoney categories: Suica/Transit, nanaco, WAON, etc. The inclusion of postpay iD and QUICPay muddies the water some, but one important takeaway is that Suica/Transit use leads the other prepaid cards by a wide margin. The other important takeaway is that Apple Pay Suica/Google Pay Suica is the most used digital wallet card. The top 4 spending categories are: convenience stores 76%, transit 58%, supermarkets 33.4%, cafe/restaurants 16.9%.

The next graph illustrates an interesting trend. As eMoney acceptance grows and more people use it, the more people want to use it everywhere. And the more they use it, the less concerned they are about security.