Are Google Pixel 5 and Fitbit up to the Global NFC Challenge?

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 is used in all models but only FeliCa keys for card emulation are installed on Japanese models, i.e., 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.

The real 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. But neither does Google, hence the logjam.

Google’s recent purchase of Fitbit might be the agent of change that finally breaks the jam. 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 developer product back in 2018: Mobile FeliCa Platform and Mobile FeliCa Cloud for supporting all kinds of Mobile FeliCa services worldwide. I’m sure this arrangement got 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.

Next Up for Octopus: Google Pay or Garmin Pay?

Apple Pay Octopus launch day was a big success, so successful that Octopus apologized for their servers buckling under the demand. What’s next for Octopus, Google Pay? There are some possibilities but when it comes to Android there is the matter of the Secure Element (SE), where it resides and what transaction protocols are supported.

From the NFC hardware angle everything has been ready to go on all smartphone hardware for years, NFC A-B-F is required for NFC certification. The problem has been on the SE side, the black box where all the transaction magic happens. From Global Platform the SE certification organization:

A SE is a tamper-resistant platform (typically a one chip secure microcontroller) capable of securely hosting applications and their confidential and cryptographic data (for example cryptographic keys) in accordance with the rules and security requirements set by well-identified trusted authorities.

There are different form factors of SE: embedded and integrated SEs, SIM/UICC, smart microSD as well as smart cards. SEs exist in different form factors to address the requirements of different business implementations and market needs.

Global Platform Introduction to Secure Elements

SE Wars and Google HCE ‘SE Pie in the Sky’
In the pre-Apple Pay mobile carrier hardware era, carriers used SE SIM or embedded Secure Elements (eSE) + SIM combos that chained customers to service contracts for the privilege of using mobile payments. This is the classic Osaifu-Keitai textbook maneuver pioneered by NTT Docomo: leave those pesky SIM Free whiners in the cold world of plastic cards and hard cash, or crippled digital wallets until they give up and buy an overpriced carrier SIM. This brain dead approach is one reason why Mobile FeliCa ended up being ridiculed as ‘galapagos technology’ even though everybody copied it with inferior crappy me-too products.

This carrier SE hostage situation, i.e. the Mobile Wallet SE Wars, led Apple and Google to follow different strategies to address the problem.

The Apple Pay Way
Apple’s answer of course was Apple Pay. A unique in house strategy of putting a Global Platform certified Secure Element in their A Series/S Series chips then building it out from there. Most eSE go on the NFC controller, but doing it the Apple in-house way has advantages over a NFC chip vendor bundle: control of the eSE applets and ability to update them and the Apple eSE for new protocols in iOS updates. We saw this in action with the addition of FeliCa in 2016, PBOC in 2017 and MIFARE in 2018. We may even see the addition of Ultra Wideband (UWB) Touchless in iOS 14.

What iOS 14 could look like with QR and UWB support

The Google Pay Way
Google’s answer to the carrier owned SE problem was the more convoluted evolution from Google Wallet (2011) to Android Pay (2015) and finally Google Pay (2018). Google first salvo was Host Card Emulation (HCE): “NFC card emulation without a secure element” hosted on Google’s cloud. Later on Google attempted to do the same for FeliCa with HCE-F.

But then something happened that put an end to all this: Google decided to get into the hardware business. And now we have Google Pay and Google Pixel with it’s own embedded Secure Element (eSE). With Pixel, Google decided they didn’t want to be the Secure Element cloud provider for every Android OEM out there especially when the Chinese OEMS are all rolling their own eSE based digital wallet services anyway, completely ignoring HCE. Sure, HCE/HCE-F is still there in the Android developer documentation but it’s a dying vestigial relic of the SE wars.

But Google Pixel depends on vendor bundled eSE + NFC controllers and the Osaifu Keitai software stack. This makes global NFC support more complicated because Google doesn’t ‘own’ the eSE and the software stack, at least not in the Apple sense of making their own all in one design. This is one reason why Pixel 3/4 only support FeliCa in Japanese models even though all worldwide models have the same NFC A-B-F hardware.

The end result of all this is the Android market is a very fragmented landscape, there are no global NFC Android smartphones: a device that supports EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, PBOC out of the box in one globally available package.

Google Pay Octopus and the Android Global NFC Installed Base
Back to our original question, can Google Pay Octopus happen? We already have Google Pay Suica right? Let’s assume that Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) has everything in place for it to happen. Here we run into the problem just described: there are’t any global NFC Android smartphones available globally. Samsung sells them in Japan and Hong Kong, Google only sells them in Japan along with Huawei, Oppo, Sharp, etc.

For OCL this means the potential Google Pay installed base that can support Hong Kong Octopus consists of Samsung Galaxy smartphones that are already using Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay; not exactly a mouth watering business opportunity worth the support expense. Even if Google Pixel 5 goes deep instead of cheap, Hong Kong would have a potential Octopus non-Samsung Android device, but that’s only one new device not an installed base. I only see Google Pay Octopus happening if Google localizes all the necessary Osaifu Keitai software and foots the entire support expense.

There is a way forward however for OCL: Garmin Pay Suica. The same Garmin APAC models that support Suica can also support Octopus, the recharge backend is entirely Google Pay. Garmin smartwatches work with any Android 5 and higher smartphone, a much larger installed base that bypasses the fragmented Android problem. Garmin Pay Octopus would offer Android users a way in, who want to use Octopus on a mobile device but who don’t want to use Samsung or Apple devices.

The conclusion: forget Google Pay Octopus for the time being. Hong Kong is a golden opportunity for Gamin Pay Octopus….if Garmin can get Garmin Pay clearance from Hong Kong authorities and banks, and cut a deal with OCL. It’s certainly in Octopus’ best interest for OCL to help turn the negotiation wheels. It’s also in Google’s interest as Google Pay would supply the recharge backend as it does for Garmin Suica. Big hurdles all, but I hope it happens.

The Self Checkout Barcode Reader Dilemma

Reach out and touch is not something we want to be doing right now. Along with wrangling face masks and Face ID iPhone Apple Pay in the Covid-19 era, we also face another hurdle: self checkout barcode readers. Any volunteers out there who like fondling public plastic? I didn’t think so.

Convenience store self checkout all have the same deal: scan with barcode reader, tap some choices on the checkout touchscreen, scan a rewards card and pay with Apple Pay Suica, etc. The stationary barcode readers at JR East station NewDays are slightly better but you still have the touchscreen to deal with.

Barcode app and plastic variety reward cards were already a pain in the ass before all the fun started and are worse now. Apple VAS and Google Pay Smart Tap for NFC contactless reward cards has been in place for some time but uptake in Japan has been slow and small. So far only 3 contactless NFC point cards exist: Docomo dPOINT, T-Point and PONTA, and only 2 places use them: LAWSON (dPOINT and PONTA) and Tsutaya (T-Point). Part of the problem is that VAS/Smart Tap support depends on 2 factors: the reader and the POS system.

Most modern NFC readers support Apple and Google protocols but POS system support is another matter. Pre-packaged POS system providers like AirPay and J-Mups that are popular with smaller merchants don’t support them yet. This means that only big retailers with deep POS development resources like LAWSON (Mitsubishi Corp group) have added NFC contactless reward card support so far.

Apple Pay Japan supports dPOINT and PONTA cards but there are subtle differences: PONTA card requires Face/Touch ID authentication, dPOINT does not. I have not fully tested dPOINT for point payment but suspect authentication is not required for getting points but required for paying with points. One hopes that with the Covid-19 crisis in full swing, retailers and card empires (JRE Card, etc.) have the incentive to provide customers with the safest contactless experience for both payments and reward cards.

dPoint card can be accessed without Face/Touch ID, PONTA requires authentication

Mobile PASMO Q&A

What is Mobile PASMO?
Mobile PASMO is an app service identical to Mobile Suica, for Android v6 Osaifu Keitai devices or later, and iPhone 8 / Apple Watch 3 and later running iOS 14 / Watch OS 7 later this year. Users can recharge a virtual PASMO card on the device with a registered credit card, purchase or renew commute plans, view use history, restore the PASMO card from the cloud in case of a lost device, PASMO bus transit users can also earn ‘Bus Toku’ points. Details are listed on the Mobile PASMO site (Japanese only).

Is it compatible with Google Pay? (Updated)
Not at this time. Users need to be careful: active Google Pay blocks Mobile PASMO transactions. Bank cards are limited to Mobile PASMO app registered credit cards: American Express, JCB, Mastercard, Visa. Credit card registration is processed by PASMO and seems to be the weakest part of the system where users are experiencing the most trouble (the rest of the system appears to be licensed Mobile Suica IT assets). Only Japanese issue cards are accepted.

Is the Mobile PASMO app multi-lingual? (Updated)
Everything is Japanese language only. Android users can download the Mobile PASMO app on Google Play.

Can I use Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO on the same device? (Updated)
Only 6 recent Osaifu Keitai Type 1 devices support multiple transit card installs. On older Type 2 devices you can only install one and have to choose. As FeliCa Dude explains in his excellent Reddit post, “Mobile PASMO: the “me-too” that’s all about them, and not you” the Mobile FeliCa Android stack on older FeliCa chip devices isn’t like Apple Pay and does not support multiple transit cards or the ability to select one for Express Transit. Type 1 devices updated to Osaifu Ketai 8.2.1 can set one (and only one) ‘main card’ for Express Transit use, with Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO on the same device. A full downloadable PDF device list of Type 1 (Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO), Type 2 (Mobile Suica or Mobile PASMO), Type 3 (Mobile Suica).

If Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO are basically the same, does it matter which one I use?
It all comes down to commuter pass use, if you live in the Suica/PASMO region and use a JR East line on any part of your commute, Mobile Suica is the best choice that gives you the most options on Apple Pay and Google Pay. If you do not ride a JR East line as part of your commute, you must choose Mobile PASMO for commuter pass use.

When will Mobile PASMO be available on Apple Pay? (Updated)
Apple Pay PASMO has been announced and will be launching with iOS 14 in late September~early October.

Isn’t next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Suica supposed to fix this redundancy? (Updated)
Mobile PASMO throws cold water on the one big happy mobile transit family concept of next generation Suica: sharing resources instead of “me too” fiefdoms. Even if the new card architecture fixes all the current shortcomings, which it is supposed to do, nothing can fix the selfish mindset of transit companies who refuse to cooperate. As FeliCa Dude points out, Mobile PASMO is the result of JR East and PASMO Association failing to cooperate and mutually host commute plans.

UPDATE: Japanese programmers digging into Mobile PASMO details find that PASMO licensed Mobile Suica IT assets for Mobile PASMO service. This makes a lot of sense and is an encouraging sign that Mobile Suica cloud resources will be licensed to host other transit IC cards for Mobile ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, etc.

UPDATE 2: Junya Suzuki posted an article with more Mobile PASMO system details. One leading company in the PASMO Association (Tobu, Keio or Odakyu) licensed Mobile Suica assets and technology from JR East. Cut and paste IT. As said above, this is encouraging because other transit companies (JR West, JR Central et al) can license Mobile Suica assets and park it on whatever cloud service they want: AWS, Azure, NTT Data and so on. Mobile plumbing for connecting Apple Pay and Google Pay is already in place.

Visa Japan signs with Google Pay

Visa Japan finally officially signed with a digital wallet platform and it is Google Pay. As expected it comes with a price: no FeliCa support, no dual mode support, nada, just Visa Contactless that is branded as ‘Visa Touch’ in Japan. The press release outlines recent debit cards from Sony Bank (oh the irony), JapanNet Bank, Resona and Mitsubishi UFJ.

Visa offers dual mode plastic cards that have EMV and FeliCa support in one convenient chip package that work in Japan and abroad. However these new plastic and Google Pay cards are limited to the Visa Touch payment network which is slowly growing in Japan but still full of holes. The most useful payment method for these cards will be the reliable old contact one.

Visa Japan’s long term strategy here is to gradually pull out of the FeliCa based iD and QUICPay contactless payment networks and eventually issue everything on their own Visa Touch payment network. Apple Pay FeliCa support will never sit well with Visa Japan, but now with the Google Pay move we know what Apple Pay has to do to host new Visa card products.

Unfortunately Visa has focused on big marketing pushes like the Tokyo Olympics instead of a consistent and focused drive to build contactless payment support and customer awareness that benefits all players. In a payment market already flooded with payment network logos and acceptance marks, Visa Touch is just one more logo that adds to customer confusion. Visa could have been a leader, instead they gave QR Code players a nice big opportunity, a gift that keeps on giving.