QR Code Transit on Hong Kong MTR starts January 23 (Updated)

After a very long preparation period QR Code transit on Hong Kong MTR finally starts on Saturday, January 23. The MTR Fan FaceBook page:

Only TWO WEEKS left before the launch of QR code payment on 23 January! For this new service, we have installed about 1,000 QR code scanners at stations and conducted a series of system and on-site tests. Prominent purple signage will also be on display to help passengers identify the gates providing the new service.

This is the debut of MTR ‘open-loop’ ticketing. Up until now MTR used the ubiquitous Octopus card, the trail blazing transit card that showed the world what smartcard ticketing can do when extended beyond transit to include eMoney payments, transforming a transit card into a transit payment platform. Unlike Japan however Octopus Card Limited (OCL) was late bringing Octopus to mobile. Part of the problem was that Hong Kong mobile carriers never had an Osaifu Keitai-like standard that bridged the Symbian and Android hardware eras. OCL also wasted time with SIM card mobile support before finally launching the mobile Smart Octopus service first on Samsung Pay in late 2018, followed by Apple Pay Octopus in June 2020 and Huawei Pay Octopus in December 2020.

But MTR still faces a problem that most Android devices don’t support FeliCa even though NFC-F is supported across all NFC capable devices. It’s the global NFC dilemma best illustrated in the Google Pay on Google Pixel situation: Mobile FeliCa is installed on all Pixel devices but Google only turns it on for Pixel models sold in Japan. There are many takes on the reasons why. My take is that Google doesn’t want to do the all the global NFC OS level support work that benefits all Android manufacturers. Google’s stance is, ‘don’t ask us, roll your own embedded Secure Element (eSE) solution.’ And so it’s a race of how many ‘Octopus on XX Pay’ digital wallet platforms OCL can line up for Android and wearables.

For MTR, QR Code open loop transit sidesteps this Android hardware mess, but will it be a success when users have to open a smartphone app with a face mask on at every gate? Apple Pay Octopus on Apple Watch sure beats that problem and then some. Long term I think NFC wearables and UWB Touchless will be the QR killer. Time will tell.

AliPay HK is the first payment provider, others QR players will be added as they are qualified. The transit gate layout is interesting, QR is limited to purple colored gate lanes shown in a nifty MTR video. This is similar to what JR East will do when they phase out mag strip paper ticketing and replace it QR Code paper tickets. It’s also the layout that Nankai will do when they implement VISA Touch after testing it this year.

The next MTR open loop addition is expected to be EMV+PBOC China T-Union compatibility though MTR has not announced when that will happen. OCL already committed to a new Octopus card that will be compatible with China T-Union.

UPDATE

AliPay mainland accounts can also be used for Hong Kong MTR QR transit.

Huawei Pay Octopus: global NFC = custom eSE

Huawei Pay Octopus launched on December 9, the second digital Octopus 2020 launch after Apple Pay Octopus on June 2. The device list is interesting: Huawei Mate 40 Pro, P40, P40 Pro, P40 Pro+, P30, P30 Pro, Mate 30, Mate 30 Pro, Mate 20, Mate 20 Pro, Mate RS Porsche, Mate Xs, Nova 7 5G. A wide range of Huawei models sold in Hong Kong have global NFC support, at least on the smartphone side but does not include the G2 Pro smartwatch.

In Japan the only Huawei models with global NFC/Mobile FeliCa/Osaifu Keitai support are the P20 and P30 and only with a Docomo sim. Huawei Pay is not supported in Japan. The Huawei Pay Octopus device list tells us what we suspected all along: Huawei Pay is global NFC capable but Huawei kneecaps it so they can sell devices via Docomo. Huawei Pay can turn things on and off because, just like Apple Pay, Huawei has a custom embedded Secure Element (eSE), so does OPPO and so will Xiaomi in 2021.

The gist of all this is that Google’s Android Pay era HCE and HCE-F technology lost out to eSE long ago. As FeliCa Dude said, ‘it’s all eSE or nothing now,’ to which I would add, ‘it’s all custom eSE + XX-Pay or nothing now.’

So where does Google Pay fit in this scheme? It doesn’t. And it could be one of the things Google hopes to address with their own SoC, but a custom eSE is probably a long shot. That is unless Google is serious about making global NFC Google Pay work seamlessly on Pixel and Fitbit devices by dumping Osaifu Keitai and going all in with a custom eSE. If Google persists in wanting it both ways, limited NFC Google Pay for everybody and global NFC Google Pay in Pixel for Japan only so they can sell via Docomo etc., expect more of the confusing Android global NFC support mess we have now.