iOS 12 update woes: one step back after one step forward for iPhone X Suica users

Poor iPhone X Suica users. No sooner did they finally fix iPhone X Suica hardware problems by getting a Revision B iPhone exchange when the iOS 12 update set them back. Here we go again.

This time it really is software with iPhone X Apple Pay Suica Express Card sometimes unresponsive and Apple Pay demanding a Passcode/Face ID unlock at transit gates, or just good old error flicker. Users with Rev-B iPhone X devices say they didn’t have these problems with iOS 11.4.1.

This kind of thing has happened before: the Apple Pay Japan debut iOS 10.1 release for iPhone 7 had transit gate teething problems and the iOS 11.1 Apple Pay Cash debut release made life miserable for all Apple Pay Suica users regardless of iPhone model.

After dealing with Suica hardware problems for so long iPhone X users are very sensitive and, understandably, easily upset given that Apple knows about the iPhone X Suica problem but refuses to acknowledge it publicly, putting users through the Apple Support runaround game. I suspect iPhone 8 users are experiencing the same iOS 12 Suica issues but are less vocal about it.

This kind of Suica, “iOS loves me, iOS loves me not” version by version game is a consequence of Apple requiring iOS to operate Suica on pre-A12 Bionic devices. As my iPhone XS review makes clear, essential Suica operations run on A12 Bionic without iOS. This makes iPhone XS and iPhone XR Apple Pay Suica ‘bulletproof’ to any given iOS version. It just works, even when the battery runs down.

As one Japanese user complained on Twitter last night, “Is this (iOS 12 Suica) problem just an Apple ploy to get us to upgrade to iPhone XS?”

That’s not exactly the sound of a satisfied Apple customer eager to upgrade to a new iPhone. This years iPhone launch day was very quiet in Japan. Apple had better get cracking on fixing problems here if they value Japanese customers and want to keep them. These days Apple seems to take Japan completely for granted.

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The Big Implications of Apple Pay Mizuho Suica Branding

Apple Pay Branding Model
A diagram of how Mizuho plugs into Suica and how it could work with branding schemes like PASMO

Mizuho Suica for Apple Pay raises questions and fascinating possibilities way beyond yesterday’s announcement. Why now and why only Apple Pay? Is this the first of many Suica branded cards coming to Apple Pay?

The announcement was short, small and caught Japanese IT journalists off guard. Nobody anticipated Apple Pay Suica branding just appearing and working with a wallet app update. It’s slick and in true Apple fashion ‘just works’, but journalists missed important points with huge ramifications:

  • Mizuho Suica only exists as a virtual card hosted on the Mobile Suica Cloud, there is no plastic equivalent
  • DNP provides the Mizuho Wallet app backend

Put together this means the Apple Pay Suica branding vehicle is complete and ready to roll. Almost exactly the model outlined earlier.

The only remaining question is how many other transit companies and banks are going to get on? It’s tempting to think that with another Apple Event approaching, Suica’s eight sisters will join the Apple Pay branding parade: PASMO, ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, Kitaka, SUGOCA, HAYAKAKEN, nimoca. That’s probably a long shot but the vehicle is ready and waiting if they decide to join and time is running out if other transit areas want to benefit from the flood of inbound visitors anticipated for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The Apple Pay Japan strategy of focusing on the stored value Suica transit card more than credit cards has been a tremendous success. Transit truly is the golden uptake path for contactless payments, exactly as the recent and widely regurgitated Juniper Research piece pointed out but everybody seemed to miss that point.

None of the other Japanese transit cards are on mobile but everybody building their own cloud infrastructure is out of the question. If JR East, DNP and Apple can coax the other Japanese transit cards to join the Suica branding scheme that finally offers commuter plans and more for everywhere and not just Tokyo, Apple Pay will easily become the de facto mobile wallet for Japan.

UPDATE 1: the Apple Pay Suica branding program is underway, sources say ‘stay tuned’ for more Apple Pay Japan payments and apps in the near future, September and October are the usual suspects.

UPDATE 2: I think one reason why Japanese journalists missed the virtual only Mizuho Suica point is because the Android Mizuho Wallet App release earlier this year also had virtual cards with one very important difference. Android Mizuho Wallet creates virtual Mizuho QUICPay JCB Debit cards not Suica. Mizuho Debit cards are hosted on the Mizuho system just like their credit cards. Virtual Suica branded cards are hosted on the JR East Mobile Suica Cloud, a completely different system with completely different implications.

UPDATE 3: I hate the blog title and am utterly clueless trying to find a better one that exactly captures why this is an important development.

Dead HCE-F, Global NFC ≠ Global FeliCa, and Other NFC Confusion

Apple Pay Stacks Explained
A simplified look at the major parts of a NFC contactless payment system like Apple Pay

NFC is a confusing name. It’s an upside down umbrella that catches every single naming convention connected with it: Type A, Type F, EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, etc.  There are also all those smartphone platform and credit card company brand names built on NFC technology: Apple Pay, Google Pay, NFC Pay, Mastercard Contactless, etc. Companies have greatly added to the confusion changing brand names on a whim: Visa PayWave is now Visa Contactless, Google Pay was Android Pay and Google Wallet before that.

The confusion is perfectly captured by the ever-growing collection of acceptance marks cluttering up Japanese cash register counters.

How do you keep it straight? It helps to remember that NFC is just hardware.

NFC Certification = Global NFC
NFC-A and NFC-F support is required for NFC Forum certification for a device. NFC means NFC-A + NFC-F. NFC-B is optional. All NFC smart devices are Global NFC devices capable of supporting all NFC based payment systems. The street reality is they don’t because smart device manufacturers pick and choose what middleware they support. Everybody supports EMV but manufacturers pick and choose different middleware stacks for different models and different countries.

Global NFC ≠ Global FeliCa
Google’s Pixel 2 a perfect example of a Global NFC device that doesn’t do FeliCa because Google did not choose to license FeliCa middleware. Google also muddied the Android water considerably with the Google Pay Japan rollout that proves HCE-F is dead: Google Pay Japan is just an alternative front end sprinkled on top of existing Osaifu-Keitai middleware. We’ll see what Google cooks up for Pixel 3 but I suspect Google wants to have cake and eat it too: something like Real Google Pay for Pixel 3, Google Pay Lite for everybody else.

Apple on the other hand sells Global FeliCa iPhone 8, iPhone X and Apple Watch 3 worldwide. Inbound visitors to Japan with those devices can add a Suica card with all the benefits to Apple Pay. Inbound Android users are left in the cold feeling confused which is a shame.

It would be much better for customers if smart device manufacturers bundled all the major middleware stacks (EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, China Transit, CEPAS) and simply called it Global NFC. Real Global NFC.

Until the industry does a better job of integrating NFC hardware and the various middleware pieces into a virtual whole, NFC confusion will continue to be a problem.

Apple Pay Suica Inbound #7: No Foreign Transaction Fees

Apple Watch Suica

A reader comment after using Apple Pay Suica on his iPhone X:

My trip is half over, and we’ve found Suica to be a huge advantage over the old method of converting currency when we use our “no foreign transaction fee” card  to recharge it. So we use it heavily every day.

Since I live in Japan this important Apple Pay Suica advantage never crossed my mind. There are plenty of “No Foreign Transaction Fee” credit cards available in America. As long as they work with Apple Pay they are good to work for Suica Recharge. As long as you have a Global FeliCa model iPhone or Apple Watch you are good to add Suica. For the purchases you make with Suica kiss foreign transaction fees goodbye.

Unfortunately for inbound Android users the recent rollout of Google Pay Suica does not let them into the Global FeliCa smartphone party.

Yes, You Can Talk And Recharge Apple Pay Suica at the Same Time

Nobu Ringo (Nobu Apple) is my kind of Apple Pay Suica guy. His YouTube channel is filled with fun imaginative slightly dopey Apple Pay Suica exploits. Apple Pay Suica at McDonalds, KFC, Esso, parking meters and the extra, extra, extra spicy curry take home plate from Coco Curry House (complete with eating timer).

His latest exploit: recharging Apple Pay Suica while having a phone conversation. Tricky but it does work in case you are really on the run. And if you are wondering, he does it all on what appears to be iPhone 8 Plus not iPhone X. Good choice.