2 NFC Antennas for iPhone 12

New iPhone specs are always fun to compare and analyze. On the NFC front we have a few changes in iPhone 12. NFC is now listed twice, first in the Cellular and Wireless section as “NFC with reader mode,” and again the MacSafe section as “Accessory Identification NFC.”

The keynote also shows NFC twice: once using iPhone 12 to unlock a door and again in the MagSafe section as a ‘single-turn coil NFC.’ So there we have it: the good old Apple Pay NFC antenna with embedded Secure Element for transactions where it has always been on the top of iPhone, and a new MagSafe NFC antenna for tag reading MagSafe accessories on the back that doesn’t need a secure element for card emulation transactions and might incorporate the NFC Forum Wireless Charging Specification. Hopefully Apple will release MagSafe developer documentation later on so we can find out. Some users wondered if the new MacSafe NFC would interfere with 3rd party card cases and using Apple Pay, but this doesn’t seem to be the case, no pun intended.

The NFC Forum Specification includes wireless charging but it’s not clear if MagSafe includes it.

What about ‘NFC with reader mode’? This is just the new name for Background NFC tag reading which was listed in previous models that have all been updated to the new name. Another welcome addition is the return of Suica (removed in the iPhone SE Apple Pay section) along with the just released Apple Pay PASMO mention in the iPhone 12 JP Apple Pay specs.

Dear Jane, we fucked up, sincerely MTA

The piecemeal MTA OMNY rollout is a lesson how not to do a transition from old system to new system. A case where poor design, poor management choices and unanticipated user interaction, each insignificant in isolation, snowball into a nagging long term problem.

The problem goes like this:

(1) Apple Pay Express Transit is opted in by default and iPhone users don’t always know it’s on. They don’t care about using Apple Pay credit cards on OMNY anyway because fare options are limited and OMNY isn’t installed everywhere and won’t be until at least the end of next year. They use good old MetroCard and put iPhone away in the right pocket or purse carried on the right shoulder.

(2) When the user gets to a OMNY fare gate they swipe MetroCard with its peculiar forward swipe motion on the reader which is located above and behind the OMNY NFC reader, which is positioned low and angled at pocket level. As “MetroCard sucks, it may take several (forward) swipes to enter”, the user leans into the gate while doing this and boom: OMNY reader activates iPhone Express Transit and charges fare without the user knowing it.

Default opt in Express Transit has been with us ever since Apple Pay Suica arrived in 2016. But transit cards are not credit cards and everything was fine. Things got sticky when iOS 12.3 introduced EMV Express Transit that uses bank issued credit/debit/prepaid cards for transit on Apple certified open loop systems. Currently these are Portland HOP, NYC OMNY and London TfL.

HOP and TfL don’t have problems with Express Transit. Both systems use contactless exclusively. HOP has stand alone validators, not gates. TfL gates have the NFC reader located on the top. OMNY on the other hand will have MetroCard swipe cards around for years to come: the OMNY transit card replacement is still in development with no release date. With the slow transition pace and current gate design expect the OMNY Express Transit problem to be around until MetroCard is dead, and OMNY is complete with the new tap only card.

In retrospect MTA should have done it this way: (1) rollout out the OMNY card MetroCard replacement first and add open loop support as the very last thing, (2) design better OMNY gates in two kinds, dual mode NFC + swipe, and single mode NFC only. This way MTA stations could do what JR East stations do: start with single mode tap only express gates on the edges and dual mode gates in the middle. As the transition progresses the dual mode gates get fewer and pushed to the sides with single mode gates taking over.

Apple could help by keeping automatic Express Transit opt in only for native transit cards (Suica, SmarTrip etc.). EMV Express Transit should always be a manual opt in. I understand Apple’s perspective: they want to present Apple Pay Express Transit as a seamless one flavor service, not good/better/best Express Transit flavors. The reality however is that the current technology powering EMV open loop fare systems isn’t up to native transit card standards. Apple can’t fix that.

Unfortunately MTA has taken the dumb path of blaming Apple instead of fixing their own problems. New York deserves a world class modern transit system, OMNY is an important step in building one. MTA management performance so far doesn’t inspire much confidence. Let’s hope they focus on the rollout and deliver it without more delays or problems.


When your iPhone X NFC stops working

A while ago Apple Pay just stopped working on my iPhone X. My phone simply hasn’t been detected by any NFC readers I’ve tried. At this point I finally have some spare income and would like to invest in fixing it. I don’t particularly care how involved it is, but I just can’t find any information on where the actual NFC antenna is and if it has the same lock that the face ID sensors do. I’m sorry if I’m just missing some fairly obvious information here. I would just like to be able to use Apple Pay again.

Reddit post

The Express Transit user base has greatly expanded in the US with the rollout of Apple Pay SmarTrip and Apple Pay TAP. Some iPhone X users invariably discover that iPhone X has problems using Express Transit and consider getting it repaired. iPhone X AppleCare is expired for most people at this point, getting iPhone X NFC repaired isn’t cheap…or easy.

I ran across a Reddit post asking about the self repair challenge. The iPhone X has a unique volume button / NFC antenna cable design. I suspect this volume button / NFC antenna cable is the culprit behind the infamous long running iPhone X NFC problem. Some repair forums report that the volume button / NFC antenna cable is serialized and simply replacement may not work.

I’ll cut to the chase: unless you love spending time and money repairing the notoriously difficult to repair iPhone X, I strongly urge you get a replacement from Apple if you can, or better yet upgrade to iPhone SE. The NFC just works and Touch ID is much better than Face ID when navigating the outside world wearing a face mask. You also get A13 Express Transit power reserve and background NFC tag reading that works great with iOS 14 App Clips. Altogether a much better Apple Pay package for our COVID face mask era.

Blame the Apple Pay Ventra delay on open loop

Washington DC SmarTrip and Greater Los Angeles TAP transit cards both launched on Apple Pay the first week of September within days of each other. They upstaged Apple Pay Ventra which was announced as ‘coming soon’ way back in March 2019 but has yet to launch. Chicago Ventra users are understandably frustrated with the ‘coming soon’ Apple Pay Ventra, especially when CTA celebrates the Apple Pay SmarTrip rollout with another Ventra ‘coming soon’ ad.

All three fare systems are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems who also run the London Oyster and Sydney Opal systems. Cubic systems all use the same MIFARE smartcard technology but the interesting thing about SmarTrip and TAP is: (1) they are the first Cubic managed digital wallet transit cards, (2) neither system has implemented open loop fare payments for tap and go credit cards.

Ventra, Oyster and Opal all have open loop, and as of this writing Cubic has yet to deliver those transit cards on digital wallets. Why?

The SmarTrip/TAP Apple Pay launch gave us the answer that nobody wants to discuss: open loop support 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, simple as that.

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. Ventra is spread too thin, that’s why Apple Pay Ventra and Google Pay Ventra are delayed more than a year after being announced.

Open Loop is sold as the cost effective future of transit ticketing but it’s had a surprisingly rocky time in the American market. The failure is pinned on transit companies but I think credit companies are to blame. 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.

It’s high time for the credit card industry to rewrite the open loop marketing script for the mobile era, but they don’t want to do that. Expect more of the same. In the meantime, let’s hope the SmarTrip and TAP Apple Pay rollout is a sign that Chicago will be getting Apple Pay Ventra soon.

UPDATE: Apple Pay Ventra finally launched October 26 2020, more than a year after it was announced. And, surprise surprise, it’s a EMV Mastercard debit/prepaid card disguised as a transit card, the world’s first closed open loop card.

The Apple Pay monopoly debate: are we really comparing Apples with Apples?

Ruimin Yang’s detailed and thoughtful post, “Apple Pay monopoly, are we really comparing ‘Apples’ with ‘Apples?“, outlines the entire Apple Pay system architecture, how it compares to other digital wallet platforms, (Google Pay, Samsung Pay) and what ‘open vs closed’ means in the whole ‘Apple Pay is a monopoly’ debate. I highly recommend it if you have any interest in digital wallet payments.

As Yang explains, ‘open’ is not easily defined and the options are not easily implemented, especially when it comes to Apple’s highly customized and constantly evolving Apple Pay platform built around their A/S series chip Secure Enclave and Embedded Secure Element. Apple has spent a lot of time, money and effort in building the Apple Pay brand as the high benchmark standard for secure, private and easy to use digital wallet transactions and services. It is not your standard off the shelf NFC + Secure Element package.

It is telling that Germany, a country with one of lowest rates of credit card use and whose banks fought to keep Apple Pay out, is pushing for ‘open NFC’ the most. It sounds like an across the board move but it’s really aimed at Apple Pay.

This is European business politics in the age of digital wallet wars: mobile payments and digital wallets have disrupted everything and the traditional players, banks and card companies i.e. the real gatekeepers, are doing everything they can to keep the upper hand by using the open NFC argument to force their own branding on Apple’s platform in place of Apple Pay.

In the European tradition, regulation is invariably the go to strategy for keeping the status quo. I still think Junya Suzuki has it right: the EU would never demand the same thing of Samsung or Huawei that they are demanding from Apple. In other words, politics.

Previous coverage:
What does open Apple Pay NFC really mean? (11-17-2019)
The Apple Pay EU antitrust investigation (6-20-2020)