The truth is in the tap

The Nankai Visa Touch test launch launched endless Twitter discussions about slow EMV contactless tap speeds and performance issues compared with Suica and other Transit IC cards. EMV contactless transit in Japan is novel so this is expected. But suddenly people are also referencing Junya Suzuki’s 2016 pre-Apple Pay Suica launch era ‘Is Suica Over-spec?’ piece. This has long been a favorite theme in Japanese tech media: Suica is more than we need, EMV contactless is ‘good enough’ so let’s do everything with one card, life is more convenient that way. Be careful what you wish for.

The 2016 launch of Apple Pay Suica was a great success of course, that changed the Japanese payments market and opened the door for the proliferation of QR payment services you see everywhere now. The one card must do it all concept is old hat but Tokyo Olympics sponsors Visa Japan and SMBC are trying very hard to convince Japan that Visa Touch cards are the transit future.

My position was and remains that one size never fits all. It doesn’t have to be a EMV or nothing choice portrayed in tech media, nor should it. Different technologies complement each other for a better user experience. Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica combines the convenience of EMV cards on the recharge backend with the speed and reliability of FeliCa based Suica cards on the NFC front-end, for a best of breed closed loop transit user experience. One interesting thing I pointed out in my retweet of Suzuki san’s Nakai open loop launch piece was that QR Nankai Digital Ticket gate performance in the his video is faster than Visa Touch because it’s closed loop.

The comment touched off an odd but interesting set of tweets from Suzuki san and his followers about gate design, reader performance and walk flow that boils down to this: if the reader transaction speed is slow, increase the distance between the reader and gate flap to keep people walking instead of stopping.

His follow up piece deconstructs ‘FeliCa is faster’ as half misunderstanding transit gate antenna design and RF communication distance because EMVCo reader certification dictates a smaller RF distance, the result of using the EMV contactless supermarket checkout spec on transit gates it was never intended for. All I can say is the truth is in the tap. In theory all NFC flavors and protocols offer the same performance but in real transit use they don’t. Better to get next generation Ultra Wideband Touchless gates in service and dispense with the ‘redesign transit gates for slow EMV contactless/QR transit’ debate nonsense. Design things for the future not the past.

The current Transit IC local stored fare model does have weak points as suggested in FeliCa Dude’s tweet: discount ticketing, rebates and refunds. If you purchase a Mobile Suica commuter pass, you can easily get a refund back to the bank payment card used to purchase the commuter pass. This is because Suica extras like commuter passes and Green Seat upgrades are supplemental attached services that don’t use the SF purse.

Rebates and refunds via the SF (stored fare) purse are a bottleneck. Suica App has a mechanism for dealing with some of this called ‘Suica Pocket’ for JRE POINT exchanges and refunds back to the SF purse. Mobile Suica card refunds are another matter and can only be refunded to a Japanese bank account. Octopus Cards Ltd. (OCL) has a special Octopus App for Tourists that refunds a card balance back to original credit card used for the initial digital card issue. OCL also charges tourist users an arm and a leg for Octopus Wallet recharge and refunding. It would be nice if JR East could do the same…without the outrageous OCL surcharges.

For inbound discount ticketing JR East has adopted a similar approach they use for Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets: discount plans attached to plastic Suica cards. This is the whole purpose of the Welcome Suica + reference paper proving validity for inbound discount plan purchases at station kiosks. It would be great if JR East figures out a way to do the same thing on Mobile Suica.

Domestic discount ticketing and passes are still the glorious, mostly paper ticket mess that is Eki-Net and similar services. Eki-Net itself is still in a slow motion transition towards a Transit IC/Mobile Suica orbit with some things transitioning to QR paper ticketing that replaces expensive mag-strip paper. Eki-Net App is still limited to Shinkansen eTickets and ticketless express train seat purchases. The Eki-Net web site is where you access all the bells and whistles although the experience feels like navigating the Transit IC interoperability chart. Discounts are starting to change somewhat with Suica 2 in 1, totra is the first Suica for disabled users but exclusive to the totra fare region. Hopefully Extended Overlap will see wider use not only for Suica but across all Transit IC cards for more special, and interoperable, discount services.

Japan Cashless 2021: the Wireless Android NFC Reader Suck Index

You too can have the whole transaction world in your hands with the Android based Square Terminal for just ¥46,980

Now that contactless is everywhere, wireless contactless readers have become very fashionable and popular. Nobody wants wires or checkout lines. All of these systems are built around an Android based reading device connected to the internet payment service via Bluetooth, WiFi or 4G with a main terminal, an iPad or a laptop running payment network software. Convenient though they may be, compared with hard wired NFC reader performance they all suck with different levels of suckiness:

  1. stera: this lovely little ‘NFC antenna under the screen’ piece of shit from SMBC, GMO and Visa Japan is so slow that checkout staff put their hand over the stera screen/reader to keep customers waiting until the device is ready to go. This is followed by the instruction ‘don’t move your device until the reader beeps.’ It’s a 2~4 second wait until it beeps. This is 2014 era ‘you’re holding it wrong’ garbage nonsense. I teased one store manager about the hard wired JREM FeliCa readers that were swapped out with stera, “Those were too fast,” he said. Too fast?!
  2. PAYGATE: Another payment provider associated with GMO, slightly faster than stera but still slow, PAYGATE does’t like Apple Pay Suica•PASMO Express Transit very much. Have of the time it ignores it altogether forcing customers into the 2016 era ‘manually bring up Apple Pay Suica’ authenticate and pay maneuver. Another ‘you’re holding/doing it wrong,’ when the fault is on the checkout system side. Passé and totally unnecessary.
  3. AirPay: It’s weird that the cheap AirPay hardware performs better than PAYGATE or stera, it’s even weirder that AirPay performs better than Rakuten Pay which uses the very same reader but is stera shitshow slow.
  4. Square Terminal has gotten lots of media attention in Japan. Too early to experience it in the field yet but I’m not hopeful. Square Terminal is Android based after all and the NCF antenna under the screen design is the worst performing reader design out there. As one Brazilian reader wrote: “I just don’t like the ones running Android because at least here the software is less reliable and I managed to crash a few one by just taping my phone.”

Yep, that observation matches my experience. Payment network providers need better Android readers, the current crop is too slow getting the payment transaction ready to tap. In this era of endless subcontractor layers in the development process, creating a fast reliable Android based NFC wireless reader might be a tall order, if not impossible. The all over the place wireless NFC reader experience certainly doesn’t boast well for open loop advocates.

UPDATE
I ran across another crappy reader experience (above) and retweeted it. A reader had some questions about it, answered here by an anonymous expert. It basically comes down to poorly executed reader polling or not following Sony polling recommendations for FeliCa cards. This is what is happening in the above retweet. It is also what is going on with PAYGATE Station readers, half of the time the proper code hasn’t loaded correctly although this issue seems to be fixed in new PAYGATE Station checkout installations. Which brings us to the point I was trying to make: these performance issues can be fixed with reader firmware updates or transaction system software updates, but never are.

Wildcard polling involves the reader making a request for system code 0xFFFF and expecting the card/device to list all the system codes that it supports. Wildcard polling won’t work on an Apple Pay device in Express Transit mode – instead, the system code must be explicitly polled for (0x0003 for CJRC, 0x8008 for Octopus). You can cause Suica/Octopus to be automatically selected by sending SENSF_REQ (Polling command, 06) for those services explicitly.

I have verified that doing so with Apple Pay will cause the emulated card to be switched out as appropriate – the IDm value will also change, since Apple Pay emulates each card separately, instead of with a common IDm as with Osaifu Keitai. If you read the Sony documentation, you will see that developers are cautioned to also poll for the specific service codes they want to access if there’s no response to a wildcard poll.

Perhaps your reader doesn’t do this, but it’s fairly big omission…it should be doing explicit polling. Simply polling for service code 0x0003 should wake up Suica if selected as an Express Transit candidate, even if you don’t send any other commands. I’ve verified this with an RC-S380 reader and NFCPay.

Sorry PRESTO but your open loop video is fake Express Transit (Updated)

UPDATE
March 16: The PRESTO UP Tickets and Fares page now lists EMVExpress Transit support, but no mention of any similar benefits using Google Pay. The Apple Pay Transit support page does not list Express Transit for Canada yet, but the last update was February 3. The PRESTO page also mentions an interesting iPhone issue: “Some iPhone models (8 and earlier), may experience an error message when tapped on a PRESTO device. If you tap with an older Apple device and see a message saying that multiple cards were detected, simply tap your device again and the PRESTO device should accept your tap.” Sounds like a pilot program for teething open loop use issues. No mention of a digital PRESTO card of course. I suspect that when it comes (much later), it will be a closed loop debit card like Apple Pay Ventra.

Apple did a similar Express Transit deal for NYC OMNY, which was basically a very long pilot program and gradual rollout. PRESTO UP is also a pilot program but has an advantage over OMNY in that the PRESTO contactless transit card has been in service since 2009. People are used to it, only the smartphone wallet aspect is new. Meanwhile OMNY is still nursing off the ancient mag-strip swiping MTA Metrocard without a replacement. It will be interesting to hear customer feedback regarding the PRESTO EMV Express Transit experience…for real.


The Metrolinx PRESTO UP service started an open loop contactless payment pilot program this past week. It’s the first step for open loop support across the entire PRESTO fare system. The coverage on MacRumors and elsewhere, and the PRESTOcard youtube video itself makes it look like PRESTO already supports Apple Pay Express Transit when it apparently does not. Apple is very picky when it comes to certifying which open loop transit systems support EMV Apple Pay Express Transit. There aren’t any in Canada. The U.S. has three: NYC OMNY, Chicago Ventra and Portland HOP.

Unfortunately the PRESTO video uses post-production tricks to fake Apple Pay Express Transit. There are three instances: the 1:14 PRESTO reader, the 1:30 onboard verification check, and the 2:16 PRESTO reader. Each of these require a Face ID without mask or passcode Apple Pay authorization. As a reader pointed out the post-production folks neglected to fix the Apple Pay passcode request screen to match the reader ‘Accepted’ screen. Metrolinx promoting PRESTO open loop rollout so people will use it is one thing, but deception isn’t doing users, or PRESTO, any favor.

SMBC pulls a Toyota Wallet move with V POINT app and Apple Pay prepaid card

With more and more payment players and their dogs doing the wallet app + instant issue prepaid card thing, it was only a matter of time before banks got into the act. SMBC announced and released the V POINT app today. Think of it as a re-branded Toyota Wallet app without the QR Code bit and multi payment network strategy: you download the app, create an account and a prepaid Apple Pay (iD) or Google Pay (VISA) card that can be recharged from a bank account or a credit card or with points. And because VISA Japan has yet to sign a deal with Apple, Apple Pay users get a FeliCa iD prepaid card while Google Pay users get a EMV contactless VISA prepaid card, no dual protocol for anyone.

The big sales point is…yes another reward point system, V POINT, and it comes with a dumb looking mascot too, a SMBC corporate green ‘beaver’ which rhymes with ‘VISA’ in Japanese…sorta. Every ¥200 card purchase earns one V POINT. Points can be used for a card recharge, just like Suica, or for purchases at participating V POINT stores and online shopping. How well this goes down with card issuers under the SMBC umbrella like Docomo d Card and their expanding D Point empire, is anybody’s guess. I suspect this move will rock that relationship (to the breaking point?) and some others as well.

During the V POINT online press event SMBC also announced that new SMBC issue plastic cards will no longer display a card number for VISA and Mastercard.

Apple Pay Japan 2020 Wrap Up Wish List

A two word summary for people in a hurry: COVID and PASMO. As everybody in Japan knows at this point, COVID drove cashless payment use more than any government program could, or anything else for that matter. Cashless went from being the perennial ‘next big thing’ to first choice at checkout in a surprisingly short time with a growing number of ‘cashless only’ places. Here’s a short recap of the best and worst all things Apple Pay Japan in 2020.

The Worst: Face ID Apple Pay
COVID meant mandatory face mask wear outside the home. iPhone Face ID users outside of Asia quickly learned that Face ID and especially Face ID Apple Pay really sucks with face masks. Apple tweaked Face ID slightly to alleviate the issue but this is a long term problem with no short term workaround. Apple had the foresight to resurrect Touch ID in iPhone SE 2, the right device coming at the right time. For the time being it will hold up the middle and lower range iPhone user base in Japan. Face ID is such a marketing embarrassment right now that Apple only features Touch ID recharge on the Apple Pay PASMO page. The real short term future proof Face ID Apple Pay fix is Apple Watch.

The Biggest: Apple Pay PASMO
Mobile PASMO finally joined Mobile Suica, first on Osaifu Keitai Android then Apple Pay, the biggest and most important launch for Apple Pay Japan in 2020. Suica and PASMO combined represent 80% of the entire transit IC card market. In terms of pure usability, a large and diverse installed base, with Express Transit powered transit and purchases on iPhone and Apple Watch, PASMO easily beat all other Apple Pay service rollouts this year. Apple had VIP execs and foreign media on hand at the press event, something they haven’t done since the Apple Pay Japan launch in 2016.

The Most Influential: Toyota Wallet
The Toyota Wallet App rollout I wrote about a year ago turned out to be the model everybody is doing now: ‘XX Pay’ or ‘XX Wallet’ app consisting of a user account linked to a bank or credit card with a flexible payment dual mode front end offering QR Code payment via the app and a ‘instant issue’ prepaid card in Apple Pay Wallet. The Apple Pay Line Pay card launched on December 22 is the exact same model. Instant app issue debit and prepaid Wallet cards do away with plastic issue costs and lower the user entry bar, amount other things. Expect more of this in 2021, actually expect everybody to do this in 2021.

The WildCard: App Clips
iOS 14.3 App Clip Code support completed the picture for App Clip developers, but it will take time to see how they play out in a market overcrowded with mobile payment options. I think there is always a chance for a low cost high quality service which intelligently designed App Clips can deliver. The key will be solving the Japanese Softcream Cashless Index (SCI) Challenge: can App Clip cashless do a faster more reliable job than good old food ticket vending machines, without an app and without an account? How streamlined can it be and still be an App Clip? I hope we can find the answers to those questions in 2021… but there’s one more thing.

The Missing: Apple Pay Code Payments
The iOS 14 Apple Pay AliPay/Apple Pay Code Payment has been in open secret test mode for nearly a year with no firm release in sight. If screenshots are anything to go by, Apple Pay Code Payments are done with a virtual Wallet ‘card’ like any other and Apple Pay Wallet cards have certain properties:

  • Direct side button Wallet activation with automatic Face/Touch ID authentication and payment at the reader.
  • Device transactions handled by the eSE without a network connection.
  • Ability to set a default main card for Apple Pay use.

Supporting QR Code payments with an Apple Pay Wallet ‘card’ moves QR payments out of the app and removes some, but not all, of the QR payment friction points. It makes App Clips a better user experience too when all payments can be accomplished with Apple Pay.

Ultimately I hope the Apple Pay Wallet card model moves away from single mode technology and evolves to multimode awareness that encompasses NFC, Ultra Wideband, QR, etc. It has too. Our smartphones must be smart and take care of any payment technology for us. They have to because things are only going to get more complicated. People ridicule the Japanese payments landscape but that will be everywhere. Card companies and banks push EMV as a ‘global standard’ but EMV already comes in different flavors like PBOC, so does NFC (NFC A-B-F-V), and Ultra Wideband is joining the mix.

That’s what digital payments are all about: combining complex things into ‘it just works’ simplicity. Anybody can create or load a Suica, Octopus or PASMO into Apple Pay, without signing up or creating a new account, and start using it for lots of different instant payments. That’s how simple it should always be. That’s my 2021 Apple Pay wish.

Best wishes for a happy and safe 2021.

UPDATE: Reader Apple Pay Wishes for 2021

>Mine would be for VISA Japan to support Apple Pay.

>Mine are resurrecting #FeliCa-based @VisaJP TOUCH (can be rebranded), @id_credit re-attempts @ #FeliCa network expansion overseas starting w/ equipping end-users w/ the technology in new card distribution (via digital & physical), & @JCB_CARD expands @QUICPay_PR network overseas.