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 will invariably discover they have 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 that I suspect 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 your iPhone, I strongly urge you get a replacement from Apple if you can, or better yet upgrade to iPhone SE. Touch ID is much better than Face ID when navigating the outside world wearing a face mask, and you get A13 Express Transit power reserve and background NFC tag reading that’s gonna work great with iOS 14 App Clips.

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 the support of native digital transit cards. Complexity and higher cost means fewer choices and delays, it’s as simple as that.

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 real soon.

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)

iOS 14 App Clips unlock the power of NFC background tags

We first got a taste of iOS 14 App Clips with the slick Titanium Apple Card setup that leverages the NFC background tag reading ability of iPhone XR/XS and later. Jennifer Bailey gave a sneak peek of NFC background tag Apple Pay in May 2019 but the pieces weren’t in place for a WWDC19 rollout.

The first problem was the iPhone lineup. iPhone 8 didn’t fit because only A12 Bionic devices and later support NFC background tag reading. This was solved with the release of A13 Bionic powered iPhone SE and deletion of iPhone 8 from the lineup.

The second problem was the clunky ‘launch an app’ or ‘launch Safari’ to do anything. This has been a problem for NFC tag solution providers like SmartPlate. User interaction needs to reside on a task focused pop-up sheet while the screen is on. The new iOS 14 App Clips framework that works hand in hand with iOS 14 Core NFC to load just what is needed to take care of the NFC tag task at hand, is the right solution.

The pieces appear to fit very nicely now: the NFC background tag sheet pops-up ‘while the screen is on’, the right code snippets load in for a simple focused task, the user can Sign In with Apple ID if needed, and pay with Apple Pay. Simple, uncluttered action; no apps, no Safari launch. And we have background NFC tag reading on every current iPhone model.

There are a few flies in the ointment:

  • Face ID in the face mask era is a lousy unlock and Apple Pay user experience, App Clip powered NFC background tag reading is gonna rock on Touch ID iPhone SE even though it was designed for Face ID.
  • A network connection is required, Apple Pay transactions at the NFC reader work without a network connection but App Clips + Apple Pay transactions need a network connection for the obvious reasons of loading app clip content, and because of this…
  • A weak borderline WiFi connection can jam the entire process even with WiFi Assist turned on.

The NFC advantage over QR Codes here is that background tag reading automatically pulls up the App Clip sheet when the screen is on while QR Code users have to manually pull up the QR reader app and scan a code to join the fun.

The combination of App Clips, NFC tags and Apple Pay will be extremely disruptive in markets where NFC and QR payment players are very competitive. Places like Japan. PayPay and Line Pay lose their edge. Smart QR payment players can adapt and add NFC tag support in their payment apps. And they can bypass Apple Pay if they want to, though it won’t be as slick. Ultimately they are not wedded to QR codes, PayPay and Line Pay have always said they would add NFC if customers want it.

App Clips finally unlocks the power of background NFC tag reading and is the other big WWDC20 Apple Pay development in addition to CarKey and Apple Pay QR Code AliPay payments. App Clips puts NFC tags on equal footing with QR Codes for the first time with the added edge of the ‘when the screen is on’ background tag read sheet pop-ups. This will be huge.