What does open Apple NFC really mean?

The German law to force Apple to open it’s “NFC chip” is a confusing one. Why does an EU country with one of the lowest cashless usage rates single out one company’s NFC product in a last minute rider to an anti-money laundering bill? That’s not banking policy, it is politics. Details are few but let’s take a look at what it could mean because when it comes to NFC technology, details are everything.

Background stuff
The so called Apple ‘NFC chip’ is not a chip at all but a hardware/software sandwich. The Apple Pay ecosystem as described in iOS Security 12.3 is composed of: Secure Element, NFC Controller, Wallet, Secure Enclave and Apple Pay Servers. On one end is the NFC chip controller front end that handles NFC A-B-F communication but does not process transactions, on the other end there is the Secure Enclave that oversees things by authorizing transactions. The fun stuff happens in the Secure Element middle where the EMV/FeliCa/MIFARE/PBOC transaction technologies perform their magic with Java Card applets.

The A/S Series Secure Enclave and Secure Element are the black box areas of Apple Pay. The iOS Security 12.3 documentation suggests the Secure Element is a separate chip, but Apple’s custom implementation of the FeliCa Secure Element, and the apparent ability of Apple to update Secure Element applets to support new services like MIFARE in iOS 12 suggests something else, but it is anybody’s guess. Apple would like to keep it that way.

So what does ‘open NFC’ really mean?
It’s helpful to look at the issue from the 3 NFC modes: Card Emulation, Read/Write, Peer to Peer.

Peer to Peer
Apple has never used NFC Peer to Peer and I don’t think this is a consideration in the ‘open NFC’ debate.

Read/Write
This was a limitation up until iOS 12, but everything changed when iOS 13 Core NFC gained Read/Write support for NDEF, FeliCa, MIFARE, ISO 7816 and ISO 15693. Developers can do all the NFC Read/Write operations they want to in their apps, I don’t think this is a consideration in the ‘open NFC’ debate.

Card Emulation
Apple limits NFC Card Emulation to Apple Pay Wallet with NDA PASSKit NFC Certificates. This is what the ‘open NFC’ debate is all about. I imagine that German banks and other players want to bypass the PASSKit NFC Certificate controlled Apple Pay ecosystem. Instead, they want open access to the parts they want, like Secure Element, NFC Controller, Secure Enclave, and ignore the parts they don’t want like Wallet and Apple Pay Servers. They want the right to pick and choose.

The success of Apple Pay has been founded on the ease of use and high level of integration from a massive investment in the A/S Series Secure Enclave and other in-house implementations such as global FeliCa, etc. Outside players forcing Apple to open up the Apple Pay ecosystem represent not only a security risk to Apple but also a reduced return on investment. One commentator on MacRumors said it’s like Apple took the time and expense to build a first class restaurant and outsiders are demanding the right to use Apple’s kitchen to cook their own food to serve their own customers in Apple’s restaurant. It’s a fair analogy.

The NDA PASSKit NFC Certificate gate entrance rubs bank players the wrong way as they are used to giving terms, not accepting them. The Swiss TWINT banking and payment app for example is a QR Code based Wallet replacement that wanted the ability to switch NFC off, and got it.

My own WWDC19 Apple Pay Wish List did include a wish for easier NFC Card Emulation, but nothing appeared. It’s certainly in Apple’s best interest to make it as easy as possible for 3rd party developers to add reward cards, passes, ID cards, transit cards, etc. to Wallet. However given that the EU is hardly what I call a level playing field, the fact that bank players and politics go hand in hand in every nation, and the fact we don’t know the technical details of what the German law is asking Apple to do, all we can do is guess. In general, I think Europe will be a long rough ride for Apple Pay. At least until EU bank players get deals they are happy with.

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Remember QR Codes? Well they’re the future…again

Hacker News and Reddit have very different user audiences but each have their share of ‘my experience is the world’ navel gazers. This is a plus: the comments are fascinating to read. The Andreessen Horowitz site posted a piece by Avery Segal, Remember QR Codes? They’re More Powerful Than You Think. Somebody posted it to Hacker and somebody else posted a link to my Transit Gate Evolution piece in the comments. I think it’s hilarious and insightful that somebody can look at the same QR code transit video in the piece and write, “The QR code video shows a ton of people going through the turnstiles quite fast.” A ton? Fast? I guess the commentator never experienced rush hour Shinjuku station gates.

Segal’s piece is a simple Mainland China travelog highlighting all the things people can do with a WeChat/Alipay account and WeChat Pay/Alipay integrated QR Code smartphone apps there. There is very little analysis and the opening paragraph reads more like PR, which it probably is. After all, Andreessen Horowitz is a venture capital firm though I can’t figure out if Segal is trying to sell WeChat/Alipay or QR.

Companies in the US have been slow to adopt QR codes, but those who dismiss them as having “been around forever but never taken off” underestimate their wide-ranging potential. Camera-based solutions like QR codes (or facial recognition, for that matter) can make traditionally clunky user experiences seamless and intuitive. QR codes connect our online identity to the offline world, allowing users to essentially log in to physical locations—and bring their data with them. This delivers a number of benefits: brands learn user preferences, while customers gain a more tailored and social experience, as well as perks like automatic loyalty programs built into every transaction.

The Hacker News crowd discusses the pros and cons of QR vs NFC, but I think that they along with Segal completely miss the point: it’s not the technology, it’s the service layers built on top of it and how well they integrate that really matters. Actually it’s the only thing that matters.

The Suica example. FeliCa is great NFC technology but nothing great by itself: the Suica card format built with FeliCa, the nationwide Transit IC card inter-compatibility built around the Suica card format, the Transit IC eMoney standard built on top of that, Mobile Suica, Apple Pay…each new service layer builds on the previous layers and adds value to the whole. The value is the quality of integration, a sum greater than the total of parts.

There are multiple layers in Apple Pay Suica but they all work as one.

The Transport for London Oyster card by comparison is not compatible with other UK transit cards. Oyster can be used for transit in the London pay as you go area (but reaching its limit) but does not integrate with anything else. TfL has put effort into EMV contactless bank cards for transit instead of developing new services and growing Oyster, but it’s interesting to ponder what the UK could have built by following a Suica-like transit platform business model.

China is a very different country and transit infrastructure isn’t a business. I’m sure that Alipay and WeChat Pay were allowed on host their QR code services on ‘public infrastructure’ because it also benefits the Chinese Communist Party in some way and helps the CCP steer society where it thinks it should go.

There is another important aspect that Segal and the Hacker crowd fail to see or discuss: central processing vs. local processing. The whole point of Transit Gate Evolution was explaining the Apple Pay Suica secret: a great local processing front-end (FeliCa/NFC-F/Suica) integrated with a great central processing back-end (Mobile Suica + Apple Pay EMV credit/debit cards). Segal assumes that central processing is everything and that the internet, mobile networks and cloud services are always going to work everywhere 100% of the time. They don’t.

Nobody talks about the implications of NFC tag Apple Pay that Apple is already field testing either. These topics would make for a great discussion. Unfortunately nobody seems up to the challenge.

Of Course Apple Pay is Bigger Than In-App Payments! Now that NFC POS systems actually work…in America

It was just a year ago that eMarketer made a big splash on Apple tech news sites with their Starbucks app is bigger than Apple Pay report:

Retailers are increasingly creating their own payment apps, which allow them to capture valuable data about their users. They can also build in rewards and perks to boost customer loyalty,

Starbucks App Leads Mobile Payment Competitors eMarketer.com

This turned out to be bullshit marketing nonsense because as I discovered using Apple Pay in America just when that report hit, the average Apple Pay store checkout experience sucked.

Now eMarketer is saying the same thing: “Apple Pay has benefited from the spread of new point-of-sale (POS) systems that work with the NFC signals Apple Pay runs on.” That work with the NFC signals Apple Pay runs on?! It sounds like eMarketer isn’t exactly sure what NFC is. Why not just say Apple Pay has benefited from the spread of new point of sale (POS) systems that work, yes, actually work now dammit! No more “you’re holding wrong” nonsense.

Duh. Is it just me or does the entire Apple tech news scene fail to see how poorly written and shoddy both eMarketer reports are? They are clickbait disguised as market research, nothing more.

Tokyo Cashless 2020: Blame the Japan Cashless Payments mess on VISA and EMVCo, not FeliCa

1️⃣ Dear JR East, we need a new Suica Charge App
2️⃣ Consumption tax relief with the CASHLESS rebate program
3️⃣ Are Apple Maps and Siri really Apple Pay level ready for the Tokyo Olympics?
4️⃣ > Blame the Japan Cashless Payments mess on VISA and EMVCo, not FeliCa

Tokyo Cashless 2020 is a series covering all things cashless as Japan gears up for the big event. If there is a topic that you’d like covered tweet me @Kanjo


Japanese journalist Akio Iwata just published a piece explaining why VISA has not signed with Apple Pay in Japan. It is paywalled and I have not read it, but Japanese readers noticed similar points in my earlier piece Why Visa refuses to join Apple Pay Japan and tweeted about it. The subject is timely and worth visiting again after the events of the past year.

Some western business journalists and industry pundits look at the Japanese payments market and write about failure: the failure of FeliCa to be universally accepted, the failure of Japanese society to use cashless payments instead of hard cash. It’s a kind of cut and paste narrative construct journalism that you see too much of these days, like the recent Financial Times piece, or worse the NFC TIMES. The narrative is persuasive enough to blind some Japanese journalists as well.

This kind of reporting plays to the expectations of a certain readership, but it completely fails to capture or explain the massive changes happening in Japan right now, set in motion by the arrival of Apple Pay in late 2016. The bulk of the cut and paste argument is that FeliCa failed to take off in Japan and because Japan failed to switch to the EMV ‘world standard’, that’s why we have the current messy situation. End of story. I don’t buy this argument at all.

FeliCa was around long before the EMVCo consortium got it’s NFC act together in the early 2000s. NFC-A is Philips, NFC-B is Motorola, NFC-F is Sony. The ISO/IEC 14443 standard was supposed to include NFC-F but the ISO ultimately decided not to include it. EMVCo created the EMV contactless standard on ISO/IEC 14443 NFC A/B.

With lots of help from JR East, NFC-F was added to the ISO/IEC 10373-6 and GSMA/GCF (Global Certification Forum) TS. 26, TS. 27 specifications. From April 2017 GCF certification for all NFC mobile devices requires NFC-A, NFC-B and NFC-F support.

It is this later development, and especially the fruit of that development, Apple Pay Suica, that I believe is unacceptable to VISA and by extension EMVCo. VISA cooperates with Apple Pay in other countries because it promotes EMV, VISA refuses to cooperate with Apple Pay in Japan because it promotes FeliCa. Instead of promoting bank card use and new services VISA is promoting technology.

I have long suspected that VISA simply does not want anything to do with Apple’s support of the Global NFC standard put in place by the NFC Forum and GSMA/GCF in 2017. It’s not only Apple…VISA refuses to support dual mode (EMV/FeliCa) Docomo iD/NFC for Android Osaifu Keitai users abroad which Mastercard, American Express and JCB do. VISA simply wants to bide time until NFC Pay/EMV contactless support in Japan is everywhere and then simply ignore FeliCa (NFC-F) all together…

Unfortunately this strategy has only accomplished one thing: it provided an opening for QR Code payment system players…

Why Visa refuses to join Apple Pay Japan

My argument is simple. The VISA and EMVCo mindset is stuck in the one size fits all single mode plastic card era. This is easy to understand as the plastic card issuing business is a very lucrative one.

But like all things there is a downside: instead of embracing the full promise of global NFC digital wallets that can match the best NFC technology for the job with multiple mode cards that do everything and ‘just work’ everywhere, we have the contactless payment turf wars which are really just plastic era fighting moved to a digital arena.

Instead of pursuing the advantages of digital wallets that merge the best of native transit cards on the front end with the best of bank cards on the back end, where they perfectly complement each other, we have bank cards fighting to be everything, which they are not and will never be. This is why Apple markets Apple Card as ‘a new kind of credit card, created by Apple, not a bank.’ It’s the reason why Apple Card is Mastercard brand, not VISA.

In Japan specifically we have VISA refusing to join Apple Pay Japan and for the most part Google Pay, and VISA Japan key player Sumitomo Mitsui fighting on and off with Mobile FeliCa key player Docomo. And the result? None of this nonsense helped strengthen VISA Japan’s market position one bit. On the other hand VISA’s arrogance pulled all the other card companies down with it and provided a huge opening for the Japanese QR Code players like PayPay.

When I wrote Why Visa refuses to join Apple Pay Japan the frenzy of Japanese QR Code payments was just getting underway. Over a year later I think this conclusion is stronger than ever and the only one that explains the reality of the current market. VISA may like to think that the Tokyo Olympics is the last great opportunity to finally kill FeliCa. That’s not going to happen.

Only by setting aside the past and embracing the multimode digital future with forward looking cooperation, can VISA (and by extension EMVCo) help bring order to the payments chaos of the Japanese market. Only cooperation can deliver the promise of cashless payments to Japan, and strengthen the long term market opportunities for all players.

The Global NFC + Background Tag Reading iPhone SE2

The on again, off again iPhone SE2 is on again now that Delphic oracle analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has checked in. As I wrote before, the iPhone/Apple Watch 2019 lineup is now entirely global NFC. The price cuts are great but there needs to be a lower priced entry model below the iPhone XR with:

  • NFC background tag reading in place for new Apple Pay features going forward.
  • Touch ID that removes the Face ID face mask problem in markets like China and Japan. This issue is a constant blind spot in the western tech press ‘In-screen Touch ID vs Face ID’ debate.
  • A13 Bionic for superior battery performance and Express Card with power reserve
  • Cheaper battery friendly Haptic Touch instead of the more expensive battery hungry iPhone 8 3D Touch.

There kind of device is perfect for the Japan and Hong Kong markets:

The rumored A12 chip iPhone SE2 may well be pie in the sky, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t market appeal for an inexpensive global NFC iPhone for places like Japan and Hong Kong. Those markets have highly integrated transit networks coupled with highly evolved transit card systems like Suica and Octopus. With both of these on Apple Pay there’s a good opening for a small SE size inexpensive global NFC iPhone, it would do very well.

I imagine the iPhone SE2 could do well in a lot of markets.