Octopus 2.0

The Apple Pay Octopus launch in June 2020 marked the end of an era of Octopus as the exclusive Hong Kong MTR home grown transit platform, and the start of MTR integrating into China mainland transit fare standards. In August 2020 Octopus Cards Limited announced they would join China T-Union. My take about it and the eventual migration of Octopus from FeliCa to PBOC 2.0, struck a raw nerve and did not go down well with some Hong Kong folk:

Can someone tell the ill-informed, self-centred, attention-seeking blogger to stop spreading fake rumours about octopus ditching FeliCa? Not in this lifetime…The self-proclaimed expert blogger’s been wrong on so many levels I’m amazed people still follow him like religion and never question his fantasy stories. Utterly annoyed by him dropping quotes from people out of context and use them to his benefits.

In April 2021 new OCL CEO Angus Lee Chun-ming said in a South China Morning Post interview that OCL had applied for China T-Union membership as planned, and will launch a dual mode Octopus card for mainland transit use:

“We have applied to join the China T-Union, the nationwide one-card payment system led by the Ministry of Transport. That will enable Octopus physical-card holders to pay for public transport fares in mainland China,”…

The service can be upgraded to digital Octopus cards in the phase two development. “The card will be denominated in Hong Kong dollars. Octopus will arrange the currency settlement with the mainland partner,” said Lee.

A one-card nationwide payment system eh? Sounds like an plug for China T-Union instead of an Octopus presser. Phase 1 is a physical dual mode Octopus card that appears to be 2 separate chips (PBOC and FeliCa) in one card with a common HKD ePurse. This is novel as Greater Bay Area dual mode cards up to now used separate ePurses for each currency. It’s also complicated because mainland transit operators have to do the currency conversion. A digital wallet version is phase 2. The elimination of FeliCa on the Hong Kong side will be the final phase, though that depends on the Ministry of Transport removing the current PBOC restriction that limits it to transit use and T-Union branding issue, or Octopus coming up with something else. We shall see.

On the mobile side Hong Kong iPhone users already have a dual mode Wallet option to add China T-Union cards if they have a China UnionPay credit or debit card. It’s not dual mode on one card and there is an Express Transit issue when turning on a China T-Union card turns off Express Transit for Octopus, but it works.

Dual mode transit cards on Apple Pay don’t exist yet but they are technically possible. Apple Pay already uses dual mode NFC switching for Japanese issue payment cards, FeliCa for contactless use in Japan, EMV for contactless use abroad. Another option might be the multiple secure element domain/multiple NFC protocol support of Mobile FeliCa 4.1 outlined by FeliCa Dude for dual mode transactions using just Mobile FeliCa with NFC-A/NFC-F.

On the transit gate side it will be interesting to see what design MTR uses for multiple protocol open-loop. NFC requires the reader side to specify the NFC protocol used for the transaction. This is a not a problem at store checkout, but how does the user specify the transaction protocol on transit gates? Answer: by tapping different readers. Perhaps the new MTR gates will host a NFC-A reader (EMV and PBOC), a NFC-F reader (FeliCa) in addition to the already separate QR reader? And if those Touchless UWB rumors are true, UWB and Bluetooth could be joining the MTR next generation gate party. One thing for sure, transitions are messy, and expensive.

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.