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.

The Apple Pay Code Payment + App Clip Connection

The Apple designed App Clips code combines a visual code and a NFC tag

When the AliPay Apple Pay leak surfaced earlier this year the stock story was that Apple Pay must support AliPay and WeChat Pay if Apple Pay is to have any relevance for iPhone users in China. The real story is more interesting and is centered on App Clips, not AliPay or other specific QR code payment players.

Until now Apple Pay has been all about the NFC ka-ching thing, but it has also evolved along the way. Apple Pay debuted with NFC-A EMV in 2014, it added NFC-F FeliCa with Suica in 2016, MIFARE Student ID passes and PBOC China transit cards in 2018.

iOS 14 is the first time Apple Pay is moving beyond NFC. CarKey will incorporate Ultra Wideband when the Car Connectivity Consortium Digital Key 3.0 spec is finalized and ‘Code Payments’ are coming at some point in the iOS 14 cycle.

Tap or Scan Simplicity
The strength of code payments is simplicity and low cost. iPhone is both a radio (NFC) and camera (scanner). NFC always has an advantage over a scanner in that it works without light and can be activated just by the user pointing their device at an NFC reader or tag.

The downside is the NFC reader side of the equation: the reader + cash register/transit gate + transaction software has a higher initial investment than a code scanner attached to a POS system. The promise of App Clips is they finally put NFC, specifically NFC tags, on the same low cost entry bar of QR codes.

App Clips are activated by:

  • App Clip Codes
  • NFC Tags
  • QR Codes
  • Safari App Banners
  • Links in Messages
  • Place Cards in Maps

Let’s examine the ‘real world’ App Clip activation triggers: Apple App Clip codes, NFC tags, QR codes. For Apple designed App Clip codes, “You can scan them with your camera or tap one using NFC.14” The #14 footnote is interesting: “Camera support for scanning an App Clip code will be made available in an iOS 14 software update later this year.”

This means those fancy Apple designed App Clip codes are coming after the initial iOS 14 launch, and when they do Apple Pay Code Payments will certainly be coming with them. It boils down to one thing: making App Clips a simple tap or scan process. NFC tags still enjoy the ’point here’ advantage as App Clip does the rest. For visual codes the user has to launch the camera and scan before App Clip takes over.

The Code Payment/App Clip Network Connection Requirement
Apple Pay Wallet NFC payment cards have 3 major features that payment apps do not:

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

Apple Pay Code payments can possibly offer this for dynamic code payments where a scanner reads the code off the iPhone screen. However, static code payments are messy because Apple Pay requires a network connection to process the payment just like apps do. In the Apple Pay code payment scenario suggested by the AliPay screenshot leaks, a static code scan directly activates the appropriate Apple Pay code payment (AliPay, etc.), the user enters the amount, taps ‘Pay’, authenticates, and Apple Pay does the transaction via the network connection. It’s a similar scenario for NFC tag payments.

It’s because of this network connection requirement that I believe Apple is pushing Apple Pay NFC tag and code payments wrapped in the App Clip experience. They will work by themselves of course, but they work better as part of the total App Clip experience. This is where App Clip codes come in.

What about App Clip codes? The iOS 14 preview page says:

App Clip codes are Apple-designed identifiers that are uniquely paired to specific App Clips and provide an easy way to find and launch an app experience at the exact place and moment you need it. You can scan an App Clip code with your camera or by tapping one using NFC.14 We will be adding support for them in an iOS 14 software update later this year.

How is this any different from regular NFC tags or QR codes? I suspect it’s a mini qualification program for developers, payment providers and merchants to supply the ultimate App Clip experience. It also works as App Clip branding and advertising for Apple.

Are there special App Clip code tags that push the App Clip experience further than regular NFC tags and QR? I suspect so and that could be fun. Think about it, what if the Apple designed App Clip code NFC tag activated an App Clip with code payment. A QR payment without the static QR code. That would be the ultimate App Clip experience indeed.

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)

Road to Super Suica: cloud integration and the transit card push to mobile

Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service via Suica App ended in March 2020, replaced by the cloud based JR East Eki-net Shinkansen eTicket service. Since Mobile Suica Shinkansen is gone and Ekinet eTickets live on the cloud, I assumed that iOS 14 PassKit would remove the Mobile Suica Shinkansen related (isInShinkansenStation) call because there’s no need for it anymore.

A reader pointed out that I was wrong. iOS still uses the PassKit Suica Shinkansen call with Eki-net eTickets and Notification Center throws out the same ‘Shinkansen’ Suica Notification when the user goes through a JR East Shinkansen gate with a cloud based eTicket.

The eTicket cloud service interaction with the local Apple Pay Suica card on iPhone offers some insight into what JR East (JRE) is up to as it closes in on the next generation ‘2 in 1’ Suica architecture due for release in spring 2021. JRE has said many times and in many ways that the future of the Suica platform will combine cloud services with the fast local processing of the FeliCa powered Suica architecture. However, details are few, with different pieces dribbled out in bits.

What’s the overall vision and goal of next generation Suica, which I call Super Suica? There’s a lot of ground to cover so let’s examine things in 2 basic categories: the card architecture (offline and local) and the platform (cloud) even as those distinctions are increasingly blurred. Here is my take based on what JRE has announced so far.

Super Suica: the Transit Card

Next Generation Suica “2 cards in 1” architecture, new FeliCa OS, new IC card format announced by Sony, JR East, JR East Mechatronics (JREM) in September 2018 for release in spring 2021. Ultra Wideband Touchless support will likely be in place on the mobile side though it will be a few years before Touchless transit gates are in service.

The next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Suica architecture hosts partner transit cards and services on Suica infrastructure, effectively extending the Suica system to non-JRE transit companies. 2 in 1 partner transit cards gain the benefit of Suica hardware and Mobile Suica infrastructure with considerable cost savings related to plastic card issue and management. The heart of Super Suica remains the offline stored fare. JRE hopes to grow Mobile Suica cloud services as much as possible with the lower cost next generation Super Suica architecture.

Stored Value Update, Region expansion and Commuter Pass Changes
Starting with the basics, it’s a no-brainer that Super Suica will raise the current ¥20,000 stored value limit, likely doubling it to ¥40,000. This would put it in line with other eMoney prepaid cards like WAON and nanaco, also similar to the recent Hong Kong Octopus stored value update. The increase would have broad appeal to tourists, business travelers and shoppers everywhere and extend the JR East ‘Touch ‘n Go” ticketless Shinkansen service area.

Transit cards cover wide areas but transit card commuter pass areas are currently limited to sub-regions hard-wired for IC transit card support. Source JR East fact sheet Suica section

A long standing hurdle for Super Suica to clear is the transit IC card region limitation. The current transit card architecture assigns cards to a unique areas and the stored value doesn’t work across regions. Transit systems within the same card region such as JR East and PASMO have their fare systems connected so that a user’s transit card can enter a JR East station then exit a PASMO member station with the fare instantly calculated and deducted from the offline card balance.

This region limitation is a real problem for transit users in fringe areas. In order to use an IC transit card they have to exit and re-enter separate transit company gates at specific transfer station points. There is a Japanese word for this: matagaru which means ‘dismounting the saddle’. The only viable options are mag strip commuter passes or paper tickets.

2 in 1 Commuter Passes
In September 2019 JR East, JR Central and JR West announced new cross region commuter pass rules going into effect in spring of 2021, exactly when Super Suica arrives. Superficially the changes are about making cross region local to Shinkansen transfers easier for commuters, but the timing suggests other changes are coming.

The ‘2 in 1’ Super Suica concept has special meaning for commuter passes. The current Suica only supports 2 basic patterns via a card id commuter pass account number: JR East only lines, and connected commuter passes covering JR East and connecting lines. 2 in 1 Super Suica will support commuter passes on non-JR East lines and bus lines.


Super Suica: the Platform

File:ICCard Connection en.svg
Japan Transit IC Map

One primary aim of Super Suica is extending the platform reach with shared infrastructure to rural areas too small to establish their own local transit cards. Pay close attention to the transit cards outside the pink area, with the exception of PiTaPa. These are 2nd tier local area transit cards currently orphaned from eMoney or transit interoperability. There are also ‘off the map’ areas such as Utsunomiya Light Rail and Iwate Transit Co. Ltd. who have announced Super Suica agreements with JRE. These are the initial target areas.

Super Suica enlarges the pink area to include those 2nd tier and off the map cards. Those who sign on join the common interpretability area for transit and eMoney, and also gain access to Mobile Suica hosted Apple Pay Suica, Google Pay Suica and Osaifu Keitai. This is a real boon for smaller areas who, up to now, couldn’t afford to launch their own card operations. I suspect it will be very attractive to all transit card operators who run on shoe string budgets, they can save money by offloading card operations to JRE and get the mobile goodies.

What does Super Suica mean for the major transit cards like JR West (ICOCA), JR Central (TOICA) and others? It depends on what kind of deal JRE offers them. Even if the majors don’t sign on directly I see them getting access to the new Suica card format and Mobile Suica IT assets.

2 in 1 Reward Points and Auto-Charge
In addition to the 2 in 1 commuter passes, Super Suica also supports different reward point systems. ‘2 in 1’ partner Super Suica users will be able to exchange points for a Super Suica recharge just like they do now with JRE POINT and Rakuten Pay points. Auto-Charge for 2 in 1 partner branded credit cards will certainly be supported as well. Points and Auto-Charge may seem mundane but they are very important to customers and transit companies, a vital part of luring foot traffic, new businesses and visitors to local areas in an era of shrinking passenger traffic.

Expanding and leveraging the Recharge Backend
The ever expanding Mobile Suica recharge backend is a fascinating development mostly ignored by the media even though it’s where the action is. Suica and the other transit cards are a huge green pasture full of cash (less) cows waiting to be milked by card companies and payment platforms. JRE lets them milk Mobile Suica cows for a cut. Up until Apple Pay Suica came along in 2016, JRE was the only recharge backend. As of July 2020 there are 5: JRE, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Mizuho, Rakuten. 2 in 1 partners will have the ability to add their own recharge backends with apps, if they so choose.

Other points to remember: the recharge backend only works on iOS and Android platforms, point rewards can be used for Suica recharge. Currently that only works with JRE POINT and Rakuten Points but this will be extended to the ‘2 in 1’ partner point systems.

JR East plans to grow Suica financial services and has invested in crypto coin ventures

MaaS NFC Tag Suica
It’s clear that the really big Super Suica changes will be on the cloud side. Transit card eMoney has been a huge success, but Suica has to evolve to remain a viable payment platform in today’s hyper competitive world of mobile payments.

That next step is Suica NFC Tag payments. Think of it as Suica transactions without a reader, where your smartphone is both Suica card and Suica reader and let’s call it MaaS Suica. JRE joined the MaaS alliance in November 2019 closely followed by an December 2019 press release announcing NFC Tag tests with 4 partners: JRE (Suica), DNP (NFC Tags), Sony (FeliCa) and AquaBit Spirals (NFC Tag SmartPlate payments software).

JRE & us (AquaBit Spirals) have announced to conduct technical verification for the use of NFC tags focusing on transportation and ‘payments’, and that the role of Sony is to investigate technical specs as part of promoting a lifestyle through ‘FeliCa’ tech. You may know what we mean😉

AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara

It’s clearly implied by the diagram and by comments from AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara that Suica powers the NFC Tag payments middle section via the cloud. This means the Suica card balance on a device works ‘over the cloud’. Suica is unchained from the NFC reader infrastructure and can be used to pay for any kind of NFC Tag linked service or item.

JRE has been testing MaaS solutions using QR Codes instead of NFC Tags with their Ringo Pass app for Saitama. The pilot project is covered in the NFC Forum article JR East Railway And NFC Propelling The MaaS Revolution. A 2nd MaaS pilot project has been announced for Sendai. An interesting side note here is that the old card reader+Windows+plastic Suica card Suica Internet web shopping service is going away this year, the final plug is due to be pulled by September 2020. We should be hearing about NFC Tag Suica in 2021.

NFC Tags and App Clips level the playing field with QR
One of the ways PayPay and other QR Code players disrupted the Japanese market so quickly was leveraging the low entry point bar of static QR codes combined with mobile smartphone apps. All stores need is an official QR Code sticker. Small merchants are freed from having to invest in POS hardware to go cashless.

NFC Tags eliminate the cost advantage of QR and level the playing field. Combined with the capabilities of iOS 14 App Clips, they become a killer app:

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.

MaaS Suica wrapped up in new technologies like App Clips and background tag reading iPhone has the potential to take the Suica eMoney payment platform to a whole new level. Success depends on how aggressively JRE promotes the service and how they license it to sister transit card operators. It would be great if we got MasS Suica, MaaS ICOCA etc. working seamlessly as a single mobile payment just like transit cards do now.

Summary: The Rush to Mobile

Super Suica, the card, and Mobile Suica aim to deliver more services, such as the renewed and expanded Ekinet coming in summer 2021, with a lower cost internet based cloud infrastructure while keeping the great thing about Suica: super fast secure offline transactions and interoperability.

Based on what JRE has said over the past 2 years in the press and in recent company announcements, it seems we’ll have 4 basic versions of Suica: (1) Hard-wire Suica (what we have now) for major stations and stores, (2) Wireless Suica, a simplified low cost cloud based gate terminals to cover rural stations not currently on the Suica map, (3) MaaS NFC Tag Suica without dedicated hardware for anywhere, anytime App Clips-like mobile payments, (4) Licensed Mobile Suica assets and card architecture for PASMO, ICOCA

There will be 2 kinds of Super Suica partners:

  • Direct 2 in 1 partners host cards on Super Suica with all the benefits of Mobile Suica.
  • Indirect partners get the new Suica card architecture, New FeliCa OS improvements, Mobile Suica IT assets and wireless Suica gate system technology. The arrangement will be similar Mobile PASMO who licensed Mobile Suica IT assets but run their own cloud service with their own backend mobile recharge, commuter passes and reward points.
Apple Pay PASMO will be coming to Apple Pay with the iOS 14 update

Mobile PASMO was first announced in January 2020, launched on Android Osaifu Keitai in March and Apple Pay PASMO with arrive with the iOS 14 update this fall. 9 months is a quick turnaround for announcing and launching an entirely new mobile transit service across 2 digital wallet platforms: Android (Osaifu Keitai) and iOS/watchOS Apple Pay. This speedy rollout was possible because Mobile PASMO is rebranded Mobile Suica cloud assets.

Think of Mobile PASMO as a trial run for the major transit card players following the same strategy and launching Mobile ICOCA, Mobile TOICA, etc., starting in 2021. Next generation Super Suica won’t be a slam dunk national transit card that does it all, but it will be start line towards that goal in a race that has already started: a new foundation of shared infrastructure and services with transit companies working toward a cohesive de facto standard that has lots of mobile potential.

In these COVID challenged times all transit companies are under enormous pressure to reduce redundant infrastructure, streamline and bury old grudges. The current situation will drive Super Suica and mobile uptake as the payoff is more mobile services with reduced operating costs. Another case of COVID driven ‘unfortunate success’. I remain hopeful that, in the end, we’ll be pleasantly surprised.


UPDATES

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, now called NFC with reader mode, 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.


UPDATES

October 22 2020: The first Japanese iOS App Clips for ordering via NFC tags and QR have started at Kitasando Coffee and Tailored Cafe.


UPDATES

Apple Pay Code Payment + App Clip Connection: App Clips and Apple Pay Code Payments belong together
Apple Pay Contactless Payment Adoption 4Q 2020 Outlook: App Clips and App Clip Codes start rolling out in Japan and USA
Using App Clips at Kitasando Coffee