iOS 14 App Clips unlock the power of NFC background tags

We first got of taste of iOS 14 App Clips with the slick Titanium Apple Card setup that leverages the background NFC background tag read 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 rollout.

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

The second problem was the clunky ‘launch an app’ or ‘launch Safari’ problem. This has been a problem for NFC tag solution providers like SmartPlate. User interaction needs to reside on the pop-up sheet on the unlocked screen. 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 transaction 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 the sheet, 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:

  • (1) Face ID in the face mask era is not a great unlock or Apple Pay user experience, App Clip powered NFC background tag reading is gonna rock on iPhone SE with Touch ID.
  • (2) a network connection is required, Apple Pay transactions at the NFC reader works 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…
  • (3) a weak borderline WiFi connection can jam the above 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 ‘while the screen is on’ while QR Code users have to manually pull up the QR reader app 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 will lose their edge. If they are smart, they can 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 and 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 Apple Pay development, in addition to CarKey, announced at WWDC20. 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.

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The iPhone SE NFC Tag Apple Pay Equation

I’ve always said the iPhone SE2 hits the iPhone sweet spot in Asia, especially now. An affordable entry level device with face mask friendly Touch ID and Bionic powered Secure Element + global NFC: Express Cards with power reserve and Background NFC tag reading. It was almost a year ago when Jennifer Bailey unveiled NFC Tag Apple Pay. Steve Moser of MacRumors tweeted the essential features: tap and Apple Pay without an app or signing up for an account. Apple has not said a word since.

I think part of the problem for Apple is pictured in the slides accompanying Moser’s tweet, the ‘Pay with Apple Pay in app’ one. The allure of background NFC tag reading is that it’s almost ‘Express card lite’; as long as the screen is on, even locked, iPhone natively reads a NFC tag and does something like activate loaded and ready Apple Pay. The trouble is, only Bionic chip iPhone models do this. Non-Bionic iPhone models have to use an app to read NFC tags. Think quick, would you fire up an app, sign in, and read a NFC tag just to buy cheap coffee? Probably not.

My take is the entry level non-Bionic iPhone 8 is holding up NFC Tag Apple Pay. Apple Pay needs the entire iPhone lineup to be Bionic and app free, an entry level A13 Bionic iPhone SE2 solves this problem. It’s a perfect iPhone for the Japanese market in these face mask mandatory times where Face ID doesn’t work, and a nice match for the recently announced JCB NFC tag payment service that uses SmartPlate software. It probably won’t doesn’t have a U1 chip that would let iPhone SE2 have a longer service life as UWB Touchless joins NFC in iOS 14 Apple Pay. Nevertheless the iPhone SE2 with Bionic NFC will be more than ample, it will do very well.

Update: one thing I forgot to mention is the Sign in with Apple requirement that goes hand in hand with Background NFC tag reading. The current deadline is June 30.

Update 2: iPhone SE is here

A consolation prize for Octopus users with iPhone

After the unfortunately delay of Apple Pay Octopus earlier this month, Octopus Card Limited released an updated version of the iOS Octopus App that offers a small consolation prize: Octopus App on iPhone 7 and later can now recharge Octopus cards. This was made possible by the enhanced iOS 13 Core NFC Read Write functions that support a wide range of NFC protocols including FeliCa.

The iPhone 7 and later device configuration specification exactly matches Apple’s Core NFC documentation but readers report that Octopus App strings reveal that Apple Pay Octopus will be limited to iPhone 8/Apple Watch Series 3 and later. This is inline with expectations and solves the iPhone 7 FeliCa support mystery: iPhone 7 only supports FeliCa Read/Write, iPhone 8 and later supports both FeliCa Read/Write and Card Emulation functions.

The Android support spec is a little fuzzy too. NFC-F is a requirement for NFC certification so many recent devices support FeliCa Read/Write but far fewer Android devices have the software support for FeliCa Card Emulation, Samsung Galaxy being one of the few in the Hong Kong market.

Oh and one last consolation prize for iPhone users until Apple Pay Octopus appears: Octopus on Apple Pay is designated as “Smart Octopus”…sounds familiar. Also it appears that Smart Octopus Apple Pay was originally due to launch with iOS 13.2, read Smart Octopus Apple Pay details while the link is valid.

Sony, JR East, DNP, Aquabit Spirals team up for NFC tag payments

The JR East, Sony, DNP, AquaBit Spirals tie-up for NFC Tag payments

AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomo Hagiwara took up my challenge earlier this year to raise the Japanese Softcream Cashless Index (SCI) to ‘over 5’ in time for the Tokyo Olympics. I figure if mundane softcream stalls are cashless, Japan is truly cashless. Today his company is teaming up with industry heavyweights JR East, Sony and DNP to deliver on that promise and bring inexpensive MaaS (Mobility as a Service) NFC tag payments (via AquaBits SmartPlate) to the masses, and the masses of merchants who don’t want to shell out for NFC reader checkout hardware. It’s the first real NFC challenge to inexpensive, infrastructure light QR Code payment schemes that leverage the established base of mobile networks and smartphones. Small businesses only need to sign up for an online payment service and put a NFC tag sticker on the checkout counter.

Since all NFC flavors (NFC A-B-F) are required for smartphone NFC certification, Read/Write FeliCa tags work on any smartphone with NFC-F even if FeliCa transactions keys for card emulation (Suica, iD, QUICPay, etc.) are not installed. Translation: inbound Android devices can use NFC tag FeliCa payments even if they can’t use Suica.

The one remaining question on the Apple side of the equation is what NFC tag integration Apple Pay has in store. Jennifer Bailey announced NFC tag Apple Pay testing back in May without a delivery date, and no details since. Ideally an NFC tag integrated Apple Pay would use Sign in with Apple to streamline or eliminate 3rd party payments service account signup within an app, and without an app via background NFC tag reading. The more ‘it just works’ integration, the better. Nobody wants to signup for a PayPay-like service on the spot just to buy hotdogs and beer at a stadium game, or softcream.

Update: JR East issued an English language press release

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.