QR Code Transit on Hong Kong MTR starts January 23 (Updated)

After a very long preparation period QR Code transit on Hong Kong MTR finally starts on Saturday, January 23. The MTR Fan FaceBook page:

Only TWO WEEKS left before the launch of QR code payment on 23 January! For this new service, we have installed about 1,000 QR code scanners at stations and conducted a series of system and on-site tests. Prominent purple signage will also be on display to help passengers identify the gates providing the new service.

This is the debut of MTR ‘open-loop’ ticketing. Up until now MTR used the ubiquitous Octopus card, the trail blazing transit card that showed the world what smartcard ticketing can do when extended beyond transit to include eMoney payments, transforming a transit card into a transit payment platform. Unlike Japan however Octopus Card Limited (OCL) was late bringing Octopus to mobile. Part of the problem was that Hong Kong mobile carriers never had an Osaifu Keitai-like standard that bridged the Symbian and Android hardware eras. OCL also wasted time with SIM card mobile support before finally launching the mobile Smart Octopus service first on Samsung Pay in late 2018, followed by Apple Pay Octopus in June 2020 and Huawei Pay Octopus in December 2020.

But MTR still faces a problem that most Android devices don’t support FeliCa even though NFC-F is supported across all NFC capable devices. It’s the global NFC dilemma best illustrated in the Google Pay on Google Pixel situation: Mobile FeliCa is installed on all Pixel devices but Google only turns it on for Pixel models sold in Japan. There are many takes on the reasons why. My take is that Google doesn’t want to do the all the global NFC OS level support work that benefits all Android manufacturers. Google’s stance is, ‘don’t ask us, roll your own embedded Secure Element (eSE) solution.’ And so it’s a race of how many ‘Octopus on XX Pay’ digital wallet platforms OCL can line up for Android and wearables.

For MTR, QR Code open loop transit sidesteps this Android hardware mess, but will it be a success when users have to open a smartphone app with a face mask on at every gate? Apple Pay Octopus on Apple Watch sure beats that problem and then some. Long term I think NFC wearables and UWB Touchless will be the QR killer. Time will tell.

AliPay HK is the first payment provider, others QR players will be added as they are qualified. The transit gate layout is interesting, QR is limited to purple colored gate lanes shown in a nifty MTR video. This is similar to what JR East will do when they phase out mag strip paper ticketing and replace it QR Code paper tickets. It’s also the layout that Nankai will do when they implement VISA Touch after testing it this year.

The next MTR open loop addition is expected to be EMV+PBOC China T-Union compatibility though MTR has not announced when that will happen. OCL already committed to a new Octopus card that will be compatible with China T-Union.

UPDATE

AliPay mainland accounts can also be used for Hong Kong MTR QR transit.

Taiwan EasyCard coming to Japan

This is an interesting development, Bank of the Ryukyus announced support for Taiwan EasyCard (aka Taiwan’s Suica). The press release is a little vague but says this is a co-venture for Bank of the Ryukyus to build….wait for it…another contactless payment platform for Japan. A separate Nikkei article (Japanese) quotes Bank of Ryukyus as having 7000 stores in Okinawa lined up and ready to go by March with a service launch planned in July. The long term plan is extending EasyCard payments beyond Okinawa to other areas in Japan. There is no mention of transit support.

This will be a boon for inbound visitors from Taiwan, especially Samsung Pay users because it will support EasyCard. Apple Pay and Google Pay support of EasyCard is rumored to be coming…”later” which can mean anything, but all 3 digital wallet platforms support the EasyCard MIFARE format. Now that EasyCard is coming to Japan, I wonder if Suica can go to Taiwan, or how about Octopus support in Japan. This kind of mix and match business opportunity is what global NFC smartphones are all about.

And in other Okinawa related good news: inbound Apple Pay Suica users, and other major transit IC cards are finally accepted on the Okinawa Monorail starting March 10.

You thought the Apple Pay Octopus launch was taking too long? Just ask EasyCard

Japanese transit companies like the JR Group (JR East, JR Central, JR West) are often criticized for being opaque and buddy buddy with politicians, but every transit agency around the world has to deal with politicians and governments on some level. That just comes with the job.

Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan are unique transit markets with tight integration and highly evolved transit card systems. Hong Kong and Taiwan have it easier than Japan in some ways as smaller usually means less baggage to carry going forward. But, being smaller has a downside too in that the breathing space between transit companies and government agencies is uncomfortably small, and sometimes suffocating.

Because of this, Hong Kong residents occasionally have a sarcastic distrustful view of Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) management, despite the fact that OCL delivers best of class services. Witness the frustration of OCL dragging out the Apple Pay Octopus launch details announcement. As one Hong Kong iPhone user told me, “I won’t believe it (Apple Pay Octopus) is really happening until Apple (not OCL) announces it.”

A similar situation is happening with Taiwan’s EasyCard. In mid August 2018, service updates for Mastercard kiosk recharge indicated that MRT was preparing some kind of mobile service. I assumed MIFARE was coming to iOS 12, bingo, and that Apple Pay would add EasyCard and iPass, but Samsung Pay snagged EasyCard with a formal announcement on April 11 and that was the end of it. Or so I thought. The reality is that EastCard has yet to launch on Samsung Pay and will start ‘testing’ from October. What happened?

A few days ago an older post about SuicaENG and the Wallet UI suddenly got lots of hits from Taiwan. I was scratching my head as Taiwan traffic is usually smallish and tried to Google Translate the Taiwanese site generating the traffic, but the result was incomprehensible. Fortunately a reader from Taiwan living in Japan kindly provided an explanation of EasyCard politics:

OK, EasyCard Corp is catching flak for…being slow to launch a mobile transit card service, on their own, without Cubic running the show? Being slow to launch a mobile transit card is not unique. Just ask the companies that run ICOCA, Toica, PASMO, etc., they don’t have their transit cards on mobile either and have far larger infrastructure budgets. This stuff takes time because everything transit absolutely has to work perfectly all the time. 7pay fuckups are not an option.

I can understand why Hong Kong iPhone users are frustrated with OCL taking their sweet time to launch Apple Pay Octopus, but when it finally launches, the tidal wave of iPhone users will make Smart Octopus on Samsung Pay look like the tiny beta test group that it is. Let’s just hope that Sunny Cheung and OCL are on it and working hard. And you are working hard on it, right Sunny?

Singapore TransitLink Goes EMV

Japanese media reports that Singapore TransitLink has gone all in with EMV contactless for transit with the SimpleGo program starting today, April 4. Mastercard is the first credit/debit card approved for the program with Visa to follow later this year. Using bank cards for transit is what Transit for London (TfL) has been doing for years with other transit systems such as Taiwan MTR adding support recently.

The Japanese report also mentions that EMV contactless cards loaded in Apple Pay/Google Pay/Samsung Pay etc. will work but judging from the Apple Pay experiences during the long beta test period, it is slow and not as reliable as EZ-Link transit cards.

There is no mention of the native EZ-Link transit card being hosted on digital wallets. I suspect that Singapore’s decision in 2009 to dump FeliCa for their own CEPAS technology could make that difficult as CEPAS use is limited to Singapore, and there is no business plan attached to sell the technology in other markets which FeliCa (Sony) or MiFare (NXP) do.

Taiwan EasyCard lands on Samsung Pay

Yahoo Taiwan reports EasyCard coming to Samsung Pay

Back in August 2018 when the Taiwanese Representative Office in Tokyo announced that EasyCard and iPass would accept credit card recharge starting in October, I suspected backend support was being put in place for Apple Pay support. I was half right, the addition of credit card recharge was a sign that the cards were getting ready for digital wallets but not Apple Pay. Yahoo Taiwan reported that Samsung is negotiating with the EasyCard Corporation to bring the MIFARE based EasyCard to Samsung Pay in 2019 via a software update. That finally happened April 11.

EasyCard is a stored value (SV) transit card similar to Suica used for both transit (MRT, Metro, buses, ferries, etc.) and e-money purchases. It will be the 2nd Samsung Pay ‘exclusive’ after Hong Kong’s Smart Octopus launch in December 2017 which is FeliCa based like Apple Pay Suica but still exclusive to Samsung Pay.

Apple Pay does support MIFARE cards in iOS 12/watchOS 5 which is the technology behind the recently added contactless student ID cards. Technically there is nothing standing in the way of getting EasyCard and iPass on Apple Pay. The sooner all SV transit cards are natively hosted and widely available on digital wallet platforms (Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, etc.) the better, it only becomes truly useful when everything is well integrated.

4-11-2019 UPDATE
EasyCard on Samsung Pay formal launch announcement on April 11

3-15-2020 UPDATE
That was a very long wait…EasyCard has finally launched on Samsung Pay.