T-POINT? We don’t need no stinkin’ T-POINT

In the ephemeral COVID era we live in assurance don’t come easy, especially with JP cashless market data. Half the fun is taking the crumbs you find, a 1000 person web survey here and there, and seeing what trends you can tease out of it.

First of all the usual disclaimer: cashless use is highly regional, depending on transit use and many other factors like age group, shopping habits, and reward points. It’s this last item that makes the CreditCard no Yomimono survey so interesting.

Reward points are the dangling carrot all Japanese cashless players use to drive card use. New comers like PayPay use them shamelessly to capture customers and build their platform. Japanese customers love to play the ‘what combo gets me the most points’ game but they are also notoriously cold shoulder when they feel gypped. And once they drop something, they never come back.

The survey skips over regional point systems like JRE POINT (though I think that’s debatable considering Mobile Suica on Apple Pay/Google Pay/Osaifu Keitai), and examines ‘national’ point systems: d POINT, T-POINT, Rakuten POINT and PONTA with a simple question. Which one do you use? 2,271 people said:

  • Rakuten POINT: 59.9%
  • d POINT: 18.4%
  • T-POINT: 14.4%
  • PONTA: 7.3%

It’s clear to see why JR East cut that special deal for Rakuten Pay Suica: the different online Rakuten businesses for shopping, travel, etc. mesh well and there are a lot of people invested in Rakuten POINT. The deal puts Super Suica in a good 2021 launch position for new local transit partners, MaaS NFC Tag Suica and more as the platform grows.

It’s a bittersweet deal however for JRE POINT. It’s a real shame and missed opportunity that the major IC transit cards (Suica, ICOCA, TOICA, etc.) are compatible for transit and eMoney, but not for points. Even if they all kept their own point branding and simply offered 1=1 point exchanges, people would use them more.

The decline of T-POINT is not surprising, dropping from 60% in a 2015 survey. Culture Convenience Club (CCC) and SoftBank ran T-POINT into the ground and it’s not coming back. It’s only a matter of time before SoftBank kisses T-POINT (and CCC) goodbye and unveils PayPay POINT.

PONTA is another major that has not gained much traction so far but this might change with the recent LAWSON Bank PONTA Plus branded credit card push. All of the point systems need to add Apple VAS and Google SmartPay support and drive acceptance on the merchant POS level. The less we have to deal with separate plastic point cards, all the better.

Road to Super Suica: cloud and offline feature integration for MaaS perfection

Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service via Suica App ended in March 2020, replaced by the cloud based JR East Ekinet 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 not only was I wrong, he reported that iOS still uses the PassKit Suica Shinkansen call with Ekinet eTickets. Notification Center throws out the same ‘Shinkansen’ Suica Notification when the user goes through a JR East Shinkansen gate with an eTicket.

This is handy for the user event transaction record even though the Shinkansen transit fare is not recorded: eTickets have nothing to do with Suica balance transactions, they’re along for the ride so to speak. The interesting thing is that the Shinkansen notification does not show when using the JR East ‘Touch and Go’ Shinkansen service which does use the Suica balance. It also does not show when using the JR Central Shinkansen SmartEX/EX Reserve eTickets which are cloud based like Ekinet.

The eTicket side attraction offers some insight into the ‘what stays offline and local, what goes to the cloud’ dilemma JR East (JRE) faces 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 like the new Ekinet Shinkansen eTicket service.

What’s the overall vision and goal of next generation Suica which I call Super Suica? There’s a lot of ground to cover to find out so let’s examine things in 2 basic categories: the card architecture (offline and local) and the payment platform (cloud) even though 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

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.

The 2 in 1 Heart
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

The 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 ICOCA and TOICA? 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. At the very least we’ll see something similar to Mobile PASMO: licensed Mobile Suica IT assets rebranded as Mobile ICOCA, Mobile TOICA, etc.

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. Users will be able to exchange points for a 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 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 smartphones works ‘over the cloud’. Suica is unchained from the NFC reader and can be used to pay for any kind of NFC Tag linked service or item.

JRE has been testing MaaS 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. I think we’ll be hearing much more about MaaS Suica with the Super Suica launch.

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 combined with 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.

The Bigger Picture
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 3 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 to cover everywhere else.

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.

If Mobile PASMO is any indication, I think most of the major transit card players will end up as indirect partners. It would be great if Super Suica turned out to be an all encompassing nationwide thing on digital wallet platforms. The truth is that commuter passes, recharge backends, auto-charge and point reward empires are the crown jewels. Transit companies will always want to keep those in-house.

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. Think of it as a new foundation of shared infrastructure and services with transit companies working toward a cohesive de facto standard that has lots of mobile potential.

The timing is also good: in these COVID challenged times all transit companies are under enormous pressure to streamline, consolidate and bury old grudges. The current situation will likely drive Super Suica 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.

iOS 14 Apple Pay: going the distance with Ultra Wideband Touchless and QR (Updated)

It’s that time of year again to look into the WWDC crystal ball and see what changes might be in store for Apple Pay. 2019 was an exciting year with the important Core NFC Read-Write additions for ISO 7816, ISO 15693, FeliCa, and MIFARE tags. Since then we’ve seen iOS apps add support for contactless passports, drivers licenses, retail and manufacturer vicinity NFC tags, transit ticketing, badging, and more. Some expectations ended up on the cutting room floor. The NFC tag Apple Pay feature that Jennifer Bailey showed back in May 2019 has yet to appear. Apple Pay Ventra and Octopus transit services slated for 2019 and iOS 13 failed to launch. Apple Pay Octopus launched June 2, Apple Pay Ventra has yet to appear.

Predicting anything in 2020 is risky business because of COVID. iPhone 12 might be delayed, iOS 14 might be delayed, features brought forward, pushed back…all plans are up in the air. Some developments are clear, but timing is opaque. What follows is based on: (1) NTT Docomo announcement of Ultra Wideband (UWB) ‘Touchless’ Mobile FeliCa additions and JR East developing UWB Touchless transit gates, (2) CarKey and the Car Connectivity Consortium Digital Key 3.0 spec, and (3) Mac 9to5 reports of AliPay coming to iOS 14 Apple Pay.

Going the distance with Ultra Wideband
The NFC standard has been around a long time, long before smartphones, conceived when everything was built around close proximity read write physical IC cards. The standards have served us very well. So why are NTT Docomo and Sony (Mobile FeliCa) and NXP (MIFARE) adding Ultra Wideband + Bluetooth into the mix?

UWB + Bluetooth delivers Touchless: a hands-free keep-smartphone-in-pocket experience for unlocking a car door, walking through a transit gate or paying for takeout while sitting in the drive thru. It’s the same combo that powers Apple AirTags. UWB Touchless delivers distance with accuracy doing away with “you’re holding it wrong” close proximity hit areas necessary when using NFC. With Touchless your iPhone is essentially a big AirTag to the reader,

For Apple Pay Wallet cards it means hands free Express Card door access, Suica Express transit gate access and payments that ‘just work’ by walking up to a scan area or car. As Junya Suzuki pointed out recently, UWB Touchless is passive vs. the active NFC ‘touch to the reader’ gesture, as such it will live on smartphones and not on plastic cards. Those will remain limited to NFC which does not require a battery.

Secure Element evolution and digital key sharing
The addition of UWB Touchless however means that the Secure Element, where transaction keys are kept and applets perform their magic, has to change and evolve. Up until now the Secure Element worked hand in glove with the NFC controller to make sure communications between the reader are secure and encrypted. For this reason an embedded Secure Element (eSE) usually resides on the NFC controller chip.

Apple chose to put a Global Platform certified Apple Pay eSE in their own A/S series chips. The arrangement gives Apple more control and flexibility, such as the ability to update Secure Element applets and implement features like global NFC. The addition of UWB Touchless in FeliCa and MIFARE means both smartphone and readers need new hardware and software. Apple already has UWB in the U1 chip on iPhone 11. Mobile FeliCa software support could be coming with the next generation ‘Super Suica’ release in the spring of 2021 that requires an updated FeliCa OS.

Recent screen images of a CarKey card in Wallet…with Express Mode can we call it Suicar?

The arrival of UWB Touchless signals another change in the Secure Element as shown in middle CarKey screen image: digital key sharing via the cloud where the master key on the smartphone devices ‘blesses’ and revokes shared keys. Mobile FeliCa Digital key sharing with FeliCa cards and devices was demonstrated at the Docomo Open House in January, also outlined in the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCR) Digital Key White Paper. An interesting aspect of the CCR Digital Key architecture is the platform neutrality, any Secure Element provider (FeliCa, MIFARE, etc.) can plug into it. Calypso could join the party but I don’t see EMV moving to add UWB Touchless because it requires a battery. EMV will probably stick with battery free NFC and plastic cards.

Diagram from Car Connectivity Consortium (CCR) Digital Key White Paper

QR Code Payment Cards
There is another possible eSE transition for Apple Pay. If the 9to5 Mac AliPay for Apple Pay iOS 14 rumor is true, it represents a huge change for Apple Pay which has strictly limited payment transactions to NFC. The whole identity of Apple Pay is NFC payment cards vs. Wallet which can hold both cards (NFC) and passes (NFC or QR/Barcodes).

A few weeks ago a reader asked for some thoughts regarding the AliPay on iOS 14 Apple Pay rumor with a link to some screen/mockup images on the LIHKG site. Before getting to that it’s helpful to review some key Apple Pay Wallet features for payment cards:

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

The images suggest a scenario for implementing AliPay in iOS 14 Apple Pay:

  • AliPay has a PassKit API method to add a ‘QR Card’ to Wallet.
  • Apple Pay Wallet QR Card set as the main card is directly activated with a button double-click for Face or a Touch ID authentication and dynamic QR Code payment generation in Apple Pay.
  • Direct static QR Code reads activate Apple Pay AliPay payment.

If Apple is adding AliPay to the ranks of top tier Wallet payment cards, they have to provide a way in. The new “PKSecureElementPass” PassKit framework addition in iOS 13.4 could be just that. Instead of PassKit NFC Certificates, the additions suggest a Secure Element Pass/certificate. Secure Element Certificates instead of NFC Certificates, or better yet completely decouple the Secure Element from NFC so that there are 2 kinds of certificates: a Secure Element Pass for Secure Element transactions, and a NFC Certificate ‘lite’ for non-Secure Element NFC use such as VAS passes which pull everything off a JSON server. In the long run Apple needs to provide finer definitions and controls for NFC and UWB access instead of one black box that PassKit NFC Certificates have been up to now.

One possible scenario for PassKit NFC Certificate evolution

The burning question here is: have Apple and AliPay developed Secure Element technology and Java Card applets for encrypted transactions that work without network connections? If so QR Wallet payment ‘cards’ are possible. Direct Apple Pay Wallet QR integration with would open up things for 3rd party (non bank) payment players. QR integration with separate access controls for the Secure Element and NFC/UWB hardware frontend might also help Apple skirt NFC monopoly allegations that got Apple Pay in trouble in Europe.

Dual Mode and flexible front ends
The addition of QR and UWB with NFC for payments opens up a long term possibility suggested by Toyota Wallet. The current app lets the user attach a QR code app payment method and/or a NFC Wallet payment method to an account. It’s intriguing but clunky. Wallet QR Payment support would allow Toyota Wallet to move the entire payment front end to Wallet and let the user choose to add one or both.

It’s the latter that interests me most. Instead of having separate NFC and QR payment ‘cards’ from the same issuer for the same account, I’d much rather have one adaptive Wallet card that smartly uses the appropriate protocol, QR, NFC, UWB for the payment at hand.

Ultimately I don’t believe that payment players need or want to anchor their services to specific technologies like QR or even NFC. AliPay may have needed QR to start their payment business empire, why not offer NFC and UWB if it’s there as a front end choice? It’s all virtual.

Capable, flexible, smart. This is what digital wallets should do, things that plastic can never achieve. Let’s hope Apple Pay Wallet makes it there someday, and that payment and transit providers are up to the mix and match challenge in the Touchless era.


WWDC20 UPDATE

CarKey
Apple announced CarKey, digital car keys and Ultra Wideband Touchless in the WWDC20 Keynote and accompanying press release:

Digital car keys give users a secure way to use iPhone or Apple Watch to unlock and start their car. Digital car keys can be easily shared using Messages, or disabled through iCloud if a device is lost, and are available starting this year through NFC. Apple also unveiled the next generation of digital car keys based on Ultra Wideband technology for spatial awareness delivered through the U1 chip, which will allow users to unlock future car models without removing their iPhone from their pocket or bag, and will become available next year.

Apple Newsroom

More details were revealed the CarKey session:

One thing the CarKey session made clear is that Secure Element ‘radio technologies’ are evolving beyond NFC. Another interesting aspect of CarKey is the device requirement: iPhone XR/XS or later, Apple Watch Series 5 or later.

A12 devices and later makes perfect sense because they all support Express Cards with power reserve. Apple Watch does not support this feature but the Series 5 and later requirement suggests the S series chip is getting very close and likely involves Secure Element digital key sharing. We may see Express Cards with power reserve arrive with Apple Watch Series 6.

App Clips
App Clips finally unleash the power of background NFC tag reading and is the other big Apple Pay development announced at WWDC20. This is what Jennifer Bailey talked about last year just before WWDC19 but it took another year to come together.

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 sheet pop-ups. This will be huge. See the separate post for details.

Apple Pay Code Payments
AliPay QR Code support was not mentioned in the WWDC20 keynote or sessions but there are Apple Pay code payment references in iOS 14 beta 2, code name Aquaman. There is also a iOS 14 PassKit alipay payment network reference and other new PassKit framework additions for code payments. We’ll likely get an official Apple Pay AliPay announcement at the iPhone 12 Event with a service launch ‘coming later this year/early next year’, and only for mainland China AliPay account holders initially, not international users.

The Mobile PASMO Super Suica Challenge

The recently announced Mobile PASMO has some serious limitations lucidly explained in FeliCa Dude’s ‘Mobile PASMO – something we shouldn’t need‘ reddit post. It shines a light on the unfortunate petty politics of Japanese business culture, a catch-22 that ends up killing the very opportunities Japanese companies work to create. Mimicchii is a good Japanese word for it: so obsessively stuck on pointless small details that one completely misses the big opportunity. The PASMO association knows they will loose out, eventually, but hang on to their one and only advantage, commute passes, in the hope they gain a better losers bargain in the end. But how much opportunity is lost by then?

As FeliCa Dude points out, Mobile PASMO is a pointless waste of money and system resources to replicate what Mobile Suica already does:

PASMO is inferior to Suica in many respects, the idea of deploying Mobile PASMO and removing the user’s ability to choose Mobile Suica is fairly short-sighted. Such a development likely cost many hours and much money, but is effectively a boondoggle and a monument to the stubborn failure of JR and the PASMO Association to sort out a way to issue commuter passes on each other’s cards.

Taken to an extreme each transit card player would build its own mobile service but this is impossible in an era of shrinking ridership and resources.

Come together into one mobile service please…

The next generation 2 cards in 1 Suica due in 2021 aims to fix the current state of affairs. Architecturally I expect the problems will be solved, but corporate politics are another matter. JR East will have to offer enough cost saving incentives and flexible extras for the other major transit card players to host their service assets on Mobile Suica: commute plans, Shinkansen eTickets and more. It’s certainly in everybody’s best interest to do so. Time to put aside the mimicchii politics and duplication. If Japanese transit companies can’t come together to build the future, everybody loses.

The Super Suica Touchless Connection

The recent flurry of press releases and news reports for touchless walkthrough transit gates and handsfree touchless store payments sheds considerably more light on the next generation Suica architecture and FeliCa OS. The new Suica card due in spring 2021 does not have an official name. I call it Super Suica. Here’s what has been announced so far.

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.

Handsfree touchless Mobile FeliCa payments technology based on UWB+Bluetooth on Mobile FeliCa announced by Docomo, Sony, NXP Semiconductors in December 2019. A new JR East touchless transit gate was also reported by Kyodo News around the same time and was confirmed by JR East. The new touchless payments technology uses FeliCa for transactions but uses a UWB+Bluetooth front-end instead of NFC.

No delivery date for touchless gates or touchless payments has been announced but as Junya Suzuki pointed out in his recent article, Japanese transit infrastructure investment runs in 7~8 year cycles. The Takanawa Gateway station opening and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 are the kickoff for the next transit infrastructure cycle. I see 3 basic transitions for JR East and the other major transit companies.

  • Suica transition from legacy architecture to next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Super Suica staring in spring 2021.
  • FeliCa transition from NFC only front-end to incorporate UWB+Bluetooth radio technologies for handsfree touchless payments. News reports suggest deployment of JR East touchless walkthrough gates starting in 2023.
  • QR Code transition from legacy magnetic strip and other paper ticketing. Testing and evaluation is due to start at Takanawa Gateway station in 2020 with new Suica+QR Code dual reader transit gates.

Next generation Suica and Touchless Mobile FeliCa represent an interesting twist in that both require a new version of FeliCa. My take is that the new versions of FeliCa OS are one and the same, and that both Super Suica and Touchless incorporate UWB and Bluetooth protocols for transactions in addition to NFC-F.

Zero-sum Game Reset?
People are already complaining ‘oh no, not more JR East/FeliCa proprietary BS,’ but that snap judgement is way too early. Outside of the basic technologies we don’t know what standards are involved for handsfree touchless payments, but we do know that NXP is partnering with Docomo and Sony on the effort. That means MIFARE is already working on it too. JR East announced at the 2016 Tokyo NFC Forum conference that they are dedicated to working for open compatible transit payments (i.e. open ticketing between transit operators, not EMV).

Let’s take JR East at their word and assume that there is just one flavor of UWB+Bluetooth touchless, that it is fast, that it is open. In this scenario the same UWB+Bluetooth touchless front-end could be used by anybody from the large established proprietary players like EMV, FeliCa and MIFARE to open transit payment associations like Calypso. I hope this is the scenario that plays out. We don’t need a repeat of the ‘let’s make NFC A-B (Philips and Motorola) an open standard and shut NFC-F (Sony) out of the game’ nonsense that didn’t help anybody except QR Code players.

The Apple angle is interesting. Global NFC support put Apple Pay ahead of the curve. Apple putting UWB into iPhone 11 this year could be another ‘get ahead of the curve’ move so that everything is ready to roll with Super Suica on iOS 15/watchOS 8 in late 2021. I doubt anybody will see it this way, but I think touchless Mobile FeliCa and JR East plans for it are one factor in Apple’s decision.

Handsfree Touchless Smartcards?
One very important question: does this stuff work on smartcards? So far only smartphones have been mentioned in the press releases. Indications are that Super Suica is launching with new IC smartcard issue, by necessity it will have be backwards compatible with current transit card IC infrastructure.

If JR East plans to deploy touchless gates systemwide starting in 2023, Super Suica plastic transit cards must work seamlessly with the new gates. It doesn’t make any sense to issue yet another card, Super Duper Suica, to work with handsfree touchless. It also doesn’t make sense if touchless is only for smartphones. If it’s going to work in the minds of transit users and be used at all, all of it has to work perfectly, out of the gate.