The Weekly

July 27, 2021

The ‘Apple Pay is a monopoly’ soap opera continues

ZDNet reports Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services hearings that are focused on, yet again, forcing Apple to ‘open up’ their NFC chip. Actually they should be talking about the secure element in Apple Silicon because that’s what Apple devices use and it’s not just about NFC anymore, it’s Ultra Wideband too.

The Apple Pay monopoly debate isn’t new and isn’t about being ‘open’, it’s about banks getting what they want from politicians. What I found interesting was the back and forth between Apple and Google regarding the hardware embedded secure element (eSE) vs. the virtual secure element in the cloud Host Card Emulation (HCE), a topic that confuses many ‘experts’.

Google is playing both ends here because they have different flavors of Google Pay for different kinds of Android devices. Google Pixel Google Pay uses eSE while everybody else use HCE Google Pay. One very important thing not mentioned in tech blog coverage is that Samsung Galaxy and the Chinese smartphones (Huawei, OPPO, Xiaomi) all use a custom eSE with their own XX-Pay. In other words, everybody on the Android side outside of low end junk is doing exactly what Apple Pay is doing.

Apple
Host Card Emulation (HCE) is a less secure implementation, which was adopted by Android … Apple did not implement HCE because doing so would lead to less security on Apple devices.

Google
Our payments apps are immensely secure…we would refute the suggestion our HCE environment is in any way insecure … I would argue the user experience on Google Pay is equal to that of Apple Pay.

Let’s see what GlobalPlatform has to say about HCE:

GlobalPlatform
HCE solutions can be a great option for issuers to get to market cost-effectively for their Android customers. However, they aren’t without their complexities. Rooted in the NFC device OS, HCE apps can be more vulnerable than the ‘Giant Pays’.

So HCE security is up to the payment app, shitty app = shitty security without Apple Pay Secure Intent. The whole HCE debate is nonsense, like FeliCa Dude says it’s eSE or nothing. If the committee thinks that HCE means open and good, they are showing their incompetence.

Apple Pay Wallet has a very simple rule: any card that loads a Java Card applet into the secure element has to reside in Wallet. Any card or developer that wants to loads applets and use the secure element has to have a PassKit Secure Element Certificate Pass. This is covered by NDA but a company called PassKit (not Apple) gives us an idea what Apple’s NFC/Secure Element Pass guidelines are:

Apple care a great deal about the user experience. Before granting NFC certificate access they will ensure that you have the necessary hardware, software and capabilities to develop or deploy an ecosystem that is going to deliver an experience consistent with their guidelines.

Yeah, the end to end user experience, the whole reason behind the success of Apple Pay. Banks don’t want to be told they need to improve their ecosystem for a better user experience, and they don’t want to pay a transaction cut to Apple that they are used to keeping for themselves. What else is new?

The whole ‘Apple Pay is a monopoly’ soap opera is overrated.


PASPY transit IC card migrating to QR

After thinking out loud recently about dumping their PASPY transit IC card in favor of a QR Code smartphone app, Hiroshima Electric Railway Co. Ltd (Hiroden) CEO Masao Mukuda announced that Hiroden would indeed junk NFC and migrate to a QR Code app over an unspecified period of time. Running their own transit IC card is too expensive, so old folks, school children and everybody else will have to use smartphone to ride Hiroden light rail trains in Hiroshima.

PASPY is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many transit IC cards out there with the same problem: fixed infrastructure costs supporting a small region transit IC card and declining ridership. Add the COVID crisis that has decimated public transit use and you have a business crisis. All the small transit cards outside of the Transit IC card standard (the pink box) are in the same boat: they can only be used in their respective regions, they don’t have e-money functions, they don’t have the resources to go mobile.

This is exactly the problem JR East is addressing with their 2 in 1 Suica MaaS soution. JR East hosts the hardware, the local operator issues a ‘localized’ Suica that offers both special local MaaS services (discounts and extras, etc.) and seamlessly plugs into the larger Suica and Transit IC map.

Suica 2 in 1 region cards are the keystone of JR East’s MaaS strategy

Unfortunately PASPY is in the JR West region which doesn’t have anything similar to the JR East MaaS program. It would be a perfect solution: customers would get a new card that works just like it does now but works everywhere with e-money and ICOCA benefits, Hiroden is freed from the costs of hosting and issuing their own card.

QR is not going to be the salvation that Hiroden hopes it will be. QR isolates Hiroden from the wider transit IC network of Mobile Suica, PASMO, ICOCA. Even if Hiroden gets rid of their card issuing business cost, they still have to host a system to run the QR Code app and manage accounts. The real rub is that instead of anybody buying an IC card out of a machine, Users will have to sign up for the app or buy a QR paper ticket. They also have to worry about where and how their account data is stored. My prediction: it’s going to be a messy money losing transition.


Heraiza down but not out

Poor little Heraiza, one of my favorite Japanese YouTubers, has been copyright claim ‘hacked’ from a fake account pretending to be Dentsu and now has 2 bogus strikes against her YouTube account. As an independent 17 year old high school student with 150,000 followers, she doesn’t have the resources of a YouTuber managment agency like UUUM, who she likes to badmouth (and I won’t put it past UUUM using fake accounts to take her out). Dentsu or whoever the real copyright holder is has confirmed to her that her content does not violate said copyrights.

Hopefully she’ll get it all worked out and unlock all her previous videos, though YouTube being YouTube, if they don’t like you they ban you…AND keep your ad revenue. In her most recent post about one of her favorite YouTubers having their account hijacked, she has her confidence back. Good thing, in these dark times we all need to laugh.

Have a good week and enjoy the Olympics.

The Weekly

July 27, 2021

With so little real news to write about these days, I’m trying out a weekly digest format instead of individual itty bitty posts. Sticking with a mundane regular schedule is also good practice, we’ll see how it goes.

Tokyo 2020 TP Transit Card
Foreign media (already in Japan as opposed to those coming for the event who are limited by protocols for the first 14 days) covering the Tokyo Olympics were issued a special ‘TP Card’ limited transit pass covering Tokyo region transit July 10~ August 11. Dan Orlowitz who covers sports for the Japan Times tweeted some pictures of the pass. Look carefully at the transit gate display screen, there are some very interesting things going on: (1) The display language is English (nice touch), (2) The card balance is 0. The card itself is issued by JR East and is a Suica commuter card with a 1 month pass and the balance turned ‘off’, that is to say that TP Card numbers are ‘block listed’ for any recharge function.

The TP Card shows a way forward for Transit IC (Suica, PASMO, etc.) that started with Welcome Suica: more flexible options, discount and special passes for all kinds of users and uses. The next important step will be getting these, along with 2 in 1 Region cards, on mobile.


Is Apple Pay Overrated?
What technology works and doesn’t work for people in everyday life is always a fascinating subject. Mike at Tech702 asks a good question: is Apple Pay overrated? For Mike in daily Las Vegas life, yes Apple Pay is completely overrated. I saw much of the same during my Salt Lake City summer stay in 2018, although Smiths grocery had just started taking Apple Pay at the time. Did they pull the plug? It’s a good reminder that retail chains and banks in America switch loyalties without notice and the payments infrastructure is all over the place, witness Targets changing their accepted credit card lineup when I was in Salt Lake.

Some snobby Europeans like to look down on America and other places they perceive as not being up to speed with contactless payments. The truth is when Japanese journalists like Junya Suzuki take a good look at state of European contactless payments, it’s not so great either. The state of contactless payments around the world is still very much a touch and go thing.


iOS 15 Beta 3 Score Card
iOS 15 reached beta 3 last week. Here’s how it’s panning out:

Apple Maps new cartography continues to evolve. Japanese roads were decolorized, railway lines are different and drawn in harder to see light blue. Overall I think dark mode is works better than light mode (better contrast, easier to pick out details, etc.). See Justin O’Beirne‘s page for details. Transit Notifications are also improved slightly but still only work for surface transit. Forget about using it on the subway. Despite the fancy redecoration Apple still refuses to label the Sea of Japan (since 2020). Unnecessary, dumb and insulting.

Weather App: still only shows temperature maps which I think are useless. Forget about precipitation which is the killer feature for any weather app worth using. Air Quality doesn’t apply to Japan as there is no national standard.

Last but not least, Apple Music and Apple TV are basically useless in iOS 15 b3, more 3rd party app are crashing too. Hopefully b4 will be stable.


Ossan’s Love in Hong Kong?
Just when I thought the Ossan’s Love franchise had run out of gas, it seems the Hong Kong version of the Japanese series is also a hit and making waves instead of giggles, although calling it “sugar-coated marijuana” is pretty funny. If the Hong Kong version is anything like the Japanese one, it is sugar-coated silliness. For my money the other Japanese hit gay themed series ‘What did you eat yesterday?‘ was not only a lot more engaging, funny, serious and thought provoking, it was also useful as a cooking show. Kinda like Shinya Shokudo (Midnight Diner) with better interior decorating and worth the time investment.

Have a good week and enjoy the Olympics.

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.

What’s next for PiTaPa?

Now that Nankai Railway Visa Touch and QR Code transit tests have started (April 2), it’s helpful to take a look at Surutto Kansai, the association of Kansai area non-JR transit companies that issue and operate PiTaPa. I covered PiTaPa problems previously but in addition to the Nakai Visa Touch and QR tests, there have been a few other developments among PiTaPa group members:

  • Nankai Visa Touch and QR Code Transit: the Nakai, VISA Japan, SMBC and QUADRAC Co., Ltd venture started in April for Visa Touch and Nankai Digital Touch QR, QR tickets are purchased and used via the Nakai App and can only be purchased with Visa brand credit cards.
  • Osaka Metro ICOCA: Osaka Metro started selling ICOCA commuter passes and regular cards from November available at all station kiosks. They are the last major PiTaPa member to add ICOCA commuter passes, other major members (Keihan, Hankyu, Hanshin, etc.) added them years ago and have finally retired mag-strip commuter passes. One clarification regarding TOICA: it’s sold at Shin-Osaka station by JR West not Osaka Metro. An interesting aside is that when you use TOICA on Osaka Metro the system recognizes it as ICOCA. In a separate development Osaka Metro wants to implement face recognition transit gates for the 2025 Osaka Expo that dump cards altogether.
  • Keihan ICOCA: Started offering ICOCA Points at the end of 2020 (discount fares for repeat transits in the same month).

In the Transit IC card 2020 ranking by issue/holder numbers PiTaPa was 6th at 3.3 million cards with the slowest growth. It will likely drop to 7th place in 2021.

Suica, PASMO and ICOCA represent 90% of transit IC card issue

Nankai Open Loop Tests
As expected the Visa Touch and QR gates are limited to certain stations and exits. From the on-site media presentation pictures it’s clear that Nanaki is doing open loop transit gates the right way by keeping EMV/ QR only gates separate and off to the side wherever possible (bolt-on jobs are used in narrow areas). If there is one thing we have seen these past few years it’s that all-in-one gates with multi-protocol readers are slow and error prone. They just doesn’t work well for transit.

Target users are inbound travelers from Kansai International airport and plastic contactless Visa brand cards as it does not support Apple Pay Express Transit or similar services on Google Pay, Samsung Pay, etc. The inbound angle is a tough sell in the travel restricted COVID era now that Kansai area hotels are closing and laying off staff. A few interesting inbound points: Mainland China visitors use Union Pay not Visa, QR tickets have to be bought with a Visa card, and Nankai Digital Touch QR tickets are faster at the gate than Visa Touch because they are closed loop.

Fellow transit otaku in Osaka run loops around the Visa Touch open loop gate at Nankai Namba station
Nankai Digital Touch QR tickets are faster at the gate than Visa Touch because they are closed loop

Taken altogether it’s mayhem. As FeliCa Dude says in his tweet, Surutto Kansai is done for. The interesting thing is that PiTaPa is a very similar to the digital Opal Mastercard debit with specific merchants allowed scheme: a closed loop credit card account instead of the closed loop digital Opal Mastercard debit account. Where PiTaPa failed was that Surutto never provided a plain old prepaid transit card option so that users could buy a commuter or regular one for cash and recharge it at any station kiosk. Opal of course still sells the good old Opal MIFARE prepaid card and they would be smart to keep it around. There will always be a need for cash based transit cards.

Why can’t Surutto Kansai to come up with this simple solution for PiTaPa? In a word, SMBC bank group. They are behind the PiTaPa card creation, and now they are pushing Visa Touch transit. It’s an unfortunate and awkward situation: transit companies forced to issue and use an ‘outside’ transit card like ICOCA instead of their ‘in-house’ PiTaPa brand. I suspect the impasse will continue until SMBC gives in and let Surutto create a prepaid card and own the float, or the major Surutto Kansai members stage a real revolt. Until something gives Mobile PiTaPa will be impossible. The pressure to do something will only grow as the Mobile ICOCA 2023 launch approaches.

JR East Suica Station Ticket service starts March 13

UPDATE 4-20: JR East announced a Suica Station Ticket Rebate Campaign: 140 JRE POINT reward with ¥1,000 station mall shopping. The campaign runs until May 31 but JR East should really make this standard.

JR East Suica station admission service starts March 13. JR East stations will accept Suica and Transit IC cards, Apple Pay Suica•PASMO included, for 2 hour non-transit station admission.

The 2 hour station ticket costs ¥140 (Kanto district in-station malls)~¥150 (everywhere else) and covers all Suica gated stations (flap gate stations). Non-JR East stations, JR East stations off the Suica grid and Shinkansen gated areas inside JR East stations are not supported.

Suica station tickets are the transit IC equivalent of paper platform tickets. The origin was for tearful platform farewells seen in old classic movies, but the Suica version is more about enticing people to shop and use station malls. Ticketless is nice but I wish JR East had also figured out a way to waive the fee with Suica purchases over a certain amount, like free parking vouchers. That would be the ultimate station mall shopping motivation. (The update at the top of the post covers just this)

Suica has been around since 2001, what took JR East so long to do ticketless station admission? The background details are interesting. Paper station platform tickets are completely separate from regular tickets and clearly marked, but there is no way for the entry transit gate point to determine the difference between using Suica for transit or just stopping at the station. This can be a problem when there is a major stoppage due to weather, earthquake, etc. and station staff have to deal with large numbers of people stuck in the station or forced to use another line. Fortunately this doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’a a problem.