Mobile Myki

Mobile Myki

Starting from a couple weeks ago, PTV has been running a trial of Myki on smartphones1 which will continue until the end of March. For the time being, the trial is limited to an initial sample of four thousand participants, and is only available through Google Pay, making it Android-only. I was one of those randomly selected to participate in the trial, and so I'd like to offer a few thoughts on the matter.

Getting Started

nexus6-myki-googlepay.jpeg

Firstly, the initial set-up is super painless; much easier than getting a Myki through the conventional means. It's also cheaper as you (of course) do not have to pay the $62 for the physical card. You simply open up the Google Pay app and select Myki under the 'passes' tab. You select the amount for your initial top-up, which is charged through whatever payment method you have associated with Google Pay, and the app communes with PTV to generate a 'card' with a unique ID like those on the reverse side of physical cards.3

The Local/Remote Conundrum

The end result is that the operating system can use its NFC chip as a Myki card when presented at a Myki reader. The balance, as with regular cards, is stored on-device. Whilst PTV maintains transaction records, its database is not a live indicator of the amount on your card, that information is stored on the card itself. This differs from a credit or debit card where your balance is stored remotely (with the bank/creditor) and the remote balance is considered the live balance. When using a credit/debit card you are simply authorising the reader to access the remote database and perform a transaction. Myki cards perform the transaction locally with the reader.

There are plusses and minuses to each of these approaches. Remotely-located balances (credit/debit cards) rely on an Internet connection.4 Local balance storage (Myki) guarantees you can always make use of your card even when there is no Internet connection available to the reader.5 The main drawback with local-only is that you have only one 'key' with which to make transactions. In practice, this means that if you lose your card you have to go through a refund or balance transfer process which relies on the possibly out-of-date remote database which may leave you out of pocket a few dollars. It also requires that you have registered your card so as to verify ownership. If you lose your credit card, you call your bank and they cancel it and send you a new one. In the meantime, you can continue to make certain transactions by accessing your online account. Your gym membership and phone bill will continue to debit seamlessly.

Continuing on with this, let's say you forgot your wallet at home one morning. You then realise you need to buy some supplies from the local corner store. Supposing you already set-up your credit/debit card on your phone using Apple or Google Pay, you can make transactions with your phone or smartwatch instead. You can have virtually unlimited 'keys' to access your balance.

PTV has attempted to mend this issue by way of Mobile Myki. You forgot your wallet at home? Then you can use your phone instead! Except you can't because the balance is locally stored, meaning that you effectively have an entirely separate card on your phone from what you had in your wallet. Any balance on your exisiting Myki card is not pooled with the balance on your phone. This means redundant transactions, extra money converted into Myki money, and so on. Overall, there is less flexibility than what is offered with a remote-oriented system, but more than what was offered before with the “card only” locally-oriented system.

Anyway, it is that which most displeased me with the initial set-up; that I was unable to use the balance on the Myki card I already own, and that I could not digitise the card at all. Creating a new card was the only option.

Using the Card

On my first day commuting with Mobile Myki I got a good spread of experience with which to judge the overall performance. I travelled on both trains and busses, and interacted with both the classic Myki readers and the new Vix-designed readers.

The Good

Touching on with a classic reader using a Nexus 6.

My day started with a touch on at my local train station using a classic reader. The speed was roughly equivalent to a physical card, perhaps a few milliseconds slower. However, that may just be a psychological effect from having to unlock the phone first before touching it on.6 However, the double assurance of a check-mark across your phone screen is certainly pleasing. It's also nice to be able to see the transaction history immediately, rather than delayed by up to 24 hours. Whereas previously you could access your transaction history online, only if you registered7 your Myki, because your balance is stored locally (as discussed above) you can see your touch on/off history immediately including with location and the amount debited/credited.8

The Bad

A ‘next-gen’ Vix-built reader

A ‘next-gen’ Vix-built reader

The rest of my commute went fine until I changed for a bus and encountered one of the new-generation Vix readers. I made multiple attempts to touch on but no transaction was made. Multiple different error messages were presented by both the phone and the reader, including "multiple cards detected" and "move your phone closer." I concluded that the latter error message had to be a false-positive as my phone was in direct physical contact with the reader. I extrapolated that the new readers must not have been updated for the trial and so were not signalling to the phone the exact card that it wanted, and so was being presented with every card on my device at once,9 hence "multiple cards detected."

Therefore, when making the reverse trip, I opened the Google Pay app on my phone and selected the Myki card specifically, before presenting it to the reader. The same problems, with no transaction made.

Bugs are to be expected, and it's perfectly possible that I was unlucky enough to have encountered two readers that hadn't been updated for the new mechanism, or the specific mechanics of which had not been considered in the programming for the digital card. Nonetheless, as a good beta tester, I made a report including as much detail as I could to PTV. Hopefully they can work out this issue, however a good working week on from the report I still haven’t heard back from PTV. That said, I’ve heard from others in the trial that they’ve had success with Vix readers by holding the phone in certain positions.10

Conclusion

When it works, it's a pleasure. There are certainly flaws, but these are mainly owing to the fundamental nature of Myki such as the above-mentioned issues around a locally stored balance. There’s also the problem of mixed technologies such as old and new generation readers, as well as portable (tram and bus) and stationary (train) readers. Finally, as an Apple devotee, I’m disappointed to see that PTV and Apple weren’t able to work out an arrangement prior to the launching of this beta to see an iOS Myki trial take place concurrently.11 However, I expect some continued background work to be going on between PTV and Apple on this matter. The latter has been known to make exemptions and workarounds for large enough entities such as governments or corporations.12

In practice, I believe Mobile Myki will be a net-good for the public transport system. Both for locals and for visitors. Mobile allows tourists to set up a card without the un-refundable outlay of $6 for a new card; it serves as an effective bandaid for the abandonment of single-use tickets in the transition from Metcard to Myki. It also provides an easy in-built mechanism for the refunding of a remaining balance. Single-use cards would still be better for tourists, owing to their simplicity but this is almost as good.13 Locals will benefit from having a thinner wallet or a backup mechanism for when they do forget their card or wallet at home.

Notes


  1. PTV is currently branding it as 'Mobile Myki.' I suppose once can't do much better when the starting name is the abominably named 'Myki.' ↩︎

  2. PTV charges $6 for full-fare passengers, $3 for concession/seniors. ↩︎

  3. For all intents and purposes, this is considered a ‘real’ card, meaning it can be registered and managed on the Myki website. ↩︎

  4. Unreliable Internet is a widespread issue in Australia, which probably motivated the preference for locally-stored balances for Myki, which launches well before the NBN was even announced. ↩︎

  5. This is useful for stations and busses/trams that may happen to be in coverage black-spots, as well as for the portable readers used by Authorised Officers. ↩︎

  6. Though the phone has to be unlocked to perform NFC transactions, the Google Pay app does not need to be opened. The purpose is to ensure some sort of authentication to prevent theft. ↩︎

  7. Registering your Myki de-anonymises you, which may concern you if you're privacy-conscious. Being able to view your transaction history without the website circumvents this issue. ↩︎

  8. PTV has recently stated that they will be rolling out auto-top-up and other more in-depth features to the digital card going forward, so things are looking promising and that this isn’t one of those projects that gets up and then abandoned or sees only drive-by updates. ↩︎

  9. I also have my debit and Woolworths loyalty cards loaded into Google Pay. ↩︎

  10. Indicating this may be an irreconcilable hardware issue. ↩︎

  11. My primary phone is an iPhone and I was using an old Android phone specifically for the purpose of the trial. ↩︎

  12. For example, the issuing of enterprise certificates allowing the side-loading of apps for internal use without having to go via the App Store or TestFlight. The issue with iOS devices, as I understand it, relates to the fact that Apple restricts its NFC chips to read-only for readers for security purposes. Myki needs the ability to write to the chip to transact an updated balance to the card. ↩︎

  13. It also has the added benefit of by forcing the person to use their phone, it will provide information in the system language. Coming from China and can’t speak English? Set up Myki on your phone with a Mandarin interface. ↩︎