Mobile payments and ticketing promise a smoother process than waiting in line to purchase a paper ticket, but often, the reality is that a mobile ticket is only as good as the mobile phone's signal.

An extreme example of a mobile ticketing meltdown occurred just over a year ago, when a sudden influx of commuters rendered Bytemark Inc.'s New York Waterway app nearly inoperable during a critical 30 minutes of rush hour. The vendor has spent the past year redesigning its technology, and is pushing out version 2.0 of the Waterway app today with an abundance of features that promise a smoother ride.

The update also sets the stage for future improvements to the mobile ticketing process. "This industry is moving quickly, and we'll be working on a lot of interesting things over the next year or so," says Micah Bergdale, CEO of New York-based Bytemark.

The new ticketing app lets users cache tickets for offline use, a feature that might have helped avoid the server overload behind the incident on April 29, 2013, a day the ferries received a massive influx of riders after the underground PATH trains (an alternate route between New York and New Jersey) unexpectedly shut down. The earlier app required access to a server to verify tickets, and the overload meant that ferry passengers could not purchase new tickets or activate pre-purchased tickets.

Even though Bytemark was accustomed to a higher number of app users in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which also interrupted PATH service, the April 29 incident created "[server] traffic that was 10 times what it normally saw during a rush hour period," Bergdale says. "The architecture of our system just never anticipated such an event in such a short time window."

Despite the issue being considered severe enough to merit an apology letter to riders from the Waterway the following day, Bytemark had its system back up within 30 minutes. Over time the vendor created a "more scalable architecture to better support such an incident in the future," he adds.

The PATH trains have had similar outages in the past year, and Bytemark has handled the consequent traffic increases for the Waterway without problems, he says.

In its apology letter, Waterway promised a new version of its app would go live within the next few weeks. But Bytemark provided only incremental updates in the past year because it wanted to "proceed cautiously in pushing this [2.0 update] out while still providing the functionality updates that users were looking for," Bergdale says.

The new app will include quick access to tickets, travel advisories and repurchasing, as well as auto renewals, options for splitting payments, and data caching for offline access to schedules, notifications and tickets.

The June 9 update for the New York Waterway app follows last week's launch of a ticketing app in the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District's South Shore Line, which travels between Indiana and Chicago. Both apps are based on Bytemark's Visually Verifiable Virtual system, or V3.

Commuters use the V3 apps to obtain interactive animated digital tickets that are displayed on their phone screens. The colors and the animation pattern vary by train, bus or ferry, time of day and type of ticket.

Bytemark favors this type of ticket because bar codes and Near Field Communication systems would not operate as well on the ferries. The company is contemplating other options, such as Bluetooth Low Energy, which might allow a conductor to confirm a ticket without the phone ever leaving the commuter's pocket.

V3 uses a complex system of back-end technology and layered security elements, but is designed to be a simple process for the end user, Bergdale says. "When the passenger shows his ticket and then taps the screen, it changes the color and animation again, and the conductor will know what to look for."

By confirming the different colors and patterns, the conductor can confirm the ticket is "a valid interactive ticket" and not just a screenshot or video clip on a phone. However, Bytemark's technology is agnostic to other systems and can integrate with those using bar codes or NFC.

Mobile ticketing will be a "really good gateway" for mobile phones and payments in the coming years, says Aleia Van Dyke, payments analyst with Javelin Strategy and Research. "It really is a simpler way to get a ticket than trying to get one at a train station or on the train itself."

As with any new technology, consumers will determine if they like it as much as the software developers, Van Dyke says. "Will people change their habits, or stick with the process they know and something more set in stone?"

After downloading the app and setting up an account, commuters can link a debit or credit card, including a transit benefit card. Users select their destination and a ticket option, the number of rides, and add the ticket to a shopping cart for purchase.

The app lets users store tickets on the device or in the cloud. Bytemark recommends storing tickets on the device in case cellular service is somehow not working at a given time. The commuter "activates" the ticket just before boarding a train, bus or ferry.

Bytemark has approached Chicago's CTA and Metra transportation systems about future use of V3. The CTA recently converted its system to the contactless Ventra Card, a system set up through Cubic Transportation.

In addition to Cubic and its operations in Chicago and parts of California, Masabi Ltd. this year began providing mobile ticketing for rail lines on New York's MTA. 

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