The long goodbye

John Gruber of Daring Fireball is the poster child for former smart people who suffer from permanent Trump-era induced brain damage. DF was my get up in the morning goto site but this changed in 2017 as Gruber obsessed about Trump at the expense of doing what he was great at. And John was always a terrible political writer, the polar opposite of his Apple and tech writing.

I was hoping those poles would stay in their opposite separate positions and Gruber could still post good tech stuff. Unfortunately the Elon Musk takeover of Twitter launched him on another political tirade. Only this time the heady mix of politics and big tech reveals his limits, shamelessly stooping to the same level of ‘shadow banning’ practiced by social media operators. Instead of looking at all sides of a complex issue and asking good questions for us to think about together, he presents a one sided narrative that ignores all the other deadly stuff going on. Simply because he doesn’t like it.

It was apparent to me in early 2019 that Twitter was deeply dysfunctional and shadow banning all the people they didn’t like, especially in Japan. In COVID zero year 2020 everything went insane, science and medical debate was tossed out the window. Even as things seemed to cool down in the post-Trump era, over time the deadly stuff slowly started to surface. Then Elon finally bought Twitter after a long drawn out buyout drama with Gruber covering it at his gloating childish ‘Elon’s gonna lose big time’ worst. As Elon started cleaning the Twitter house as promised, Gruber gloated more about the end of Twitter and moving on to Mastodon.

Maybe Twitter will die. It’s been on life support since at least 2019. At this point I don’t really care but do hope Elon and company make a go of it. But Gruber completely ignoring the Matt Taibbi Twitter Files exposé in his Twitter death dance DF posts speaks volumes about where he is. And there is Dave Rubin’s recent visit to Twitter HQ. I’m not a Rubin fan but Elon calling Twitter “a Fractal Rube Goldberg Machine,” succinctly captures what I’ve been feeling these past few years.

The Twitter machine is baling wire and bubble gum with the ghosts of Yoel Roth and company baked into the AI code. It’s bad design by design, which is why all those people were needed to keep it running. You could also call it job security.

You could also call it supposedly smart people doing stupid things. Get used to it, there’s a lot going around.

State of Suica 2023

It’s time to take a look at Suica and Japanese transit ticketing developments expected for 2023. The Suica transit platform and Transit IC partners will introduce some big and important new service in 2023 that will play out over the next few years. Some like Cloud Suica, were due years ago. Some, like Mobile ICOCA should have been done years ago. And some are a response to COVID which is the inflection point that has changed Japanese transit forever. There is no going back to the transit world that was 2019 due to, mostly imagined, fear. Once fear takes hold in society, it becomes a mindset and mindsets are very hard to change.

There is also the cashless factor. COVID kicked the Japanese cashless migration into high gear, but this smashing success hasn’t made life any easier in the checkout line, no thanks to QR Code payment apps like PayPay and dPoint, with people taking longer to pay than even before as they dig around for coupons and discounts codes in smartphone apps. These code payments apps also changed the consumer mindset: they don’t want plain old points, they want points that work like cash, everywhere and instantaneous, instead of being stuck in point ghettos like JRE POINT. This is exactly what the PayPay and Rakuten point economic zones deliver.

The biggest COVID business casualty has been transit, with profitable commuter passes taking the biggest hit as companies transitioned to working from home and Zoom conferences whenever possible. And while people are using transit more since mid 2022, it has not recovered enough to stabilize transit company bottom lines. It’s a tough environment with companies trying to entice people, especially workers, to ride again with transit point perks and off-peak commuter discounts.

Private (non-JR) transit companies in particular are looking to offer more flexible fare options beyond what transit IC card systems currently offer. This is created a huge opening for the SMBC group stera transit open loop system: an off the shelf package ticketing system that combines transit gate reader hardware and cloud system from QUADRAC hooked into the SMBC stera payment platform. The SMBC stera transit marketing team is hard selling flexible fares such as fare capping and open loop appeal for inbound tourism.

It’s clear that JR Group and Transit IC association partners have to innovate and change to reduce costs while keeping the great convenience and benefits of the Suica transit payment platform. However as Steve Jobs once said about focus, focus is about saying no. You can either focus on making one service work great on your platform or just okay when you’re spreading limited resources too thin on supporting too many services. Do Japanese transit companies want better Transit IC for everybody or mediocre ticketing potpourri as money and engineering resources are diverted to bolting on open loop for a limited user base?

With all that in mind, let’s examine the 2023 launch slate.

January
ID-PORT based Suica Smart Lock service launches in JRE B4T business hotel chain. ID-PORT is cloud super glue linking an ID with Suica for specific time-limited or region-limited based services. Think of it as a kind of virtual key that unlocks access to places and services: hotel checkin, room access, location or age linked transit services, discounts and so on.

While it’s good that Suica and Transit IC cards can offer features and services attached to the card number, the current reality is that each service comes with a separate app, separate registration process and ID/PW login. There isn’t a single sign-in service, a JR East version of Sign in with Apple ID, for easy service registration and linking. Smartphone users are already drowning in apps, I don’t see most people using the growing tangle of services unless there is an easy to use and secure single sign-in service and streamlined UI.

February
Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate MegoIC card launches for Konan Bus lines operating in the Aomori Hirosaki region expanding Tohoku Suica coverage, Iwate Green Pass also extended service to more bus lines. More on Suica 2 in 1 further on.

March
March and April are traditionally busy months with new schools, new jobs, buying new commuter passes that go with them, and launching new services.

1) Mobile ICOCA is due to launch for the JR West ICOCA system that covers their entire rail system. Mobile ICOCA will be hosted in similar fashion to Mobile PASMO which is based on Mobile Suica assets and cloud infrastructure. Osaifu Keitai is expected to launch first followed by iPhone. This is a big development. JR West is building their ICOCA system expansion in a different way than Cloud Suica by using separate ICOCA tap in/out readers on local trains and stripped down, simple ICOCA (no commuter pass support) for connecting transit affiliates. One interesting trend is the decline of PiTaPa card users since Kansai area private rail companies started offering ICOCA commuter passes (see the chart at the bottom of the post).

2) Off Peak Suica Commuter Pass
COVID has made it clear that the old style ‘station to station’ commuter pass is outdated and won’t bring business users back. All transit companies have to come up with new flexible commute plans that work for different work commute styles.

After dicking around with confusing and convoluted off peak transit JRE POINT service campaign for 2 years amid a COVID induced commuter pass crisis, JR East is trying again: the confusing ‘Off Peak Commutes Pass’. Available for Suica cards and Mobile Suica, these new passes offer a 10% discount over regular commuter passes that are rising 1.4% with the condition: they must be used outside of the designated start station peak rush time. If you enter the transit gate during the peak rush time, bam, your Suica transit is charged the standard fare. No commute plan for you.

While this is a welcome development it doesn’t far enough. Flexible fare distance capped commute plans that are not tied to specific stations would be a much better deal for occasional business users. For example it would be great for sales people if there were commute plans that combined a selection of fixed distance zones (10 km, 20 km, 50 km, etc) with a selection of fixed trips (10, 20, 30 trips, etc.).

This isn’t a technology or system problem, it’s a business model mind-set problem. JR East has the Suica system in place to take mobile ticketing to the next level. It’s time that the JR Group lead the way for all transit companies to cooperate for a seamless national mobile transit solution.

3) Disability fare Suica/PASMO service starts in the following regions

  • Tokyo area Suica/PASMO
  • Tohoku Suica (from May 27)
  • Sendai Suica (with the odeca region joining in July)
  • Niigata Suica

The challenge of disability fare Suica/PASMO/Transit IC is that while the card is issued by the transit operator, the disability Suica card has to be certified using the resident city issued disability ID. This authorization is why disability Suica/PASMO is limited to plastic cards for the time being, at least until Digital My Number Card is launched on Android and iPhone. Why is disability fare Suica important? Up until now Suica has been a ‘stored Fare is stored fare’ one size fits all card. Suica has to evolve to include different fare types and services to survive as a viable transit payment platform.

4) Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO Commute Plans for High/Jr. High School Students
Another push away from plastic to mobile with a streamlined app process for student commuter pass certification with updated Suica and PASMO apps. Hopefully a more streamlined mobile app certification process for student passes points the way forward for disability fare issue Mobile Suica/PASMO as well. Local governments need to help make this happen.

May
Another big one, the Cloud Suica launch that powers the Tohoku region Suica extensions: Aomoi (10 stations), Morioka (18 stations), Akita (17 stations). As outlined the separate posts, Cloud Suica is best thought of as Suica 2.0. The card is the same but the reader side and processing system is completely new. Ideally Suica 2.0 offers the best matchup of local stored fare with internet cloud based transaction processing instead of expensive dedicated pipes to the data processing center.

Lower system costs is one objective but not the only important one. Suica 2.0 will also power the new QR Eki-Net Ticket service that launches in the very same Tohoku Suica region in late FY 2024 (October 2024~March 2025). We’ll found out how flexible Suica 2.0 is if JR East starts offering much more fare innovation.

It’s important to reexamine the role of Suica 2 in 1 here. We have two new Suica developments that converge in the Tohoku region: we have the Suica 2 in 1 card itself, new updated FeliCa card and OS with new Suica architecture, and we have Cloud Suica. In other words we have a Suica 2.0 card coupled with the Suica 2.0 processing system.

July
1) Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate odeca card joins the system, the first established transit card updating to the 2 in 1 format. All 2 in 1 cards to date have been new cards. The next established non-Suica compatible transit card transitioning to Suica 2 in 1 is Nagano City Kururu card in 2025.

2) Open loop stera transit comes to Tokyo in a big way as Tokyu Railway starts tests. If it’s anything like the gradual Nankai open loop tests, a few important stations will have a few gates retrofitted with open look EMV contactless and closed loop QR Code readers. They will also surely offer a smartphone app for QR ticket purchase and display. One interesting aspect of the Tokyu Railway effort is that Tokyu were responsible for pushing, and paying for, Mobile PASMO. It would not have happened otherwise.

The rest of 2023
There will certainly be more services announced and launched in the 2nd half of the year such as Apple Pay ICOCA and more open loop test installations.

Coming in 2024
We have Suica linked financial services coming with JRE BANK (rebranded Rakuten Bank cloud infrastructure), Yamagata region Suica extensions (21 stations) and unspecified Sendai Suica region extensions that will pretty much complete the installation of Suica on the entire JR East rail network. And of course QR Eki-Net Tickets which build on all the Cloud Suica infrastructure rolling out this year.

As always I will update this overview post as new services are announced with links to individual posts.

Note the decline of PiTaPA (chart based on data from rail-card.com)

Apple Watch Family Sharing Suica

There’s a very interesting section at the in the Apple Platform Security May 2022 document in the section covering transit and eMoney cards.

Adding transit and eMoney cards to a family member’s Apple Watch
In iOS 15 and watchOS 8, the organizer of an iCloud family can add transit and eMoney cards to their family members’ Apple Watch devices through their iPhone’s Watch app. When provisioning one of these cards to a family member’s Apple Watch, the watch is required to be nearby and connected to the organizer’s iPhone using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Family members are required to have two-factor authentication enabled for their Apple ID for this to occur. Family members can send a request to add money to a transit or eMoney card from their Apple Watch using iMessage. The content of the message is protected by end-to-end encryption, as described in iMessage security overview. Adding money to a card on a family member’s Apple Watch can be done remotely using a Wi-Fi or cellular connection. Proximity isn’t required.

Apple Platform Security May 2022 (p. 152)

Adding money, remote recharge, is a very handy function for stored value cards in a family setting, especially now that Apple Pay Suica • PASMO will support high school and junior high school school commuter passes from March 18. Commuter passes (commute plans) are purchased in Suica or PASMO app and new versions are coming that support student ID certification. The student takes a picture of their school ID card in the app and uploads it along with a requested commute route. They can use student commuter passes on iPhone or Apple Watch, which is the only wearable option for Mobile Suica • PASMO. All other wearables, including Pixel Watch Suica, do not support commute plans, only regular Suica.

After the student ID is certified they purchase the commute plan. Here is where it gets interesting. If the student does not have a credit card, they can purchase it via the new ‘one time purchase’ option with a parent’s card. Most Tokyo high schoolers already seems to have a Mobile Suica or PASMO, but now that they don’t need the plastic card for going to school, they can buy a commute plan and toss the plastic. That means the Tokyo area HS set will finally be 100% mobile for payments and transit.

But what about the JHS set, especially the younger ones who might not have payments cards? This is where Apple Watch Family Sharing Suica via iMessage comes in handy:

“Hey ma, I need recharge!”
“I just gave you ¥5,000.”
“But that was Tuesday and I have to eat before going to the Juku, can’t study when I’m hungry”

Bing! The possibilities are endless.


The ¥10 barrier-free station tax

The railway station barrier-free fee system is “a Japanese railway fare system established with the aim of promoting barrier-free railway stations in urban areas” by leveraging a fee on urban railway users. A barrier-free station tax, if you will.

From 2023-03-18 most railway companies in Japan, both JR Group and non-JR, will be raising transit fares in urban areas to pay this barrier-free station tax. Here is the breakdown for the Greater Tokyo area focusing on JR East.

Suica
In the JR East designated barrier-free tax zone there is a ¥10 fare increase for paper tickets and regular Suica/Transit IC cards. Suica Commute Plan increases within the same tax zone are listed below. The overall average fare increase is 1.4%.

While barrier-free stations are good thing and not a big tax to pay for all that new infrastucture, the timing is bad. With living costs rising across the board, these little increases add up. To help ease the pain, JR East is offering Off-Peak Suica Commuter Passes (plastic)/Commute Plans (Mobile Suica), that offer a 10% discount with the following condition: Off-Peak passes can only be used outside the designated peak time of the commute plan entry station, otherwise your Suica will be charged at the regular IC fare rate. Suica Off-Peak Commuter Passes basically replace the convoluted Suica Off-Peak JRE POINT Campaign that ends March 31.

Apple Pay Suica users will be able to buy Off-Peak commute plans in an upcoming version of Suica App (v5.2.1), but you must purchase a new pass. Regular commute plans can only be renewed as regular commute plans, they cannot be migrated to off-peak plans. School commute plans and passes will not be charged the barrier-free tax which is good news. Another bonus: high school and jr. high school students can add and use Mobile Suica school commute plans staring March 18.

PASMO
The situation for PASMO private rail and other non-JR East rail operators is varied. Keio and Toei Subway have not announced fare increases while Seibu, Tokyu, Tobu, Sotetsu, Odakyu, Tokyo Metro are all raising fares and commuter passes similar to JR East but there are differences. And there are no off-peak commuter passes. Be sure to check how fare increases apply to your commute situation.

I will update the Apple Pay Suica • PASMO Commute Plan Guide with Suica Off-Peak commute plan options in early February.

Mobile payments don’t solve the wallet mess, they only make it worse

Way back when Tim Cook first unveiled Apple Pay, the main sales point was the convenience of doing away with messy wallets. My mom’s wallet for example was always stuffed full of credit cards, point cards and the latest store discount coupons clipped out of newspapers and flyers. The promise of Apple Pay was, “look ma, no more messy wallet.” Except it didn’t work out that way.

The rise of code payment point economic zone like PayPay, dPoint and Rakuten Point has resulted in mobile payments that take longer than mom’s messy wallet ever did. I was reminded of this recently getting lunch at Doutor Coffee. A youngish woman paying in front of me wasn’t really paying. With smartphone flat on the counter, lavishly nailed fingers leisurely tapped away for 5 full minutes as she completely ignored the cashier waiting to read the QR code, everybody else waiting in line be damned. Instead of getting read to pay she was signing up for some pissy small payment app discount coupon. And when that was done she finally paid with a QR code for a cup of hot cocoa, face full of discontent. Or maybe that was her normal character.

You see that kind of checkout line behavior everywhere in Japan these days: half losing oneself digging around in an app to find a coupon or campaign special, half ‘screw you’ that often skirts on taking pleasure from somebody else’s pain. People literally loose themselves in the moment.

Who’s to blame for this state of affairs? QR Code payment apps that offer all kinds of coupons certainly deserve some of the blame, along with crappy in-store wifi, or lack thereof. Apple Pay deserves some blame too. Let’s face it, Apple Value Added Service (VAS) NFC protocol has been abysmal failure in the Japan market despite dPOINT and PONTA support. And who’s the biggest culprit of all? All of us of course…all of us who actually believed that technology could fix human behavior. In short this issue isn’t going to be fixed. All we can do is remember to chill, pay attention to our surroundings and be polite in the checkout line.