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.

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Origami Pay folds into merpay

The overheated Japanese payments market kicked into consolidation mode with the Line Pay Pay Pay merger announcement last November. The next consolidation was announced today with the Origami Pay startup folding into the the merpay startup. The deal is expected to close by February 25. Now that a market shakeup is in full swing I think we can expect mergers for other smaller players like kyash before the Tokyo Olympics.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of the merger of the QR Code Origami and NFC Apple Pay merpay. Perhaps we might end up with a flexible frontend solution like the recently released Toyota Wallet which combines both approaches. And it seems that the arrival of Toyota Wallet was a big factor that pushed the market into the consolidation cycle we are now witnessing. I just hope the backend is flexible too and not chained to a single banking empire. We shall see.

Location aware Apple Pay Suica fixes the region setting problem

Changing the iPhone region to add Apple Pay Suica confuses a lot of users. Many are not familiar with region settings and what they do, and it’s far too easy to think that a Japan region setting is a requirement to use Apple Pay Suica, which is not the case. When it comes to iOS 13 Apple Pay and NFC switching, the region is a simple filter so that user only sees Apple Pay card options for a given region, not the whole Apple Pay world. In this situation region setting becomes a stumbling block, most inbound iPhone users are probably not even aware that they can add and use a deeply useful Japanese contactless digital transit card with a few finger flicks.

This is a problem because the current iOS Region preference setting mixes 2 different job functions. Twitter user Zetton neatly explained the issue: the iOS Region setting defines the cultural space the user lives in and how iPhone treats some data, but Apple Pay uses regions in a different way to show available location options. It is this user cultural space vs current location option dichotomy force fitted into a single region setting, that confuses users. This is why JR East created the one time use SuicaEng app that completely dispenses with region settings for adding Suica to Apple Pay. iOS 13 rolled direct Suica card creation into Wallet, look ma no apps, but the ‘change region setting to Japan’ to add Suica downside was still there. Until now.

There are signs that Apple is working around the region problem by presenting location aware ‘add Suica’ Wallet notifications. It’s not universal and impossible to test if you already have Suica, but it seems the separate ‘add Suica’ option also appears in Wallet based on user location in Japan, regardless of region setting.

I suspect the add Apple Pay Suica location prompt is a backend feature in testing phase. It’s a smart move because Apple Pay Suica on global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch is going to be the best way for inbound visitors to get around town during the Tokyo Olympic games this summer and Google Pay Suica is still not available for inbound Android users. Ditto the recently announced Android only Mobile PASMO. Apple has a golden marketing opportunity in Japan that won’t happen again, they should make the best of it.

The Mobile PASMO announcement

Mobile PASMO was announced for Osaifu Keitai compatible Android devices running Android 6 or later, the service due to start in late March. There was speculation the service would launch at some point when the Mobile PASMO name was registered in late 2017. Here are a few quick observations based on the sparse announcement details.

  • Service is limited to the Mobile PASMO Osaifu Keitai Android app with a limited credit/debit card backend. Think Suica App without Google Pay or Apple Pay integration. You can register a single card for recharge hosted by the Mobile PASMO backend but users cannot mix and match cards like you can with Apple and Google digital wallets and Mobile Suica.
  • This announcement is cutting things awfully close for a March debut of a major service with a squishy start date and no user device profile due until just before launch. Japanese companies usually announce ‘coming this spring’ services 3~4 months in advance. This suggests testing is not very far along and not all PASMO rail operators are integrated for Mobile PASMO commute passes at launch. Long story short: we won’t see Google Pay or Apple Pay integration for a while, local Japanese reports are confirming this already.
  • Suica and PASMO systems are already cross integrated for auto recharge and commute passes at the transit gate and station kiosk level, we also have the next generation Suica format coming one year from now in early 2021. Reducing support costs for commute pass purchase and renewals by moving them online are a key target for both systems, growing integration of Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO is a given.

Summary and Update
Mobile PASMO is a classic Osaifu Keitai app similar to 2011 era Mobile Suica before Apple Pay and Google Pay integration. That level of integration will require more backend cloud support and qualification but this won’t come easy for PASMO by itself: unlike Suica which is run by JR East, PASMO is an association of large and small private rail operators, only a few of whom have deep pockets and IT resources. The real question is how much JR East Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO will cooperate to deploy Mobile Suica resources and deep expertise to integrate the many different PASMO players and expand services for all. FeliCa Dude sums it up best in his essential Reddit post: Mobile PASMO – something we shouldn’t need.

In Praise of Disappearing Japan, served on pizza toast

Pizza toast and Neapolitan spaghetti made with ketchup are Kissaten staples, don’t forget the Tabasco

Alan Booth’s The Roads to Sata created a modern English language book genre, Disappearing Japan. It’s an endangered species that has been disappearing for decades, aka “the real Japan.” Whatever that is.

I read Roads to Sata long ago and liked it, but that was before I had experiences to compare, i.e. a frame of reference. Later on after many adventures working summer mountain lodges in the Southern Alps I read Booth’s companion book Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan and liked it, much less. Travel books and writing are like travel companions, most of them drive you crazy, only a rare few make truly good life long companions. After 30 years in Japan I don’t care to travel with Alan Booth anymore or emulate his gimmicky patchwork style that mixed evocative narrative hooks with black comedy, embarrassingly wrong cultural “insights” and a decidedly narcissistic take of Japanese history that cleverly camouflages good old western style cultural snobbery as ‘outsider viewpoint’.

The Alan Booth Japan travel writing style is alive and well in Craig Mod’s I Walked 600 Miles Across Japan for Pizza Toast, it shares the same kitschy patchwork walkabout formula explaining Showa era Kissaten culture. It’s not my cup of coffee but it’s a fun informative read for people who don’t know Japan or haven’t lived here long. Brushing past a few embarrassingly bad ‘hooks’ like the Pachinco mamas leaving infants in the car parking lot reference, old timers probably see a different narrative lurking in discarded details like the abandoned but unexplained karaoke parlor coin laundry picture, a quirky Gifu sight familiar to anybody who knows that area and history.

Kissaten culture will not disappear. I like pizza toast, blend coffee, neapolitan ketchup spaghetti, green cream soda with a glow in the dark maraschino cherry, oshibori and nice clean glass ashtrays. Lots of people do and the growing number of older people in Japan with lots of time to kill need places to go. I remain hopeful that visitors to Japan will venture out of overpriced Starbucks and discover the joys of classic Japanese Kissaten.