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Apple Pay Express Transit Coming to America with HOP and Ventra

The October 2016 launch of Apple Pay Suica in Japan was an important one with several ‘firsts’: FeliCa was the first non-EMV contactless payment NFC technology on the Apple Pay platform, the first appearance of Express Transit cards that worked without Touch ID/Face ID and supported the full feature set (commuter passes, etc.) of regular plastic smartcards. The success of Suica on Apple Pay remains the fullest expression and gold standard of what a transit smartcard on mobile can be, with transit, e-money, lightning fast performance and Apple Map integration rolled into one.

Express Transit arrived in Beijing and Shanghai in 2017 with the iOS 11.3 addition of PBOC payment technology to Apple Pay, but the cards remain in perpetual beta (more China transit cards were on tap for iOS 11.4 but pulled), are not yet interoperable in other transit areas, require a China UnionPay debit card for recharge instead of any Apple Pay card, and cannot be used for e-money purchases.

iOS 12 added MIFARE support which is the technology used for contactless Student ID cards that launched last September. Student ID cards are basically Express Transit cards called ‘Express Mode’, without transit that open door locks and come with e-money services. The arrival of MIFARE in iOS 12 was an indication that other card services would come to Apple Pay.

The addition of Portland HOP (Coming Soon says Apple, TriMet says summer) and Chicago Ventra (coming later this year) marks the first time iPhone users in America have the opportunity to use Apple Pay Express Transit en masse. Even snotty TfL users don’t have that and it looks like they never will. iPhone users can already use EMV contactless Apple Pay credit/debit cards for transit in Portland and Chicago so why did Tim Cook go out of his way to mention them at the Apple Special Event on March 25? It’s the Express Transit card thing, best captured by Suica on Apple Watch in this tweet:

Express Transit vs EMV Contactless

Using Apple Pay Suica in Japan for instant transit and store purchases nationwide without using Face ID/Touch ID spoils a person for using anything else in Wallet. I use Apple Pay credit cards to add money to Suica and little else. In Japan there are entire ad campaigns built around Express Transit:

With Apple Pay Express Cards on Apple Watch you can do this too, this is how you sell Apple Watch in Japan

I spent last summer in Salt Lake City learning just how slow and bumpy the average Apple Pay EMV contactless credit card American experience is. Checkout terminal infrastructure is creaky with poorly marked tiny NFC hit areas with little or no user feedback. Invariably I heard, “try it again” or the ultimate punchline, “You’re holding it wrong.” No wonder in-app payments are bigger than Apple Pay USA. Things are rough on the system backend too: UTA unceremoniously dropped Apple Pay EMV contactless support while I was there.

Express Transit fully reproduces the user experience of plastic transit cards adding much more functionality and convenience, while doing away with small but important Apple Pay EMV stress points such as using Face ID/Touch ID and dealing with multiple Wallet cards. Chicago Ventra support offers some insight on the current state of EMV transit:

  • Get your device ready, first, for fastest entry
  • “Card clash”: touch only your desired payment method
  • Multiple credit cards: always use the same card on the same device on Ventra readers

Another downside of EMV contactless is that it’s a very dumb smartcard. EMV was created by the credit card consortium for leisurely check out at the local supermarket, not for daily commuters zipping through transit gates at rush hour. EMV transactions are always slower than a transit card with none of the functionality or benefits. The differences between transit smartcards and EMV are nicely captured on the HOP page.

Furthermore bank cards are owned by the bank, not the transit company or the customer. That means conditions for both transit company and customer to use it. Transit cards however are owned by the transit company, the prepaid balance you put in them is yours.

I’ve always questioned the purported wisdom and convenience of letting banks directly on transit fare gates. It’s a devil’s bargain as Chicago Ventra found out with their own Mastercard branded debit card experience. Predatory banks and fees will never go away. My position is that it’s a better long term business opportunity for transit companies to limit bank cards to the backend for adding money to transit cards on digital wallets, where they really shine, and focus instead on building better services tied to transit cards that benefit customers and businesses of the entire transit region, aka a transit platform business model.

Building a Future: interoperable transit cards and e-money

There is some interesting discussion regarding Express Transit vs EMV on the MacRumors site. Most people see the convenience of Express Transit without Face ID/Touch ID, some don’t. Heavy travelers in particular prefer one EMV card thing to ride transit anywhere rather than juggling different transit cards. It’s a trivial issue on digital wallets but they have a point. It is exactly a key issue explained by Egon Terplan in his article Falling in Love With the Trains of Japan: nationwide interoperable transit cards.

It took Japanese transit companies a decade to make their transit cards interoperable with each other through incremental upgrades on backend systems and IC smartcard issuance. This is much easier to achieve with digital wallets attached to cloud backends, and since most transit fare card systems in America are designed and/or operated by the same company, Cubic Transportation Systems, interoperable transit cards shouldn’t be that hard to do. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the usefulness of a HOP card that works on Chicago Ventra, NYC MTA, LA TAP, and vice versa.

This usefulness can be vastly expanded with the addition of an e-money service that frees the prepaid card balance for other uses outside of transit, a transit card version of John Hopkins J-Card or DukeCard e-money that works nationwide is a powerful thing. It is hard to explain just how powerful and transformative simple things like Apple Pay Suica Express Cards can be unless you experience them first hand. The simple ‘it just works’ success of Suica is built on layers of infrastructure where each new layer adds functions that strengthen the whole.

Now that transit cards are finally arriving on digital wallets in a big way this year, with Apple Pay delivering some of those advantages to iPhone users, here’s hoping that America can experience it and be inspired to build the same thing over time.

Looking ahead we can expect more details of the New York MTA EMV transit fare service rollout, LA Metro has said they expect Apple Pay support for the TAP fare system (EMV only?) later this year as well. Hong Kong iPhone users are fervently hoping for Smart Octopus on Apple Pay now that the Smart Octopus on Samsung Pay exclusive is apparently over. iOS 13 might be a Apple Pay Transit coming out party for many. That would be great fun.

Last but not least here are some Express Transit card tips and other things I have learned from 2 years of daily Suica use.

  • HOP and Ventra use the same MIFARE technology as Student ID cards, Express Transit device specs are the same: iPhone 6S and later, Apple Watch Series 1 and later.
  • Express Cards only work while Face ID/Touch ID is active. Express Cards stop working when Face ID/Touch ID is disabled. Be careful if you wear face masks on your commute, it’s easy to disable Face ID without realizing it with a rude surprise at the transit gate. Face mask users can mitigate this by turning off Face ID for unlocking iPhone but leave it on for Apple Pay.
  • Apple Watch with Express Cards is a great combination but in winter when wearing layers of clothes, iPhone is faster at the gate.
  • iPhone X users need to be aware of the iPhone X NFC problem which can cause endless gate errors with Express Transit. You may need Apple to replace it, never an easy thing.
  • iPhone XS/XR users can finally put the Express Cards with power reserve feature to good use, it is cool and assuring knowing that you have 5 hours of reserve power to clear the final destination gate.
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Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket Service Ends March 2020

When you purchase Shinkansen eTickets in Suica App, you’ll see a small notice at the bottom of the menu screen: Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket Service ends March 2020. Does this mean we’ll have to go back to paper tickets? Not at all.

JR East has been coy about the new cloud based eTicket service they are working on to replace the current Mobile Suica one. Originally the plan was to release a product similar to JR Central’s smartEX in April 2019.

Oops, that didn’t happen and I think we are better off for it. smartEx for all of it’s backend system hocus-pocus, isn’t that smart. The basic system is designed with manually input Transit IC card numbers (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, and all) as the center. The result is a fragile and static system that doesn’t port well. Sign up for the Express Reserve (EX Reserve) service option in Suica App and you too can experience JR Central’s oh so fugly EX system.

I don’t think JR East wants that kind of system. There are probably 2 aims: replacing the old but reliable iMode backend with a modern dynamic one that can comfortably process the full variety of regular train and Shinkansen eTickets while plugging into many different UI front-ends: Suica App, web, other transit company apps, etc. It will be properly internationalized too. The iMode backend has served us very well since 2006 but needs to go, take a look at the eTicket purchase screenshots on the Suica App page and you’ll see.

We’ll get a new eTicket service with a new name in a new version of Suica App, in English and Japanese probably, and lots more. I look forward to seeing what JR East comes up with for the big Tokyo Olympic 2020 rollout.


Yes, iPhone Carrier Subsidies in Japan are Officially Dead: New Docomo Data Plans

The writing has been on the wall for over a year now, and sluggish iPhone XR sales only confirmed the fact, that iPhone carrier subsidies in Japan which have defined the industry since 2008, were dying. Today’s Docomo announcement unveiled new plans that discard all the complexity of previous plans like ‘FOMA’, ‘Xi’ and ‘docomo with’ all of which disappear on May 31, with 2 simple choices:

  • Giga-Ho: ¥4,980 a month for 30GB
  • Giga-Lite: ¥1,980 a month for 1GB with other date tiers available, 3GB@3,980, 5GB@4,980, 7GB@5,980

Docomo customers can apply for the plans from the Docomo web site or a Docomo shop starting May 22, service starts June 1. There are many configurations and new options available, from home internet bundle discounts to new family data sharing. And it looks like tethering fees are gone. Depending on the configuration savings can be as large as 40% compared to previous plans.

At first glance customers will still need to do some homework via the online cost simulator (something that Japanese love to do), or visit the nearest Docomo shop to find the configuration that fits your needs while giving the best discount. This is just part 1 of the continuing saga of data plans without subsidies. At the end of the announcement Docomo said stay tuned for more. KDDI au and SoftBank should be announcing new plans soon, and we’ll get Docomo part 2 when the new iPhones come out this fall.

Tim Cook’s Apple Legacy

I have a secret theory that when a major biography of a major business person appears when said person is still working their career, it means their career is over. Maybe Tim will be around awhile, maybe not. But I do think Tim’s Apple legacy will show that he was a far better COO than a CEO, and that he lacked Steve’s ability to find truly great talent.

I also think that the heart of Tim Cook’s Apple legacy, his supply chain and manufacturing process prowess will be controversial. No doubt his early Apple career work was crucial to Apple’s rebirth, but it came at a price that would be paid later. The price was putting everything in the China basket instead of spreading risk for the supply chain and manufacturing, and the political risk of keeping the Chinese government happy.

When Tim Cook came to Japan in fall of 2016, BuzzFeed quoted him saying that it was his first time to Japan. Let’s look at this from 3 viewpoints.

  1. First visit to Japan as Apple CEO: Tim became Apple CEO in late 2011. He was undoubtedly busy after Steve Jobs passed away, but 5 years of not visiting an important market for Apple with many crucial iPhone part suppliers is weird.
  2. First visit to Japan in Apple career: a supply chain guru who never visits an important supply chain country that his boss visited all the time, what?
  3. First visit to Japan ever: does Tim have a problem with Japan?

Maybe BuzzFeed got the context wrong, or wrong altogether since it’s BuzzFeed, right? Whatever the reason, Steve Jobs was well know in Japan for coming here on business and pleasure. There is no doubt in my mind he made the decision to use, and perhaps even found, the shiny metal back case of the original iPod manufactured in a tiny factory in Niigata. Was that perfectly polished metal case important to the iPod manufacture process? Probably not. Was that case important to the success of iPod? Absolutely yes.

Tim Cook doesn’t have Steve’s gift of finding people and parts, but who does? It’s a rare thing. In the long run, Tim’s China obsession will be seen as his biggest flaw.

Apple Maps Expands Japan Image Collection Effort

After a small start in 2018 limited to parts of Tokyo and Chiba, Apple has greatly expanded their map data image collection efforts in Japan. It’s a much more ramped up and detailed data sweep covering both major metropolitan and surrounding rural areas in Honshu. Areas on target for image collection from April to October this year include: Greater Kanto (Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, Ibaragi, Kanagawa), Greater Tokai (Aichi/Nagoya, Mie) and Greater Kansai (Kyoto, Shiga, Osaka, Hyogo, Nara). It’s a lot of ground to cover in 6 months and I hope the Apple Maps team can keep this level of commitment for mapping the rest of Japan.

The Apple Maps reboot has yet to make any difference in Japan, even with the recent addition of indoor maps, but Apple does have a chance now that Google Maps has stumbled badly here since dropping top Japanese map supplier Zenrin. More image collection is a good start but will never be enough. I have said it before and say it again, Apple cannot up their Japan product with current 3rd rate map supplier Increment P, they need to sign Zenrin. Nobody’s artificial intelligence algorithms, not Google’s and certainly not Apple’s, can match the quality of 1,000 Zenrin ground checkers.

Region Settings and Apple Pay

If you see this when iPhone Region is not set to Japan, it means you have a Suica card in Wallet or parked on iCloud ready to add to Wallet

The iOS Region Setting and Apple Pay are linked together in interesting ways that has changed with iOS versions. Up through iOS 10, devices needed to have the Region match the country they wanted to add and use cards in: iPhone had to be set to Japan to add and use Japanese credit cards in Apple Pay, and so on.

This changed in iOS 11 with global FeliCa iPhone and NFC switching. The Region setting only needed to be changed to add a card for any particular country and had nothing to do with using it. This is because Apple Pay Wallet only displays the card options that match the Region setting and acts like a filter. The Wallet animation cycle shows what’s available:

After adding a card, the Region setting can be anything as Apple Pay ignores it and takes care of the rest. Many inbound users don’t realize this and have avoided adding Suica to Apple Pay under the misconception that the iPhone/Apple Watch Region has to be set to Japan to use it.

Wallet behavior is the same in iOS 12, even with the iOS 12.2 UI tweaks, but the Region setting can be completely ignored when adding cards to Apple Pay with an app like SuicaEng. SuicaEng simply adds Suica no matter what the iPhone Region setting is, a nice time saver because changing the iPhone Region is a mini restart.

Another small change from iOS 11 is that if you have a Suica card deleted from Wallet that is parked on iCloud, Wallet will show you the Add Suica option no matter what the iPhone Region setting is. It’s a nice touch and reminder in case you ever forgot you had one.

I hope Apple continues to streamline Apple Pay Wallet so that users don’t have to think about or deal with Region settings to add cards, where all cards options for the region you are currently in present themselves, and ‘just work’ when the user selects them.