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QR Code Transit on Hong Kong MTR starts January 23 (Updated)

After a very long preparation period QR Code transit on Hong Kong MTR finally starts on Saturday, January 23. The MTR Fan FaceBook page:

Only TWO WEEKS left before the launch of QR code payment on 23 January! For this new service, we have installed about 1,000 QR code scanners at stations and conducted a series of system and on-site tests. Prominent purple signage will also be on display to help passengers identify the gates providing the new service.

This is the debut of MTR ‘open-loop’ ticketing. Up until now MTR used the ubiquitous Octopus card, the trail blazing transit card that showed the world what smartcard ticketing can do when extended beyond transit to include eMoney payments, transforming a transit card into a transit payment platform. Unlike Japan however Octopus Card Limited (OCL) was late bringing Octopus to mobile. Part of the problem was that Hong Kong mobile carriers never had an Osaifu Keitai-like standard that bridged the Symbian and Android hardware eras. OCL also wasted time with SIM card mobile support before finally launching the mobile Smart Octopus service first on Samsung Pay in late 2018, followed by Apple Pay Octopus in June 2020 and Huawei Pay Octopus in December 2020.

But MTR still faces a problem that most Android devices don’t support FeliCa even though NFC-F is supported across all NFC capable devices. It’s the global NFC dilemma best illustrated in the Google Pay on Google Pixel situation: Mobile FeliCa is installed on all Pixel devices but Google only turns it on for Pixel models sold in Japan. There are many takes on the reasons why. My take is that Google doesn’t want to do the all the global NFC OS level support work that benefits all Android manufacturers. Google’s stance is, ‘don’t ask us, roll your own embedded Secure Element (eSE) solution.’ And so it’s a race of how many ‘Octopus on XX Pay’ digital wallet platforms OCL can line up for Android and wearables.

For MTR, QR Code open loop transit sidesteps this Android hardware mess, but will it be a success when users have to open a smartphone app with a face mask on at every gate? Apple Pay Octopus on Apple Watch sure beats that problem and then some. Long term I think NFC wearables and UWB Touchless will be the QR killer. Time will tell.

AliPay HK is the first payment provider, others QR players will be added as they are qualified. The transit gate layout is interesting, QR is limited to purple colored gate lanes shown in a nifty MTR video. This is similar to what JR East will do when they phase out mag strip paper ticketing and replace it QR Code paper tickets. It’s also the layout that Nankai will do when they implement VISA Touch after testing it this year.

The next MTR open loop addition is expected to be EMV+PBOC China T-Union compatibility though MTR has not announced when that will happen. OCL already committed to a new Octopus card that will be compatible with China T-Union.

UPDATE

AliPay mainland accounts can also be used for Hong Kong MTR QR transit.

JR companies move Transit IC goalposts for easier cross region commuting

Traffic News photo of JR Central Numazu Station plastered with ‘TOICA cards cannot travel beyond Atami in the Suica region’ warning signs

One glaring weakness of Japanese Transit IC cards is the 200 km fare region wall. There’s a Japanese word for it, ‘matagari’ which means dismount…as in dismount and pay full fare in cash at the gate. Suica for example only works for transit in the Suica/PASMO region, users cannot travel across 2 different regions. This means Suica users traveling into the JR Central TOICA area or vice versa have 2 choices: (1) paper tickets for the whole trip, (2) buy a paper exit ticket with Suica at the exit gate fare adjustment kiosk.

This is very inconvenient for Shinkansen commuters who live in the Numazu~Mishima JR Central region and commute into the Suica/PASMO Tokyo region. Suica and TOICA commuter passes are worthless, old fashioned mag strip commuter passes are the only option. A similar situation exists for cross region commuters in the TOICA~ICOCA regions. Fortunately the JR Group companies (JR East, JR Central, JR West) have worked to ease this problem and have new commuter pass operating rules starting March 13. I posted about it earlier, but it’s worth explaining again and covering the limitations.

Moving Transit Region Goalposts
Basically the JR Group companies are moving transit region commute pass goalposts slightly inside their respective regions. This is not difficult to do as commuter passes are simply commute plans attached to a transit card with an ID number. For Suica users the new rules mean Suica commuter passes work beyond Atami, all the way to Numazu, and Toica commuter passes work though Odawara.

Shinkansen commuters gain the most benefit and the new rules are designed to open up transfer stations to Transit IC cards. Suica FREX commuter passes cover local Numazu to Mishima transit→Shinkansen to Shinagawa/Tokyo transit→local transit in the Suica/PASMO area. Toica and ICOCA commuters have similar benefits. Regular commute pass users also gain the ability to ride the Tokkaido Shinkansen area covering Tokyo~Shin Iwakuni for ticketless non-reserve seating, similar to JR East ticketless Touch and Go Shinkansen.

There are still many limitations: (1) plastic cards only: no Mobile Suica/Apple Pay Suica support because ICOCA and Toica are not on mobile yet, (2) regular non-commute pass transit not included: this still operates under the current region limitations.

These changes are baby steps. I hope the limitations gradually disappear after the next generation Suica card architecture is in place and shared by all Mutual Use Transit IC Association members with the major players on mobile. These are challenging times for public transit all around the world, Japanese transit companies need to hurry up and seriously cooperate.

UPDATE

There’s a new gate being installed at Atami station with a different color. Rumors are flying that this might be a Toica gate that accommodates interchange between Toica and Suica regions for regular (non-commuter pass) transit.


JR East station entrance tickets go ticketless
In a separate service announcement also starting March 13, JR East stations will accept Suica/Transit IC cards, Apple Pay Suica included, for non-transit station entrance ticketing. These cost ¥140 (Kanto district station malls)~¥150 (everywhere else), are good for 2 hours, and cover all Suica gated stations (flap gate stations).

The origin of station entrance tickets was for tearful platform farewells seen in old classic movies, but in this era it’s all about enticing people to shop and use facilities in station malls. Ticketless is nice but I wish JR East had also figured out a way to waive the fee with Suica purchases over a certain amount, kinda like free parking vouchers. That would be the ultimate station mall shopping motivation.

A Japanese font design legacy restored: Morisawa and Shaken agree to co-develop the Shaken font library for OpenType

Today is great day for Japanese typography: Morisawa and Shaken announced they will co-develop the Shaken font library for OpenType, due for release in 2024 in celebration of the Japanese typesetter they created 100 years ago. The founders of Morisawa (Nobuo Morisawa) and Shaken (Mokichi Ishii) co-created the first modern Japanese typesetter in 1924 but quickly became 2 different family companies. By the late 1970’s Shaken had grown to be the dominate force of the Japanese pre-press market with the largest and most sought after font library. In the 1980’s it started to unravel.

Shaken never made the transition to digital pre-press and PostScript fonts, which Morisawa did with its very profitable licensing agreement with Adobe. When Shaken announced OpenType fonts at the 2011 International eBook Expo, they were a has-been company run into the ground by sheer greed. They never delivered on that promise. As one former Shaken font engineer told me, there was no font engineer talent left in the company to do the job of re-creating the proprietary digital format library into OpenType.

Now that Shaken is finally free of the founder family, since 2018, they are cutting a deal with Morisawa who have the necessary talent and font engineering expertise to bring the Shaken font library into the digital era. They even have Jiyukobo, creators of the Hiragino Japanese system fonts used in macOS and iOS, which Morisawa bought in 2019. An interesting side story: Apple negotiated with Shaken to purchase their library shortly after Steve Jobs returned but it never came to be, Jeff Martin should be proud of today’s announcement.

It’s hard to emphasize how important this development is. Imagine the LinoType library, or everyday standards like Helvetica, New York, etc. were never licensed as digital fonts…until now. I doubt the first release will encompass OpenType Variable Fonts due to cost and time restraints. Morisawa has yet to release anything in that format so far.

The co-developer team will also have to prioritize and edit as the Shaken library is huge and only a small subset ever made it onto proprietary Shaken digital typesetters. There are huge glyph variation and feature holes to fill. Just getting a simplified basic Shaken library in OpenType format will be a tremendous job.

The 2024 delivery date is important in more ways than the 100th anniversary of Japanese typesetting. With Shaken selling off everything they can over the past 2 years, 2024 is when the last Shaken digital typesetters go out of service. Shaken will stop pretending to be a font developer, cut loose their last remaining 100 customers and live on as a real estate holding company. Morisawa is the only listed contact on the co-development announcement, they will eventually buy out the Shaken library.

But that’s a story for another day. Today is a celebration. After almost 100 years of separation, 2 halves of a whole are coming together again. In Requiem for Shaken I wrote, “When the last person turns out the lights at Shaken KK, I hope they open the vaults and set the Shaken font library free. Only by taking flight and having a life of its own can it ever hope to live on in the hearts and imaginations of future Japanese designers.” Japanese designers finally have their font legacy back.


Shaken’s last hurrah font announcement in 2011 never panned out
Shaken’s 2011 OpenType font announcement listed Ishii Mincho and Ishii Gothic, these will likely be the first candidates for release in 2024 from Morisawa. A fuller list of classic Shaken font samples here. Shaken fonts were widely used by manga printers in the 70’s and 80’s and permeated the print culture of the era.
The old Shaken Saitama factory site was demolished for a supermarket mall in 2020

Reference posts and background:
Requiem for Shaken
TrueType GX Model Lives On in OpenType Variable Fonts
The Hiragino macOS Japanese system font story
Apple’s Once and Future Japanese Variable System Font
The Second Wave of Japanese Desktop Publishing

ICOCA Widens Transit Footprint

One glaring weakness of the Japan Transit IC system is that it’s not universal even on the very rail networks that built the system. Suica for example is mostly absent in stations outside of Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai metro regions, roughly half of JR East stations. It comes down to cost: hard wiring every station is expensive. This cost problem is one that JR East plans to address by rolling out a cloud based low cost ‘simple Suica’ for all stations. They already missed a 2020 deadline and need to deliver on their promise if Suica is remain a viable payments competitor in the hyper competitive Japanese market.

JR West meanwhile is busy expanding ICOCA coverage on the their rail network with Fukuchiyama and Kisei line additions going into operation March 13, 2021. JR West also added ICOCA connecting commuter passes for Osaka Metro in December, the kind of arrangement that Suica and PASMO have had in place for years. It makes sense for JR West to expand now in preparation for the Mobile ICOCA launch in 2023.

The Kisei line is somewhat unique in that smaller stations are unmanned and local trains are one man operations with passengers getting off at the front for ticket verification. ICOCA readers are located at car exit points, passengers tap out similar to using a bus. This kind of operation would fit well on similar ‘one man’ operations like the JR Central Minobu line which are still limited to paper tickets.

Pets and Pistols

In our era of unending overheated news cycles I take comfort in the cold dispassionate analytic Japanese cultural characteristic. Its helpful not only for keeping a level head but also making interesting connections between seemingly unrelated things.

For example different cultural responses to the COVID crisis: in Japan people went out and bought pets, in America people went out and bought guns. Japanese like making those kinds of comparisons that seem to come out of left field, but for me provide ‘think outside the box’ context sorely missing in public discourse these days. And again when Bloomberg ran a piece titled “Buddhist Monks Are Snapping Up ESG Bonds in Japan,” that wasn’t getting any traction in the Japanese news space.

As a Buddhist priest (monks live monastic lives outside of society, priests do not) it stuck me as odd that a Rinzai Zen temple would advertise investing in ESG bonds as future proofing the temple instead of working to get younger people involved in temple activities. The Bloomberg piece also reads like stealth marketing, if Zen temples and the Vatican are investing in ESG bonds it must be good…right?

I asked a Japanese trader friend about it and he set me straight without blinking an eye, “With this coming out on Bloomberg just when the Dali Lama and Greta Thunberg are hooking up online to discuss environmental issues, it sounds like investment funds and players are gearing up to make a lot of mischief. The only difference is that they used to be better at hiding this kind of nonsense and now they suck.” Bingo…helpful context to divine where things are going. There is also online discussion of a COVID-19 ‘vaccination mafia’, but that’s another subject for another day.