There is a funny story from the 2005 President Bush visit to Japan. The Bush staff freaked out when they rode the Tokyo trains and saw that most of the Japanese had eyes glued to their feature phones. Why do that when a feature phone was only for making calls? Japanese i-mode feature phones had internet, email, good cameras, FeliCa NFC and i-mode web content, but it wasn’t until the iPhone debut two years later that Americans finally ‘got it’.
That was the golden era of i-mode, the first major internet capable phone platform. i-mode gave the world emoji and prompted Adobe to purchase Macromedia to get their hands on the extremely lucrative Flash licensing revenue from the Docomo i-mode/Flash licensing deal.
Docomo recently announced the end of i-mode feature phones. If there is one thing to remember about i-mode it is i-mode made a lot of money for a lot of Japanese companies, not just Docomo. i-mode gave birth to huge and very profitable mobile service content empires and infrastructure long before the Apple’s App Store appeared in late 2008.
What does the soon to be extinct i-mode have with the iPhone Suica App? Everything, let’s take a look. Mobile Suica is the JR East Suica service that launched in 2006 for mobile devices, first with feature phones, then Android, and now iPhone 7/Apple Watch Series 2.
To use Mobile Suica you must first create a Mobile Suica account with JR East. Mobile Suica is one part of a whole family of Suica services. There is: Suica Point Club for Suica loyalty points, View’s Net for the Suica View credit card, Suica Internet for web shopping/paying with Suica, Eki Net for Shinkansen/JR Express train reservations and tickets purchases, and finally JRE Point Club. Each service has its separate ID and password but you can link them all together with one master JR East ID called My JR East. Get the picture? And you thought juggling more than one Apple ID was a challenge.
iPhone 7 Wallet lets you use Suica cards seamlessly in Apple Pay without having to deal with a Mobile Suica account at all. With Wallet you can add physical Suica cards, reload Suica and renew a Suica commuter pass. Suica Apple Pay is a slick, easy to use product and works just fine without the Suica App. For a majority of Suica Apple Pay users I suspect Wallet is more than enough.
Suica App is the iPhone version of Mobile Suica long available on Japanese feature phones via i-mode and the Mobile Suica app on Android. Suica App gives you extra functions:
- Create a new Suica card (on your iPhone)
- Create or change your commute plan
- Buy Shinkansen or Green Car tickets
- Set up auto-reload (using a ViewCard only)
- Set or change the notifications that you get from JR East
If you already have a Suica loaded in Apple Pay and log in with a Mobile Suica ID, or set up a new account, you’ll see a default home screen.
On the upper left corner is Mobile Suica Account Settings, on the upper right is Add Suica Card. On the bottom are Reload and Ticket Purchase•Manage Suica. Suica App reload offers you two different methods: Apple Pay or the View credit card that you register in the Suica App section below. The later methods bypasses Apple Pay and the Apple Pay Visa restriction for Suica reloads but the JR East View card is the only card you can register to a Mobile Suica account.
So far Suica App looks like a iOS app but select any item shown in the screenshots above and you leave iOS for an i-mode style editing window.
Ticket Purchase•Manage Suica is where most of the Suica App functionality resides.
The purchase section includes Green Car tickets, Shinkansen Tickets/JR Express Train Tickets, and commuter transit pass purchases/renewals. You can make tickets purchases up to 30 days in advance, but are limited to JR East rail network trains. You cannot purchase JR Central Tokkaido Shinkansen or any other JR group company train tickets. JR East has said they are working with the other JR companies to provide full smartphone interoperability by the summer of 2017, roughly six months from now. I suspect the other JR group companies will sign on with Apple Pay by then.
Despite the limitation to JR East trains, purchase options are well covered. The i-mode UI port is not pretty but the i-mode system has been in place for over a decade and gets the job done. The commuter transit pass purchases/renewal section has all bases covered too from simple renewals to route changes and Green Car commuter pass upgrades.
Below the purchase section is Suica Purchase History and Suica Pocket. The first item is straight forward but Suica Pocket is convoluted. When you cancel a Suica purchase, tickets or store merchandise, the refund transaction can take time. Suica Pocket is a temporary transaction holding area before you send a processed refund amount to a designated Japanese bank account.
The next two menu items include changing Suica card names and setting up a credit card for automatic Suica reloading. You are limited to JR East View Card for automatic reloading but because automatic reloading bypasses the Apple Pay system, you can use the VISA version of View Card along with JCB, AMEX, Master Card, Diners Club and JR Central Express Card.
The very last two menu items cover setting SF (stored fare) to cover commuter transit fare in case your pass expires and forget to renew it. The last item is a spoken guidance option which I have not tested.
Suica Apple Pay works perfectly well without the Suica App but if you want the extra functionality and are willing to invest time to set up a Mobile Suica account, give it a try. The UI is built on top of JR East’s i-mode system: it’s not pretty and accessing options can be convoluted, but it gets the job done.
The biggest drawback at this point is that ticket purchases are limited to JR East rail network trains. This is due to improve by the summer of 2017. Until then Suica App is only useful for travel on the JR East rail network.
11/15 update: added Suica App credit card reload information.