He loves me, he loves me not…a Japanese Journalist Rediscovers Apple Maps

Suica Apple Pay integration with Apple Maps: insufficient fare warning

Japanese tech journalist Junya Ishino discovers all the fun he was missing ditching Apple Maps on iPhone all these years. He mentions the disastrous 2012 launch, the notorious Pachiko Gundam station fiasco but notes that Apple Maps has not been standing still. He gives it another try. Here are the things he likes.

Suica insuffiient fare warning
iPhone 7 with Suica Apple Pay integrates well with Apple Maps transit and warns you if your Suica balance is too low to pay fare on a planned transit route. It also offers a recharge option. I don’t travel much outside of Tokyo or find the feature useful, but Ishino san does.

Uber Integration
Google has this too and Uber is limited to a small part of Tokyo with a small fleet to match but Ishino san thinks Apple Maps Uber integration is tighter and easier to use than Google. Apple Maps Japan would be more useful if it integrated native taxi apps such as Japan Taxi.

Ishino san is less enthusiastic about Apple Maps Japan Transit and finds it short on features compared to Google and Yahoo Japan Map. Route searching by departure and arrival times is a kludge, sorting by the fastest, cheapest or route with fewest transfers like transit leader Yahoo Japan Map is impossible. Apple Maps Japan Transit shows promise but has growing to do.

3D Touch and Recents
Ishino san thinks 3D Touch is a perfect fit for maps. It strips away unnecessary steps and taps for route searching, phoning and sharing. He also finds 3D Touch integration in Recents useful, which it is. There is plenty of untapped potential here.

AirDrop and Continuity
Last but not least Ishino san finds AirDrop useful for sharing map locations and routes, and likes how recents are shared on all devices, iOS and macOS, when logged in with the same Apple ID. Simple and convenient.

Ishino san is not ready to make Apple Maps his default map yet: 3rd party place data is weak and Japan transit is still a work in progress. But he thinks it is worth adding Apple Maps Japan back into his navigation toolkit.


Station Number Olympics


If you have ridden any train in Tokyo since 2016, you have come across station number signage like the picture above. In the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Japanese transit companies nationwide have been busy implementing station numbering and installing new signage everywhere.

JR East implemented the largest Japanese station numbering scheme in October 2016. All JR Tokyo train lines have 2 letter codes combined with long-established train line colors:station numbering chart 1.jpgMajor stations have three letter codes:station numbering letter chart

The entire package looks like this:fullsizeoutput_6125

Station numbering might look good on paper but the reality in a major station like Shinjuku, the world’s busiest train station, is confusing.

A major weak point of station numbering is that users are presented with a bunch of different station numbers when several different line converge at a station point. The Shinjuku station number changes with each line on each platform:

Each platform has its own different numbering as well:

One of the many Shinjuku staton platforms

The different station numbers for Shinjuku are unified by the three-letter SJK Shinjuku station code.

スクリーンショット 2017-05-29 9.42.49
The different parts of the JR icon

But if the station does not have a three-letter code, all you get are a bunch of different, separate station numbers, such as Nagano station, a small but frustrating transfer point.

Of the major digital Japan map services (Apple, Google and Yahoo Japan) only Apple goes all in with station numbering and train line codes. Google and Yahoo Japan don’t use them at all.

This is very apt, Yahoo Japan and Google focus on features Japanese users like while Apple focuses on features that appeal more to international users than Japanese users. Here is a comparison of the same transit trip on Yahoo Japan, Google and Apple:
(Note that Yahoo Japan puts in extra effort to show fare of each transfer point and which car to ride to be nearest the destination exit, nice touches)

Real communication or sowing seeds of misunderstanding?
Station numbering is 1980s era thinking, a time when most of the signage was Japanese with English an after thought, if at all. In today’s Japan we have English everywhere. We also have smartphones, Google Translate, multilingual train announcements and multilingual electronic info screens on trains and subways:

Tokyo trains have screens that endlessly loop train information in Japanese and English.

The real problem is that station numbers and train codes lull international visitors into thinking that Japanese know and use them. They don’t.

Listen carefully on a Tokyo train and you will notice station numbers are not used in Japanese announcements, only in the English ones. Station numbers and train line codes mean nothing to the average Japanese person, they exist in a hot house bubble with no connection to real world use.

As the Japanese blog Memory is a Person points out, if a foreigner asks, “How can I get to the JA line?” a Japanese person will invariably assume they want the nearest JR line. OSK will be mistaken for Osaka, and so on.

In other words, station numbers, station codes and train codes end up creating the very problem they were designed to solve: confusion.

Apple Maps Japan Adds Foursquare Data Update 2

Apple Japan 4quareIn an ongoing effort to improve their Japanese product, Apple Maps has added Foursquare to their data supplier mix in addition to Yelp, TripAdvisor for place data, Yahoo Japan’s Tabelog for restaurant data, and Jourdan for transit data.

Foursquare is appearing in station information and other places supplementing areas that Yelp and the other suppliers do not cover. The addition might be from the transit team in order to improve the well received transit service that commenced last October.

Coordinating and vetting various 3rd party data suppliers has been a long-standing weak spot for Apple Maps Japan. Hopefully the Foursquare addition will result in a better product for Japanese users.

Update 1
The Apple Maps team also seems to be tweaking Japanese transit signage in addition to adding Foursquare information. New train line signage with a simpler but non-standard design is appearing on iPad Maps while iPhone Maps and macOS Maps display previous signage. It can take time for signage updates to populate the entire system and it’s not clear if this is a real update, or a jump the gun glitch.

Update 2
The ever evolving train line signage icon saga on iPad Pro Apple Maps is a very strange business. Perhaps the transit team cannot make up their mind.

Just 24 hours ago Tokyo area two letter train line code icons (JB, JY, JC, etc.) were oval, but are now rectangular. Even more strange: I have tested many iPads today but only Apple Maps on iPad Pro running iOS 10.3.2 (14F89) is displaying the new non-standard signage. Screen comparisons below.

OpenType Variable Fonts and the UI Challenge

The good old GX font OpenType variation font slider from Tom Rickner

Adobe Type Senior Manager Dan Rhatigan made a very good point in his TYPO Talk presentation: OpenType Variable Fonts (OTVF) need a UI that replaces the slider. The slider has been the default UI to show off variable font technology since the dawn of QuickDraw GX and Multiple Master fonts.

Sliders have their place but I agree with Dan: there has to be a better UI control concept out there. As he put it, with all that mathematics going on for developers to play with surely they can come up with an insanely great UI that puts all that typographic power and control in the hands of as many users as possible. And make it fun too.

We’ve been here before

This issue, how to make the complexity of advanced typography easy to understand and use for average users, is not new. It was hotly debated in the GX developer community of the mid 90’s because QuickDraw GX delivered many advanced typography features but no real Apple UI guideline to implement them.

I believe this UI issue is make or break for OpenType Variable Font reception in the market. Font wars aside, QuickDraw GX fonts and Multiple Master fonts failed because there was no compelling and consistent UI from operating system to apps that focused the technology to take users new places.

Just like Steve Jobs said back in 1997, it’s all about products that take users to fantastic new places they never imagined. It’s not about marketing cool technology. Start with the user experience and work backwards to the technology.

Buried and inconsistent features 

A quick user experience look of the advanced typography features in Hiragino Japanese fonts that Apple bundles in macOS Sierra illustrates the problem. Here is some simple vertical Japanese text in TextEdit, the only Apple app that supports CJK vertical layout.Hiragino Options Large

Hiragino fonts have many advanced typography features that few users know or use because they are buried away in typography options accessed from the font selection palette. If you take the trouble of selecting it you can access the Hiragino Mincho Pro advanced typography options shown here:

Mincho Pro
The advanced typography options of Hiragino Mincho Pro in macOS Sierra

The dog-eared and clipped off typography options clearly show the ‘buried features’ problem: this UI limits access to users who already know what font options are available, where to find them, and how to use them. But what is the experience for the average user and where does the UI and technology take them? Nowhere.

There is also the problem of inconsistent options. In previous OS X versions kanji glyph variants were accessed in typography options but now this important feature is buried away in the keyboard character palette. Most people know it as the place for finding emoji.

Watanabe gylph selection then
Watanabe glyph
Watanabe glyph selection now

Different kanji fonts also have very different typography options but the current UI doesn’t give user the user advance information or anticipate selection results. All the user can do is hunt, pick, look at the result and try again until they find what they want.

A new approach
How does anyone go about adding variation font options to this mess? To paraphrase Steve Jobs again: Oh, a slider, we’ll use a slider……..


Sliders are an early 1990’s desktop era UI idea that won’t serve us in the mobile age. It won’t work across macOS and iOS. It’s simple as that.

This is a special problem that demands a whole new approach from all sides: OS engineering, UI design, and developers building on top of those high level foundations. And the new approaches have to work across desktop and mobile platforms as well.

OpenType Variable Fonts are a collaboration between Adobe, Microsoft, Google and Apple, but Apple has a very unique position. OTVF is based on Apple’s TrueType GX technology that is already being used in the San Fransisco font deployed on macOS, iOS and Watch OS.

If anyone is in the position of facing the variable font UI challenge across desktop and mobile, it is Apple. I hope they realize the importance of this. The success of OpenType Variable Fonts depends on it.


No AirPods For Old Men : the Ugly Truth of AirPods in Japan

Oyaji AirPods

I have really enjoyed my AirPods. Nothing beats the convenience of going wireless on a daily Tokyo train commute. No matter how careful you are, earphone wires inevitably catch on a handbag or backpack and your iPhone flies out the pocket onto the floor.

A while ago a very observant friend of mine told me about working out at a new gym, “There was this older guy wearing those new Apple earphone things, they look really convenient.” Then he said, “I don’t think young people listen to music like back in the iPod days, they’re too busy doing the social network thing. The only people buying AirPods are older guys.”

I didn’t pay much attention to his comment at the time. Then I noticed that all the AirPods I saw in the wild are on a gentleman over 50. Just like me. Six months after AirPods went on sale I have yet to see a single young person using them in Tokyo. Is this a Japan thing, a young person thing, or an old man thing?

Apple has always successfully marketed their products to young people. In Japan it looks like that message for AirPods, is falling on deaf ears.

Analyzing Apple Pay Japan Results for 2017 Q2 Updated


Japanese IT journalist Junya Suzuki analyzes Tim Cook’s Apple Pay Japan comment in the 2017 Q2 earnings call for Business Insider Japan.

In Japan, where Apple Pay launched last October, more than 0.5 million transit users are completing 20 million Apple Pay transactions per month.

Apple Pay Japan Market Math
Is this a good result or a bad one? Suzuki san does the math: if you take 500,000 users, multiply that by two (a round trip) and factor in one month of 20 work days you get 20 million transactions exactly.

In other words Tim is talking about Suica Apple Pay commuters who use it everyday.

Japanese government figures estimate smartphone share at 76% of the entire mobile phone market. iPhone share is estimated at 60% of that putting Apple’s Japanese iPhone installed base between 40~50 million devices.

Suzuki san estimates the iPhone 7/7 Plus installed base for Japan between 10~15 million devices. Suica Apple Pay commuters are limited to the greater Tokyo area, 1 out of every 4 Japanese, which gives us 2.5~3.5 million Suica Apple Pay ready iPhones in Tokyo.

Suzuki san thinks 500,000 daily Apple Pay users out of 2.5~3.5 million iPhone 7 devices is a pretty good result. I agree. There are many more casual Apple Pay Japan users out there, but Apple wanted a nice simple marketable info nugget for the earnings call. The big question is where does it go from here?

Breaking the 20% Glass Barrier
The Apple Pay Japan ready iPhone installed base will rise as users trade up to the latest and greatest iPhone but the real test will be if Apple Pay breaks the Japanese mobile wallet utilization glass barrier that has stubbornly remained at 20% no matter how many mobile wallet capable mobile devices are sold, regardless of platform. Mobile payments are still too geeky and difficult for most people to bother with.

The arrival of Apple Pay in Japan has already generated excitement, change and opportunity in a static mobile payments market. The JCB QUICPay network has been very aggressive getting new card partners on board the Apple Pay bandwagon, marketing them heavily to steal what they can from NTT Docomo’s iD market lead. It’s great fun reading Japanese twitter user comments about dumping VISA that don’t work with Apple Pay or switching to a QUICPay card to get better mileage out of Apple Pay.

The challenge for Apple Pay Japan will be how much traction it can capture in the two-year run up to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. It boils down to two essential attack points:

  • More Partners: make the Apple Pay Japan footprint wide as possible.
  • Systems integration: make Apple Pay dead simple ‘it just works’ savvy.

The Japanese payment networks that work currently with Apple Pay are: Suica, iD and QUICPay. Apple needs to add as many transit card systems as they can, along with the major missing payment networks: Edy, nanaco and WAON.

Apple Pay chart 1
The current Apple Pay Japan supported payment/transit systems

Apple Pay Chart 2
This is what Apple Pay Japan needs to look like.
For reference here is a small survey analysis from February 2017 of what payment systems Japanese have:

Transit cards are the easiest way to capture users because the Suica Apple Pay ease of use appeal to commuters, taken nation wide, is a slam dunk entry point: users first sign on to use their commuter pass on iPhone then quickly migrate to using the convenience of mobile purchases.

Systems integration will be the trickier of the two. Apple already deploys the full set of NFC flavors (A/B/FeliCa) on iPhone and Apple Watch but limits them geographically: FeliCa in Japan but not other countries, etc. From a technology viewpoint it should not be hard to make NFC transactions ‘just work’ for Apple Pay Japanese users going abroad and vice versa.

Unfortunately as Horace Dediu pointed out, payments infrastructure is complicated and messy with many moving pieces: banks, credit card companies, merchants, point of sale terminal technology, smartphone platforms and last but not least, the customer.

In Japan for example the customer tells the cashier ‘I’ll pay with Suica (or iD, or QUICPay)’, or selects a payment network on the terminal display screen. Then the customer has to bring up the appropriate Apple Pay card and Touch ID verify it. Some terminals take advantage of Suica Apple Pay Express Transit mode which bypasses Touch ID while other terminals require it. Some terminal readers offer a smooth experience, others do not.

This is not a user-friendly and inviting experience because all too often those messy pieces don’t work as a seamless whole.

Breaking the 20% glass barrier means Apple Pay Japan has to offer a better experience out of the box and across the board without rough edges or gotchas that restrict it to the tech savvy crowd. Suzuki san thinks those fancy new Panasonic JT-R600CR terminals going into McDonald’s and Lawson that handle every conceivable payment method and NFC flavor are a big part of the solution.

I think that’s wishful ‘technology can solve anything’ thinking. Payment technology won’t help much if banks, credit card companies and smartphone platforms do not integrate in a much bigger, and international savvy way. EMV and NFC use the same payment infrastructure, wouldn’t it be nice if it all just worked, all the time, everywhere?

The real solution rests with Apple, or the competition, making all those messy payment pieces fit together and work as one seamless whole. The next two years will be very interesting.

Update 2017-5-11
One thing Suzuki san points out in his piece that I forgot to mention was the automatic selection functionality of the Panasonic JT-R600CR terminals. From his explanation it sounds like the terminal automatically senses and selects your main Apple Pay card, or the most appropriate one for payment transaction.

I have not tested the new Panasonic terminals yet but hope to soon. It should be a smoother and faster experience than it is now. Suzuki san thinks the Japanese payments infrastructure will see a massive rollout of new much smarter terminals in the lead up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Japanese companies want to capture as much ‘inbound’ customer business as they can.

King of the One Screen Map Search: Yahoo Japan MAP v5 Review-Updated

YahooJapanMapsReviewing digital maps is really difficult because cartography doesn’t come with version numbers. Apple and Google roll out cartography and service tweaks when ready because it’s all just backend stuff anyway.

So the new version of Yahoo Japan’s MAP app (v5) is a pleasant surprise. Not only is there a reference number to track the new cartography, there are major new features and a well thought out balance of map information while keeping things simple, clean and easy to comprehend. There is a lot that Apple and even Google can learn here.

Yahoo Japan has always had better cartography than Apple and Google. The v5 upgrade widens the lead. There are two simple but highly effective design choices that make this happen.

  1. Use real world street signage for the default view.
    This is a smart choice that Apple and Google often forget about: map icons that match what you see in the street: station exits and marquee signage (convenience stores, fast food, major franchises, etc) match their real world counterparts. This is crucial because those are important navigation and meeting points. But wait, don’t Apple and Google do that too? Not as much as you would think and they get it wrong because the secret sauce is….
  2. Only use ‘three C’ icons for map search results.
    One of the really bad cartography design choices that Apple makes is keeping all the ‘three C’ (custom color keyed) icons in the default view (orange for cafes/restaurants, yellow for shops, blue for services, etc.). This is not information. It is unnecessary paint splatter on a wall that confuses the user and makes everything hard to find especially with indoor maps. Google makes this mistake too but less than Apple.

Yahoo Japan MAP banishes all three C icons to map search where they belong. All default view map icons are either crucial marquee icons or simple white background high contrast designs that don’t get in the way. And when searching they change to the necessary color code you are looking for.

Let’s see how these cartography choices play out in a typical Tokyo “sandwich station” like Gotanda: train station on top, major road in the middle, subway station below. A comparison with v4 cartography shows cleaner design details: slightly toned down road and station colors, toned down building outlines, stylized single color traffic light icons and nice attractive new icon designs for all the basics: banks, hotels, police stations, hospitals, schools, everything.

Also note the yellow station exits, they have migrated from the indoor map view to the default view. Good move: station exits are important navigation information.

Here are comparison views of Gotanda from Apple and Google. No yellow station exit signage anywhere. Yahoo Japan MAP intelligent use of color gives a better sense of layers even without accessing the indoor mapping control.

Digital maps are still young and evolving, incorporating new features all the time, but the job of any map is to orient and connect you with important information at a glance, at any moment. If it can’t do that, the map is a failure.

Search: Yahoo Japan MAP is King of the One Screen Search
The biggest change in v5 is map search. This used to be the weakest part of Yahoo Japan MAP but not anymore.

The Yahoo Japan map team came to the conclusion long ago that color coded icons are the wrong default map view choice for a densely packed Japanese metropolis. Any single building can house multiple cafes, restaurants and shops, multiplied across every building in a small area is serious information overload to fit on a smartphone screen. The trick is not forcing the user to jump through hoops to find stuff.

Here is a comparison of map search screens for Yahoo Japan, Apple and Google:

The Yahoo Japan MAP search category is extensive and sure beats typing. My only wish it that in addition to the adaptive category at the top there was a row of favorite searches where I could add and edit personal favorite search categories.

Yahoo Japan MAP does the cafe search in one touch and one screen. Apple does the same cafe search with three touches and three screens. Google also does it with three touches and three screens.

Why should it take three actions? This is the kind of detail question that Steve Jobs drove his development teams crazy with all the time. I wonder if the higher ups at Apple and Google pay attention to this kind of thing anymore.

Indoor Mapping

Yahoo Japan Map and Google Maps have offered detailed indoor mapping for some time. After vamping with “carefully curated navigation instructions so it’s easy to get around Japan’s extensive underground tunnel networks.” Apple Maps is about to get serious with indoor mapping in iOS 11 as Tokyo is one of the launch cities for indoor mall maps.

Shinjuku is the world’s busiest station and the most complex. The core JR East station is surrounded by multiple onion-like layers of  private line stations and subway lines interlaced with mazes of underground shopping malls. Here is a quick comparison of the big three Japanese map products focused on Keio Mall in the Shinjuku underground west exit side.

Here is the current Apple Map view of Shinjuku west.

Apple Maps view of Shinjuku station with pink underground structure outlines added in iOS 10.1
Close up of Keiko Mall underground (pink) west exit of Shinjuku station (purple). The small round green Family Mart icon is roughly center point of Keio Mall

Here is the same Keio Mall area in Yahoo Japan Map:

Yahoo Japan Map view of Shinjuku west Keio Mall underground. Nice clean detail and aligned text labels are a hallmark of Yahoo Japan cartography. The different connecting station parts are clearly shown with platform stairs and exit signage exactly matching what you find on the ground. Store backgrounds are color keyed without three C icons and labeled clearly. The square green Family Mart marquee signage icon is the same store as the round green icon in the previous Apple Map screenshot.
Larger view of Shinjuku station clearly shows how everything connects which Google Maps does not. Again, note that exits are clearly marked in yellow. The Family Mart is the small green rectangle next to the #5 exit.

Here is Google Maps view of Keio Mall:

Keio mall google
It is hard to believe this is the same location. Google and Apple both have a cartography obsession with three C icons that distract and don’t connect customers with real on-site signage, the Family Mart shown here is a small round difficult to decipher custom icon. Notice that Google Maps simply places text labels where they fit with no attempt to align anything, and Google does not display any of the surface exits clearly marked in Yahoo Japan Map. A fatal design error: the same levels of the underground structures are connected but Google shows B1 next to B2 when they should show B1 on the left connecting to B1 on the right. People complain that Google cares more about data collection than taking care of customers, that bad side of Google is on display here.

The key concept is that Yahoo Japan MAP treats the entire station structure as single interconnected discrete object with different floors. This approach scales well with complex station structures such as Shinjuku and is vastly superior to Google’s indoor maps.

Other Things
It is amazing how much effort and resources that Apple and Google squander on developing features that don’t add much value. Yahoo Japan MAP does not have 3D mapping or flyover, features I find completely useless.

Far more practical, useful and essential is the Yahoo Japan MAP precipitation live radar with six hour forecast. Apple and Google can tell me it’s raining in Tokyo but Yahoo! MAP tells me where, when and how much it is, or will be, raining at work, the supermarket or on the walk home from the train station. Truly, deeply useful.

Wrap Up
Yahoo Japan has pulled off an amazing update by focusing on and simplifying basic map features. They don’t have the resources or market of Apple or Google but in classic samurai fashion have transformed weakness into strength. The cartography is best of class smart and simple.

Map search has morphed from a jumbled mess that was v4 into a one screen wonder that trounces Apple and Google. The indoor mapping and weather reporting strengths remain in place.

The power of doing more with less is on full display in Yahoo Japan MAP v5. It’s a lesson that Google would do well to remember, and Apple Maps to learn.

Update 6/21: replaced indoor map screenshots from Yahoo Japan MAP, Google and Apple to match the same location