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 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.