One of the current major limitations of Suica Apple Pay is that it cannot be used for Shinkansen travel on the most popular line: the Tokyo~Osaka Tokaido Shinkansen operated by JR Central.
At the launch of JR East Suica Apple Pay service last October, the company said they would work with other JR group companies for full smartphone compatibility by the summer of 2017. In late February, JR Central and JR West issued a press release outlining the upcoming system compatibility in a new app to be called SmartEX (the right hand column in the screenshot below). The announcement moved the interoperability start date from summer to late September.
I read the perfunctory Japanese press coverage but did not think much until I saw the JR Central SmartEX app video teaser (only viewable on mobile devices). I looked at the comparison chart again and zeroed in on item #3, the ‘big 10’ major transit IC cards that will support direct Shinkansen boarding: PASMO, Kitaca, TOICA, ICOCA, SUGOCA, manaca, PiTaPa, Hayakaken, Nimoca, and of course Suica.
How it works now
Suica Apple Pay supports direct boarding of JR East Shinkansen trains. To do so you have to purchase a Shinkansen ticket first in the Suica app, then download the ticket (受け取り) to Suica Apple Pay before going through the ticket gate.
This is how it will work with the SmartEX app too, according to the press release chart and teaser video. Great, but one simple thing: we know Apple does not allow developers direct access to iPhone NFC transaction functions that bypass Apple Pay.
The only way the SmartEX app can support direct Shinkansen boarding with the major transit IC cards on iPhone is if they are supported in Apple Pay. It’s as simple as that.
The second simple thing
The teaser video advertises the simplicity of adding credit cards and transit IC cards to SmartEX, then using the IC card to touch and go through the Shinkansen ticket gate. Could this mean it only works with physical IC cards? No.
The great thing about Suica Apple Pay is that it is just a Suica card. Suica compatibility means exactly that, for physical Suica cards and for Suica Apple Pay.
Why late September?
The SmartEX release change from summer to late September is interesting too. It fits well with a new iPhone announcement window. Phil Schiller mentioned Apple Pay Japan in the iPhone 7 announcement last September.
Will the addition of all the major Japanese transit IC cards in Apple Pay earn a mention this year as well?