The Japanese Transit Platform Business Model

It’s about time. Somebody from outside Japan finally took in the big picture of the Japanese Transit Platform model and wrote a business outline of it in English. Egon Terplan of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) came to Tokyo and liked what he saw: Falling in Love With the Trains of Japan.

By 2017, Japanese trains carried nearly 30 percent of all rail passengers in the world, more than all of Europe. But unlike many European countries, Japanese rail companies are privatized, with for-profit publicly traded companies running separate rail lines all around the country.

JR East, the largest of the JR companies, carries 17 million passengers per day on 12,300 trains. (By comparison, Amtrak carried just 31.3 million passengers during all of 2016, a record year in ridership; the New York City subway averages 5.5 million daily rides and BART, 430,000.) And JR East’s $26 billion in annual revenue includes no government subsidies.

Terplan then lists what he thinks are the major components:

  1. Allow rail operators to become real estate developers to capture the value they bring to the stations.
  2. Turn stations into major destinations.
  3. Build over tracks to create new land opportunities.
  4. Dramatic reductions in travel time between cities can lead to major increases in rail’s market share.
  5. Interoperable rail cards (Suica, etc.) are key to making rail easy to use nationwide.

Essential points all, but Terplan doesn’t explain the importance of how all the different infrastructure pieces not only integrate (Shinkansen, regular lines, subway, buses, station retail, services, Suica, etc.) but also create a whole that is much larger than the sum of parts, and why. Perhaps he is only outlining the model and will return with a deeper analysis later. I certainly hope so because it’s a great transit model for other countries to adapt and adopt. Hong Kong already has a similar system on a smaller scale as does South Korea and Taiwan.

The last component, nationwide interoperable Japan Transit IC prepaid cards for transit and store purchases aka Apple Pay Suica, is the secret sauce binding everything together into a tight slick business model. That is the missing why and it’s just starting: interoperable features like Shinkansen e-ticketing, commuter passes, local loyalty point systems and hosting everything on digital wallets are still weak points. JR East and Sony are busy creating the next generation ‘Super Suica’ format that aims to integrate everything while reducing costs and taking it to the next level.

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iOS 12.1.2 Apple Pay Suica Performance Issues

No sooner than Apple issued the iOS 12.1.2 update that JR East pushed out a Suica system notice in their iOS Suica App: When Suica Balance Fails to Update. I guess this really means that Apple still hasn’t fixed iOS 12 Apple Pay Suica performance issues for everybody. My experience with iOS 12.1.2 on iPhone XS has been good so far but it takes time to find out what Suica performance on any iOS release really is. Whatever the case may be, fixing dead Suica notifications and a lost Suica Balance is very simple.

Put Suica in Service Mode and let your device sit for 10~15 seconds, then quit Apple Pay or simply put the screen to sleep. A Suica Notification will then appear with the updated Suica balance. Let’s hope that Apple’s New Year resolution list includes quickly fixing Apple Pay Suica performance issues.


Apple Pay Drove FeliCa Contactless Growth in 2018

The CreditCard no Yomimono site (CCY) has collected and listed all the FeliCa contactless card issued to date numbers released by Japanese companies in 2018 into one convenient table. WAON is missing because AEON didn’t release any numbers this year, CCY estimates WAON card numbers at 70 million . The numbers are fairly recent and roughly inline with the Japanese fiscal year through early 2018. They are very interesting but as CCY points out the number of issued cards does not always translate into actual use: previous surveys indicate that Rakuten Edy is used much less frequently than Suica at the cash register.

Prepaid Transit IC cards (Suica, PASMO, etc.) are by far the largest at 143,700,000 which means that every person in Japan has at least one. CCY also notes the explosive 51% growth rate of QUICPay which they attribute to Apple Pay. This is one half of the story. JCB has certainly done an excellent job of working with Apple Pay but I suspect another reason is that Japanese Apple Pay Suica users switched from using Japanese issue VISA cards that don’t support Apple Pay Suica recharge in favor of QUICPay cards like JCB VIEW that do.

Any way you look at the numbers one thing is clear: prepaid cards are far more popular than credit cards for contactless payments in Japan. The huge installed base of Transit IC cards also bodes well for the Super Suica card that will integrate them into a single format for plastic issue and mobile hosting in early 2021.

Title of the Year: the iPhone X Suica Problem

The one issue that refused to go away this year was the endless parade of “iOS x.xx Update Does Not Fix The iPhone X Suica Problem” posts. It was a strange journey stretched over a period of 8 months: an endless loop of frustration, hope for a fix, dashed hopes when an update failed to deliver a fix, until finally stumbling on an iPhone X NFC hardware problem with the help of readers and fellow iPhone X Suica users.

I am deeply grateful for all the advice, guidance and insights from many individuals who took the time to answer my questions. I learned a lot and sincerely hope the gathered information was of use to other iPhone X users struggling with the issue. Nothing is worse than dealing with a problem alone in a vacuum. I wish everybody a very happy holiday, a wonderful New Year and flawless Apple Pay Suica performance whatever your device may be.

More Smart Octopus

I assumed the Smart Octopus Coming to Apple Pay post would be ignored in the end of year rush period. However the timing perfectly coincided with an Octopus Cards Limited press conference where the CEO demurred any Octopus tie-up with Apple and the post got much more attention than I ever anticipated. Obviously there are lots of iPhone users in Hong Kong who want Smart Octopus Apple Pay. A few readers were confused by the situation and asked for some clarification.

First of all the source who correctly predicted last years Smart Octopus on Samsung Pay launch tipped me about the Apple Pay launch. That in itself was enough for me but here’s the thing: if Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) is really serious about expanding Octopus use on mobile platforms, taking the next step of getting Smart Octopus on Apple Pay is the only way to achieve that.

Digital Wallets like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay are the most tightly integrated NFC software and hardware digital wallet platforms out there with integrated FeliCa, but Apple is the only one to implement the necessary Secure Element on their own A Series/S Series hardware with FeliCa Networks keys, and sell the package globally. All the major NFC technologies are standard on Apple Pay: NFC A-B-F, EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, VAS.

Smart Octopus on Google Pay might look nice on paper but it can’t achieve anything of scale yet because of the highly fragmented nature of Android: to date hardware manufacturers have yet to produce an answer to Apple’s global FeliCa iPhone and Apple Watch, even though everybody’s smartphone has a NFC A-B-F chip. Not even Google has pulled it off. Huawei says they are planning to add global Felica but it will take time.

OCL is playing coy because majority shareholder Hong Kong MTR has added QR Codes and EMV contactless to the transit gate mix removing the exclusive Octopus Card franchise, but the technology and market politics don’t mesh. On one hand you have a fast, established and ‘open’ in-house contactless payment system (as in anybody can buy a plastic Octopus card and ride) basically run by public transit companies. On the other hand you have slow and ‘closed’ contactless payment systems (as in only people with certified credit cards and bank accounts can ride) run by major outside credit/debit network companies chipping off money from both customers and transit companies.

In this context putting Smart Octopus on Apple Pay isn’t just adding a card to a digital wallet platform, it is also a statement of who ultimately controls, operates and benefits from the public transit gates. It’s more about market politics than technology, in other words another battle in the contactless payment turf wars. The outcome will be fascinating to watch but determines whether Octopus will remain a great transit payment platform for Hong Kong with a future, or not.

Update
It looks like we’ll have to wait a while longer for Smart Octopus on Apple Pay.