Golden Week Golden JRE POINT

Golden Week 2019 is going to be an extraordinarily long one, 10 days in all. It would not be Golden Week without a few marketing gimmicks and JR East has not disappointed: 15X bonus JRE POINT running May 2~6 with any JRE POINT registered Suica purchases at yellow sticker Suica JRE POINT stores (NewDays, Becks Coffee Shop, Kiosk, etc.) .

To be sure setting up Apple Pay Suica with JRE POINT is a pain, but once done it’s nice to rack up the points. Until May 6, goodbye Starbucks and hello Becks.

When you purchase things with Apple Pay Suica at Suica JRE POINT stores you earn JRE POINT automatically
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Apple Maps Japan Reboot Challenge: Real Progress

Now that Apple Maps image collection white Subaru vans are out and about in force with lots of people tweeting about it, it looks like Apple Maps has finally gotten serious about mapping Japan. We hope. I see 3 basic challenges:

Collect Quality Data
This is obvious and the whole point of Apple Maps image collection vans, but it’s not the whole story. Apple cannot do it all and has to rely on quality map data suppliers. Increment P (IPC) supplies Japanese map data to Apple but they are not the best quality provider and seem to collect and package other data sources rather than getting their own. Case in point, it took IPC 2 years to fix the Great Shinbu Hot Spring Data Cutoff. If Apple wants to go toe to toe with Google Maps in Japan, they should sign Zenrin who are the top map data provider for Japan. Google recently dropped Zenrin and Google Maps Japan has been a disaster ever since.

Process Quality Data
This has been the bane of Apple Maps since day one. I see it as Apple’s biggest challenge: if Apple cannot quickly and intelligently process map data from multiple sources, the best quality data collection effort, along with the data, is completely wasted. Let’s take a look at how well Apple processes IPC map data for the Ikegami Hall area and compare it to Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps.

Ikegami Hall

As you can see from the example, Apple isn’t using much of the IPC map detail available to them, including Ikegami Hall. Maybe somebody at the Apple Maps data processing center in India forgot to put it in, or is waiting for an update from an Apple Maps van. Either way, the Apple Maps team has no idea something important is missing and that in itself is a big problem.

Present Quality Data
In short, cartography. Good cartography doesn’t only make maps look good, it directs your attention to what is important to know, filters out extraneous detail so you can find what you are looking for, while showing how to get there quickly. Yahoo Japan Maps has the best cartography by far, Google Maps runs a distant 2nd place. However both of them constantly tweak their cartography and evolve it. Apple Maps has yet to substantially update their Justin O’Beirne 2012 era cartography and they desperately need to. Take a look at the Gotanda station area of Tokyo comparing the default views of Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps. The quality improves going left to right.

Apple Maps cartography overwhelms the screen with information that doesn’t need to be there. Yahoo Japan Maps is super clean, smartly edited and easy to navigate. The captions explain it all, case closed.

The challenges facing the Apple Maps team in Japan are many. Now that Google has stumbled, Apple has a golden opportunity to create a better map service for Japan and change the market perception of it. I wish them good luck and look forward to seeing what progress they make.

Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket Service Ends March 2020

When you purchase Shinkansen eTickets in Suica App, you’ll see a small notice at the bottom of the menu screen: Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket Service ends March 2020. Does this mean we’ll have to go back to paper tickets? Not at all.

JR East has been coy about the new cloud based eTicket service they are working on to replace the current Mobile Suica one. Originally the plan was to release a product similar to JR Central’s smartEX in April 2019.

Oops, that didn’t happen and I think we are better off for it. smartEx for all of it’s backend system hocus-pocus, isn’t that smart. The basic system is designed with manually input Transit IC card numbers (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, and all) as the center. The result is a fragile and static system that doesn’t port well. Sign up for the Express Reserve (EX Reserve) service option in Suica App and you too can experience JR Central’s oh so fugly EX system.

I don’t think JR East wants that kind of system. There are probably 2 aims: replacing the old but reliable iMode backend with a modern dynamic one that can comfortably process the full variety of regular train and Shinkansen eTickets while plugging into many different UI front-ends: Suica App, web, other transit company apps, etc. It will be properly internationalized too. The iMode backend has served us very well since 2006 but needs to go, take a look at the eTicket purchase screenshots on the Suica App page and you’ll see.

We’ll get a new eTicket service with a new name in a new version of Suica App, in English and Japanese probably, and lots more. I look forward to seeing what JR East comes up with for the big Tokyo Olympic 2020 rollout.


Yes, iPhone Carrier Subsidies in Japan are Officially Dead: New Docomo Data Plans

The writing has been on the wall for over a year now, and sluggish iPhone XR sales only confirmed the fact, that iPhone carrier subsidies in Japan which have defined the industry since 2008, were dying. Today’s Docomo announcement unveiled new plans that discard all the complexity of previous plans like ‘FOMA’, ‘Xi’ and ‘docomo with’ all of which disappear on May 31, with 2 simple choices:

  • Giga-Ho: ¥4,980 a month for 30GB
  • Giga-Lite: ¥1,980 a month for 1GB with other date tiers available, 3GB@3,980, 5GB@4,980, 7GB@5,980

Docomo customers can apply for the plans from the Docomo web site or a Docomo shop starting May 22, service starts June 1. There are many configurations and new options available, from home internet bundle discounts to new family data sharing. And it looks like tethering fees are gone. Depending on the configuration savings can be as large as 40% compared to previous plans.

At first glance customers will still need to do some homework via the online cost simulator (something that Japanese love to do), or visit the nearest Docomo shop to find the configuration that fits your needs while giving the best discount. This is just part 1 of the continuing saga of data plans without subsidies. At the end of the announcement Docomo said stay tuned for more. KDDI au and SoftBank should be announcing new plans soon, and we’ll get Docomo part 2 when the new iPhones come out this fall.

Tim Cook’s Apple Legacy

I have a secret theory that when a major biography of a major business person appears when said person is still working their career, it means their career is over. Maybe Tim will be around awhile, maybe not. But I do think Tim’s Apple legacy will show that he was a far better COO than a CEO, and that he lacked Steve’s ability to find truly great talent.

I also think that the heart of Tim Cook’s Apple legacy, his supply chain and manufacturing process prowess will be controversial. No doubt his early Apple career work was crucial to Apple’s rebirth, but it came at a price that would be paid later. The price was putting everything in the China basket instead of spreading risk for the supply chain and manufacturing, and the political risk of keeping the Chinese government happy.

When Tim Cook came to Japan in fall of 2016, BuzzFeed quoted him saying that it was his first time to Japan. Let’s look at this from 3 viewpoints.

  1. First visit to Japan as Apple CEO: Tim became Apple CEO in late 2011. He was undoubtedly busy after Steve Jobs passed away, but 5 years of not visiting an important market for Apple with many crucial iPhone part suppliers is weird.
  2. First visit to Japan in Apple career: a supply chain guru who never visits an important supply chain country that his boss visited all the time, what?
  3. First visit to Japan ever: does Tim have a problem with Japan?

Maybe BuzzFeed got the context wrong, or wrong altogether since it’s BuzzFeed, right? Whatever the reason, Steve Jobs was well know in Japan for coming here on business and pleasure. There is no doubt in my mind he made the decision to use, and perhaps even found, the shiny metal back case of the original iPod manufactured in a tiny factory in Niigata. Was that perfectly polished metal case important to the iPod manufacture process? Probably not. Was that case important to the success of iPod? Absolutely yes.

Tim Cook doesn’t have Steve’s gift of finding people and parts, but who does? It’s a rare thing. In the long run, Tim’s China obsession will be seen as his biggest flaw.