Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Apple Card and the Prepaid Innovation of Apple Pay Suica

The Apple Card tag line says it all, “A new kind of credit card. Created by Apple, not a bank.” This is a bank card that’s not a bank card, except that it is a bank card with basic limitations that can never be changed: a bank card is postpay and this chains it to the creaky banking industry that everybody knows and loathes, with predatory fees, credit checks and service nonsense.

To overcome this limitation, and the slow uptake of EMV Apple Pay and Apple Cash, Apple is merging the postpay Apple Card and the prepaid Apple Cash, glued together with Apple Pay into one service. Two is better than one, right? This merge of postpay + prepaid is a long overdue development for the American market that builds on ideas and experience that Apple gained from Apple Pay Suica in Japan.

The credit card drag on Apple Pay adoption
The slow uptake of Apple Pay and other digital wallets in the USA is pointed out from time to time. The eMarketer blog piece in May 2018 predicted stronger growth for In-App loyalty prepaid cards like Starbucks, over Apple Pay and Google Pay. The Starbucks card is like many prepaid loyalty cards that offer points and rewards along with apps that let users add the loyalty card and attach a credit card for easy In-App reloads. It’s an easy entry point for customers to enjoy the benefits of using prepaid cards and get the most out of their purchases.

There are other factors cited for slow Apple Pay adoption rates in America, but I think the basic reasons are simple. During my 4 month American stay in 2018, I was surprised how slow and uneven the Apple Pay experience was at checkout. Pulling out a plain old credit card was often the faster hassle free choice. Either way it’s the same credit card right? It’s marginally move convenient, but not a new service.

That is the problem. Apple Pay and digital wallets are new technology but bank cards carry the combined weight of a creaky, out of date banking industry. Banks operations are retro, analog businesses living in the digital age on borrowed time. Bank cards with all kinds of new technology attached to them are still the same stodgy card services from the same stodgy banks.

The real point of the eMarketer piece is that In-App prepaid cards with postpay credit cards attached on the backend, offer customers a convenient new merged service that is than far better than either by itself, with bank cards limited to a indirect backup role. The prepaid card is the main point of contact between the customer and merchant, not the bank card. And this makes all the difference because it’s where the innovation is.


Japan Transit IC eMoney Transactions for non-transit purchases topped 8 million a day in April 2019

Apple Pay Japan success built with prepaid
Prepaid card use for transit and purchases in Japan dwarfs credit card use, especially with younger people. The major prepaid cards include WAON, nanaco, Rakuten Edy and Japan Transit IC cards (an interesting bit of history is that Suica and WAON were initially conceived to be a single card). Of these the Japan Transit IC card standard occupies a very special category, 255 transit companies form a common interoperability standard which includes Suica. There are more issued Transit IC cards than people in Japan, everybody has one.

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Japan Transit IC Map, a very cool animated timeline is also available

The core group of 9 major cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, TOICA, Kitaka, manaca, SUGOCA, nimoca, HAYAKEN) also share a common prepaid purse: Transit IC eMoney. The national coverage and scale of the major cards transforms Transit IC eMoney into something special found nowhere else: a de facto national prepaid card standard.

Transit IC eMoney transactions for non-transit purchases topped 8 million a day in April 2019. At current growth rates, transactions should be more than 10 million a day when Super Suica arrives in April 2021 and significantly enlarges the common eMoney purse footprint while unifying it.

The success of Apple Pay in Japan is very different from any other country: it was not accomplished with bank cards, it was accomplished with the Suica transit card with it’s common prepaid Transit IC eMoney purse. The success formula has 2 basic ingredients: de facto national prepaid purse for transit and purchases matched with Apple Pay postpaid bank cards for recharging Suica. Prepaid + Postpay as one service with bank cards limited to the backend for reloading.

The concept is just like In-App prepaid loyalty cards: a prepaid front end with a flexible open ended postpay backend. But this one is much more powerful because it can be used everywhere for transit and purchases. Putting the Suica prepaid card on Apple Pay and Google Pay with their infinitely flexible postpay backend for instant, anywhere, anytime recharge and reloads takes everything to a whole new level of convenience and use.

One of the failures of Apple Cash is that the current version is pigeonholed as a peer to peer service. How different Apple Cash would be if it was positioned like Suica. Apple Pay HOP users are just getting their first taste of new things now, as will Chicago Ventra users when Apple Pay Ventra launches later this year. Unfortunately eMoney is not part of the mix for HOP and Ventra, only transit, nor are they compatible with each other.

A first step towards virtual currency?
I used Suica before Apple Pay arrived and have nearly 3 years of Apple Pay Suica use under my belt. The prepaid + postpay service model matched with transit + purchase eMoney is a combination that is almost impossible to describe to a person who has not lived with it. The daily experience is very different from using bank cards which feel like hard money wrapped in plastic. Hong Kong Octopus card users are probably the only ones who can relate to it, and then only Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay users.

Suica eMoney on digital wallets represents a small step towards virtual currency in a way that bank cards do not. QR Codes serve the same function for China, the first small step away from hard cash. Even though QR Codes payment systems are usually hard wired to bank accounts, they are not run by banks.

None of these schemes are real virtual currencies of course, but they are an important cushion for the mind. The daily use experience prepares people for a future where payments, and the whole infrastructure supporting them, will be completely different from what we have now. It changes old habits, and more importantly, old ways of thinking, just a little. Taking the next step from there is much easier.

A few days ago I wrote:

The Apple Card rollout due this summer is a head scratcher. There are lots of things Apple Card can do in Wallet that other cards, as yet, cannot do. It feels too big and important for just a press release and a new web page. And yet, by itself, it’s too small for a full blown Apple event. I think the Apple Card rollout is going to be a very interesting release for all things Apple Pay.

The new Apple Card + Apple Cash will be the first major postpay + prepaid Apple Pay service for iPhone users in America. The experiment will be fascinating to watch, but Japan remains the world’s most exciting and heady payments market experiment there is.

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