Hell to the yes: Apple Pay Octopus launch…for real (Updated)

Good news for long suffering Hong Kong iPhone users: press invitations labeled ‘Redefining Mobile Payments’ that went out to local media outlets on May 28 signaled Octopus for Apple Pay would finally launch on June 2, which it did in tandem with Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit directions just before 1 am June 2 local Hong Kong time. The press event took place at 12:30 pm.

Didn’t we do this already?

OCL teased everyone when it first announced Apple Pay Octopus as ‘coming soon’ in July 2019, then ‘as soon as possible’ in September, finally postponing it in December for ‘later in 2020’ without explanation. This despite endless beta test leaks that indicated everything was ready to roll and endless launch rumors that never panned out. The Apple Pay Octopus Wait for Godot was a very bumpy journey. A timeline:

Global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch
Apple Pay Octopus is just like Apple Pay Suica with Express Transit. It can be used on iPhone 8 and later with iOS 13.5, and Apple Watch Series 3 and later with watchOS 6.2.5. Apple devices from anywhere can add and use Octopus thanks to Apple global NFC support but practical use is limited to having a Hong Kong issue Mastercard, Visa or UnionPay bank card already in Wallet.

iPhone 11 Pro/11/XR/XS have the A12/A13 Bionic exclusive Express Transit with power reserve feature that gives users an additional 5 hours of Express Transit use when iPhone is in low battery power reserve mode. A12/A13 Bionic powered transit card performance is also much improved over previous iPhone models because the Bionic Secure Element directly handles transactions that eliminate iOS overhead. If Octopus on iPhone X doesn’t work well, check this support post.

Apple Watch is the first time Octopus has landed on a smartwatch. As a long time Apple Pay Suica user I can tell you that it’s the Apple Watch killer app. Octopus users will really enjoy the experience on Apple Watch especially when hooked up with auto recharge/Automatic Add Value Service (AAVS).

Similarities with Suica
Octopus is based on the same FeliCa technology that powers Suica, both cards are very similar in scope and use for fast transit and contactless payments of all kinds. According to Wikipedia over 33 million Octopus cards were in circulation as of 2018 used by 99 per cent of Hong Kong residents. The ubiquity of Octopus with Express Transit for transit and purchases will drive Apple Pay use in Hong Kong far more than regular credit/debit cards.

Apple Pay Octopus and Apple Pay Suica both have the same fast Express Transit performance that no other Express Transit cards can match with faster gate performance than the recently added Apple Pay China T-Union mainland transit cards.

New virtual Octopus cards can be created directly in Wallet just like Apple Pay Suica cards or added via the Octopus app (v6). Plastic Octopus cards can also be transferred to Wallet but cannot be used after transfer.

Some attached services are not supported. Be sure to check Important Notes to Customers before transferring a plastic Octopus. Another issue to be aware of is that the Octopus card number changes when transferred which can cause problems with some card ID# linked services.

Not Inbound Friendly
OCL limits Apple Pay Octopus card creation and recharge to having Hong Kong issue Mastercard, UnionPay and Visa cards already added in Wallet. It’s clearly not geared for inbound visitors. This is a shame because Apple supports global NFC on all devices which Samsung and Android devices do not, a key difference.

In practice this means any iPhone 8 and later from anywhere can use Apple Pay Octopus but only when a Hong Kong issue bank payment card is already loaded in Wallet. Suica is very different in this regard: it can be created and recharged in Wallet with any Apple Pay loaded card no matter the brand or country of issue, all without service fees. It’s a very inbound friendly deal for Japan visitors with iPhone.

Unfortunately OCL was limited by restrictive Hong Kong bank agreements and didn’t offer any Apple Pay inbound friendly solutions at the press event. Hopefully they will expand inbound bank card support down the road as banks realize the value of enticing tourists to use Hong Kong transit.

Octopus was the first real transit platform (contactless transit and eMoney) that had a tremendous impact on the development of other transit card fare systems around the world such as Transport for London Oyster. However, OCL needs to aggressively expand Octopus services on other mobile digital wallets like Google Pay especially as MTR moves to add QR Code payment Open Loop support.

Apple Maps Transit Integration
Hong Kong Apple Maps Transit directions launched in tandem with Apple Pay Octopus. It makes sense for Apple to offer both services as an integrated package as they did for the Apple Pay Suica. In Japan, Google Maps transit directions offer more detail and a better UI than Apple Maps Transit even though they use the same data suppliers. Your milage may vary but Google Maps transit directions for Hong Kong has been in place for some time and offers extras like crowding info. Another limitation shared with Apple Maps in Japan: no indoor station mapping.

Greater Bay Area Apple Pay Transit Compatibility
Apple Pay Octopus is the last piece of the transit puzzle that delivers Express Transit convenience to Greater Bay Area iPhone/Apple Watch users who, up until iOS 13.4.1, were limited to China Union Pay (CUP) cards without Express Transit and plastic Octopus cards.

The recently released Apple Pay China T-Union transit cards are interoperable transit cards that work across the country, some 257 mainland cities, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO. China T-Union uses the PBOC 2.0/3.0 protocol, the Chinese variant of EMV with the slowest NFC transaction speeds, they are limited to UnionPay issue credit/debit cards for recharge and cannot be used for purchases. Octopus uses the faster FeliCa protocol and offers an open Apple Pay recharge backend for Hong Kong issue cards.

The advantage for wide area travelers is that they can now add both Apple Pay Octopus and China T-Union cards in Wallet. Having 2 different Apple Pay transit cards in Wallet may not be exactly the same as the dual mode Sold Octopus•Lingnan Pass but it should be close. It will be interesting to hear what the Apple Pay Greater Bay Area transit experience is like using both services.

Why the long wait?
There has been endless speculation regarding the reasons for the Apple Pay Octopus delay. Technically it could have launched on iOS 12 but was held back for an unbelievably long test period over 2 major iOS versions, running from December 2018 and iOS 12 all the way to May 2020 and iOS 13.5, the last major release before iOS 14.

Why? Personally I always felt the unexplained November 2019 Smart Octopus service outage was an ominous sign that OCL plans were under political pressure, though many will disagree. Other possible delay reasons include Apple Pay recharge card support and fee negotiations, and lining up Apple Map transit data. There’s no question that the go-slow OCL approach with constant tweaking of mobile and O! ePay services was not helped by the ever-deteriorating political situation.

The Apple Pay Octopus launch story was a long winding road with many ups and letdowns in the very difficult year of 2019. 2020 is also a very difficult year in a different way, though I hope it can still turn out to be a time of recovery.

I’d like to thank all the readers who shared Octopus tips and comments that let me report a complex, ever changing situation. I learned many things, the most important of which is that Hong Kong people are very kind and very smart. Wish you all a safe, healthy and happy transit wherever you go.

‘Redefining Mobile Payments’ June 2 press event invitation
Mobile Suica has a long history dating back to 2007. Mobile use growth had stalled until the Apple Pay Suica launch in 2016. Octopus on Apple Pay will likely drive a similar spurt of mobile use.

UPDATES

June 3 8:00 JST: Octopus issues apology, “Due to the overwhelming response to the launch of Octopus on iPhone and Apple Watch, some customers could not add their Octopus between 11:30 am and 12:19 pm on 2 June,” and compensating some Octopus users
June 2 12:00 JST: Octopus Card Limited site updated for Apple Pay Octopus and a press release
June 2 09:00 JST: Apple Pay Octopus page added to Hong Kong Apple site with instructions for creating, transferring and topping up Octopus cards in Apple Pay
June 2 03:20 JST: Octopus App v6 update released
June 2 01:50 JST: Apple Pay Octopus has launched, rollout expanding in stages
June 2 00:46 JST: Apple Pay Transit directions for Hong Kong appearing in advance of the Apple Pay Octopus

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