Update: Apple Pay ICOCA launched 2023-06-27 7:00 am JST.
With the successful launch of Mobile ICOCA (2023-03-22) on Osaifu Keitai Android, it’s time to think about Apple Pay ICOCA that was formally announced today (2023-04-17) as coming ‘this year’. The timing depends on how quickly Apple tests and qualifies ICOCA for Apple Pay, and how badly JR West wants to launch.
And believe me, Apple Pay ICOCA needs to launch sooner than later because JR West will never achieve their stated goal of 5 million Mobile ICOCA users without Apple Pay. However the ICOCA service menu on Apple Pay might be different than Suica or PASMO. Apple Pay Suica works out of the box without Suica App or registering an account. Based on Mobile ICOCA on Android, Apple Pay ICOCA might require ICOCA App and a registered WESTER ID. Let’s take a look.
The WESTER ID requirement for Mobile ICOCA Android
The Mobile ICOCA app for Osaifu Keitai Android allows registered WESTER users to add a new ICOCA, transfer a Mobile ICOCA card from another device, reissue a Mobile ICOCA (from a lost or damaged device). The key point is that: only registered WESTER ID users can create and add a Mobile ICOCA card. No plastic card transfers to mobile are allowed because they include unregistered cards bought at a station kiosk. Does this means ICOCA will not have native Apple Wallet add card support like Suica and PASMO?
Technically transit cards added natively in Wallet are ‘unregistered’ cards, but in reality they are registered to the Apple ID. A careful reading of JR West’s carefully worded Apple Pay ICOCA announcement states, “you can add your ICOCA card to Wallet.” JR West is playing it carefully, it might be native Wallet add, or transfer plastic card add. We won’t know until service details are released, but releasing a different and more limited service than Apple Pay Suica or PASMO won’t wash well with vocal Kansai area users or grow the ICOCA user base.
If JR West goes the WESTER ID requirement route, we’ll have the Japanese version of HOP or Ventra. When you take a look at the transit card list in Wallet for the United States you’ll notice that Chicago Ventra and Portland HOP are not listed even though they appear on the Apple support page: Where you can ride transit using Apple Pay. This is because even though these cards can be added to Wallet, they have the same limits Mobile ICOCA does: only registered cards can only be added from an app, plastic card transfers to Wallet not supported.
JR West is doing this because they are positioning Mobile ICOCA on Android as part of the JR West WESTER portal service for earning WESTER POINT with transit use and purchases, and using WESTER POINT for recharge, eTickets, and more. You have to have a WESTER ID to add and use Mobile ICOCA. Why? I suspect it has to do with the end of paper ticket coupons, the old reliable buy 10 get one free. These were incredibly popular in the JR West Kansai area and said to be one of the reasons why it took so long for ICOCA to go mobile. Having WESTER and Mobile ICOCA as one package deal means JR West has the mobile equivalent of paper ticket coupons in place giving WESTER POINT rewards.
JR East’s focus on the other hand, is all about growing the Mobile Suica user base with JRE POINT as an option that adds value to being a Mobile Suica user. Yes JRE POINT and Suica offer the mobile equivalent of paper ticket coupons too, but the JR East service ecosystem is messy. Users have to register and juggle separate accounts for Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net, VIEW CARD and so on. JR West is shoehorning all of their services into one WESTER ID to streamline everything and make it easier for users.
Full embrace of Apple Pay drives growth
One of the very nice things about Suica is that anybody can add it to Wallet and recharge it with Apple Pay credit cards. Apple Pay Suica Commuter Pass users can also renew passes in Wallet directly. Will ICOCA have the same? The announcement suggests so, a good sign because if JR West keeps Apple Pay at arms length and restricts all recharge and commuter pass renewal to ICOCA app, there will be no add money button in Wallet and no recharge with Apple Pay. This is what we see with Apple Pay Ventra and Apple Pay HOP: card issue, recharge, commute plan renewal is all restricted to registered account users in the iOS app. This kind of recharge limitation is a huge pain for Apple Watch users. We won’t know for sure until JR West releases clearly outlined service details.
JR East achieved 20 million Mobile Suica users because of their full embrace of Apple Pay and unregistered Mobile Suica cards. Users can add and use Suica on iPhone and Apple Watch right out of the box without a Mobile Suica account or an app. It just works. It’s the deal same for Mobile Suica on Garmin, Fitbit and Pixel Watch. The Mobile Suica service ecosystem may be messy, but it works on a huge variety of mobile devices.
The JR West approach is streamlined but does risk reducing the potential Mobile ICOCA user base if they restrict it to WESTER ID account holders and ICOCA App. Little details like full Wallet support makes all the difference with user growth. It all comes down to business choices: JR West wants WESTER ecosystem users, JR East wants Suica users, but how much does JR West want Mobile ICOCA users? If JR West closes the door to unregistered Mobile ICOCA on Apple Pay and Wallet recharge, Kansai users who don’t need commuter passes or WESTER points will use Mobile Suica. Actually, they already are.