Special Mobile Suica Maintenance Notice

JR East issued a Mobile Suica system maintenance notice, the downtime will run longer than usual: all services will be offline from midnight to 6:30 am March 21 JST. This includes Apple Pay Suica recharge so be sure to recharge before then, or use cash recharge at the nearest convenience store.

The special maintenance is related to the recent Shinkansen eTicket service launch and preparation for an updated Eki-net App that will eventually support it.

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JR East Shinkansen eTicket Service Launch

Today, March 14, marks the end of Mobile Suica Shinkansen ticketing in Suica App and the start of a new open IC transit card eTicket Shinkansen service. It doesn’t have name. It’s just one of many ticket options available in the good old JR East ‘Eki-net’ (Station-net) online ticket reservation service, well known and not loved by many. A Japanese friend said it best, “You would think that a top tier Japanese company like JR East with many smart employees would create something better than Eki-net or pay somebody to do so.”

The problem is not that Eki-net doesn’t work. It works, but throwing everything new (IC transit card eTickets) and old (email tickets and paper tickets) in same Eki-net shoebox is a cluttered unwieldy package, a confusing and messy UI not nearly as convenient as JR East wants us to believe. Instead of a sleek new Shinkansen eTicket service, we get the same stodgy paper ticket service with a new hard to find eTicket option.

JR East would have been better off making a clean break by rebranding the new eTickets as a completely different service with a new spiffy name and separate multi-lingual app, just like JR Central’s SmartEX with the addition of new eTicket options over time. The less is more SmartEX approach focuses exclusively on Shinkansen eTickets and eliminates local line travel options because those are covered by Suica/ICOCA/Toica, etc. Eki-net on the other hand makes a big deal of ‘big trip’ options covering everything from Shinkansen and regular express trains to tour packages and car rentals.

The Eki-net approach does have one advantage over the 2-tier JR Central/JR West SmartEX (free membership with small discounts) and EX-Press Reserve (annual membership fee/special IC card/bigger discounts): Eki-net is ‘flat’ with free membership, offering the same discounts to all members in one service. Shinkansen eTickets are only available at launch from the online Eki-net site. I recommend the more streamlined smartphone online browser version. JR East has announced an updated Eki-net App for App Store/Google Play with eTicket support that should be coming March 21 (now postponed to an unknown future date). The new eTicket service is also available to JR West e5489 ticket reservation service members as JR West shares Hokuriku Shinkansen operations with JR East.

The end of Mobile Suica eTickets in Suica App means a mandatory app update that strips out the retired service. Users must update to the new 2.6 version by March 18. After this date older Suica App versions stop working. The migration from the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service has good and bad points:

Good Points
JR East Shinkansen eTickets are compatible with all major transit IC cards. This finally opens JR East operated Shinkansen lines to plastic and mobile transit cards, the old system was limited to Mobile Suica. An interesting new twist is that up to 6 transit IC cards can be attached to one account for family or group travel.

Bad Points
The migration from the Mobile Suica Shinkansen/Suica App system means no more Suica App/Apple Pay in-app purchases, you must register an Eki-Net account, yes another JR East service, and a credit card. The current Eki-net system is designed around the account registered credit card for paper ticket pickup at station kiosks using the card PIN code, this effectively eliminates Apple Pay/Google Pay as an in-app purchase choice. Last but not least the new Shinkansen eTicket service is Japanese language only.

New IC/QR gates at JR Takanawa Gateway Station opening March 14

Shinkansen eTickets are only the first step in a long term migration away from mag strip paper tickets. Mag strip ticket gates are more expensive than transit gates with NFC or QR readers with higher maintenance costs, there is also the increasing cost of recycling the special mag strip paper.

Paper tickets for all transit will remain a cash purchase at station kiosks, as they must, these will be QR codes instead of mag strip. The tricky parts are: 1) how much ticketing can be ported over to the transit IC card side 2) what local transit fare tiers apply to QR. Since Shinkansen eTickets are simply one time purchase options attached to a transit IC card number in the cloud, theoretically any purchased option can be attached to a transit IC card number. Local transit has fare tier for cash tickets and a less expensive one for transit IC cards.

I see local transit cash fare tiers staying in place for station kiosk purchased QR paper tickets, but I don’t see smartphone app QR Codes for one time local transit. The cheaper fare tier incentive for reusable transit IC cards will likely remain in place. This leaves smartphone app QR Codes for express trains, limited use tourist/season/campaign passes and group travel.

Mag strip tickets have served us very well for the past 30 years. The final migration to Mobile/NFC/QR will be interesting but I’ll miss those marvelously mechanical ticket gates from Omron.

Transit Cards on Mobile

Recent Hong Kong rumors say the long delayed Apple Pay Octopus will finally launch in March April 2020 along with the recently announced Apple Pay support for Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Foshan China T-Union transit cards. The rumors also suggest that putting China T-Union cards on Apple Pay is easier than Octopus. Is this true? Let’s take a look.

The chart below lists native transit cards on mobile digital wallets by service launch year, limited to reloadable virtual transit cards already in service or formally announced by wallet platform vendors (Apple/Google/Samsung/etc.) and/or transit operators. Best viewed in landscape mode.

YearCardAreaOperatorOS/Digital WalletNFCProtocol
2006Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai/SymbianFMobile FeliCa
2011Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai/AndroidFMobile FeliCa
2015TmoneyKoreaTmoney Co. LtdSamsung PayAMIFARE
cashbeeKoreaEB Card Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
2016Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastApple PayFMobile FeliCa
China T-UnionChinaVariousHuawei Pay/Samsung PayAPBOC 2.0
2017Beijing/Shanghai TransitChinaBMAC/SPTCCApple PayAPBOC 2.0*
2018iPassTaiwaniPass Co.FitBit Pay/Garmin PayAMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Garmin PayAMIFARE
HOPPortlandTriMetGoogle PayAMIFARE
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLSamsung PayFMobile FeliCa
2019HOPPortlandTriMetApple PayAMIFARE
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLApple Pay (announced/delayed)FMobile FeliCa
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicApple Pay (announced/delayed)AMIFARE
Mobile mykiVictoriaPublic Transport VictoriaGoogle PayAMIFARE4Mobile
2020ShenzhenGreater Bay RegionShenzhen Tong LimitedApple Pay (announced)APBOC 3.0 (?)
GuangzhouGreater Bay RegionGuangzhou Yang Cheng Tong LimitedApple Pay (announced)APBOC 3.0 (?)
FoshanGreater Bay RegionApple Pay (announced)APBOC 3.0 (?)
SmarTripWashington DCWMATA/CubicApple Pay (announced)AMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicGoogle Pay (announced)AMIFARE
Mobile PASMOTokyoPASMOOsaifu Keitai (announced)FFeliCa

Transit card payment mobile protocols are FeliCa, MIFARE and PBOC 2.0/3.0, the later is the Chinese variant of EMV which uses Type A NFC with the slowest grocery store checkout transaction speeds of the three protocols:

Each card organization has formed its own specifications based on the EMV specification based on its own business refinement and expansion, such as China UnionPay’s PBOC 2.0 specification…PBOC based on the EMV standard, combined with the needs of domestic banks, the People’s Bank of China promulgated the PBOC series of standards:
1 PBOC1.0: e-wallet / electronic passbook / magnetic stripe card function
2 PBOC 2.0: E-wallet extension application, debit/credit application, personalization guide, contactless IC card standard
3 PBOC 3.0: Cancel e-wallet and electronic passbook application, cancel downgrade transaction, multi-algorithm extension, multi-application extension, mobile payment standard

Super Lu

Compared to other contactless smartcards in use, the data transmission of <China T-Union> Yang Cheng Tong is criticized by commuters that it takes 1~2 seconds between the card and reader to complete the transaction, though the operator claims that the data communication only takes 0.5 seconds in its official site.

Wikipedia Yang Cheng Tong
YouTube comment lucidly explains the speed differences between NFC types (blocked outside of Canada)
This Wikipedia chart needs to be updated but illustrates how many China T-Union cards there are

Some China transit cards used FeliCa and MIFARE protocols in the past but have been migrated to the PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-union card spec for interoperable transit cards that work across the country, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc. Mobile FeliCa developed by Sony and NTT Docomo has been around the longest and works across multiple mobile hardware platforms from Symbian handsets, to Android, to iOS/watchOS. MIFARE and PBOC 2.0 have a shorter history on mobile. The key period is 2015~2016 which saw transit card debuts on Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Huawei Pay. Initial Apple Pay support for Beijing and Shanghai transit cards was listed as beta on iOS 11.3. An NFC engineering source said the early Apple implementation was not the full PBOC 2.0 spec, apparently fixed in iOS 12.3 when the beta label was removed.

One of the biggest advantages of transit cards in digital wallets is the freedom of anywhere anytime recharge with credit/debit cards; transit users are no longer chained to station kiosks to recharge plastic smartcards or renew a pass. The more payment options supported on the recharge backend, the more convenient. These are great customer features, so why is it taking so long to get transit cards on mobile in America and Europe when there are many China T-Union transit cards already on mobile?

Many transit card fare systems outside of Asia are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems, including Oyster, Opal, Clipper, OMNY, Ventra and SmarTrip to name a few. Cubic and operators like Transport for London and Transport for NSW have focused primarily on Open Loop EMV card support as a mobile solution instead of native virtual transit cards.

Publicly run transit system resources are usually limited so using bank cards for open loop transit is seen as a way to reduce system costs. The downside is that banks get a cut from transit gate transactions and transit cards for mobile are slow in coming, if at all. Cubic’s very first virtual transit card effort, the long delayed Apple Pay Ventra, is all the evidence you need when open loop is a priority and transit cards are not. Despite the recently announced Google Pay and Cubic alliance, I think transit cards on mobile will continue to arrive in a slow trickle. Let’s face it, HOP is the only American transit card that has gone mobile so far, and it’s not managed by Cubic. It’s the same story in Australia with Melbourne myki Google Pay.

Putting aside the open loop fad for a moment, I think the large deployment of China T-Union cards on mobile comes down to one simple thing that has nothing to do with protocols or smartphone hardware: all China T-Union cards share a common recharge backend cloud provided by Union Pay. It’s the reason why China T-Union sports a similar logo, the Union from Union Pay, and can only be recharged with a Union Pay card. It’s all one package. From Apple Support:

Here’s what you need to create a new Beijing Transit or Shanghai Transit card in Wallet to use with your iPhone:
An iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, or later, set up with Face ID, Touch ID, or a passcode
A China UnionPay debit card for Beijing, or a China UnionPay credit or debit card for Shanghai that you’ve added to Wallet

Add a Beijing or Shanghai transit card to Apple Pay

A common recharge backend cloud shared by all transit cards with the same card architecture makes hosting virtual cards much easier, the various transit operators don’t have to host everything directly or build a cloud backend from scratch, and there’s nothing to negotiate because Union Pay is the only payment network.

China T-Union in the cards for Hong Kong Octopus?
China T-Union illustrates the power a national transit card standard backed with a shared cloud resource but it’s a straightjacket: Union Pay is the only payment network allowed. The real interesting development here is that QR Codes (AliPay/WeChat Pay) for transit, and everything else, are mainstream in China. There are many reasons for this outcome but on the transit gate QR Codes and PBOC-EMV transit cards are pretty much the same speed. There isn’t enough difference to care, and AliPay/WeChat Pay represent a choice outside the Union Pay straitjacket with all kinds of incentives to use QR.

Another interesting development is the pressure from QR Code players like Alipay for a piece of MTR transit gate action, and the Greater Bay Area transit card negoiations with Yangchengtong on the Hong Kong MTR/Octopus Card Limited mobile strategy roadmap. QR is mobile only of course, but a dual mode FeliCa/PBOC card approach for the Greater Bay Area is much cheaper and easier to implement on mobile than plastic.

Unfortunately in the face of pressure MTR/OCL, a world leading transit platform business model and innovator, has been surprisingly slow rolling out virtual Octopus cards on digital wallets to encourage the migration from plastic cards with new kinds of mobile services. It’s a troubling turn of events because OCL has had all the necessary transit on mobile infrastructure in place to move forward quickly for some time.

The recent Hong Kong protests followed now by the coronavirus crisis are certainly slowing things down. In the end however, growing mobile services is the best way forward for Octopus to remain a viable Hong Kong MTR business in these uncertain times. Because if it does not, Octopus risks becoming just another China T-Union card. Put it this way, if OCL doesn’t innovate and invest it its future as a world’s leading transit platform, it does not have one.

Apple Pay Octopus Ides of March

Here we are again. Apple Pay Octopus has been languishing in beta test hell for over a year with no public release in sight. The last official news was the 2019 year end launch delay to ‘later in 2020’ and the Octopus App v5.6 update that added support for iPhone recharge/top up of plastic Octopus cards. Hong Kong beta testers found code references in v5.6 that clearly indicated Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) originally intended to release Apple Pay Octopus first and iPhone app plastic recharge later, but the order was flipped with the delay.

A few weeks ago a reader contacted me that OCL is updating the Schedule of Fees and Guidelines on March 1, 2020 turned out to be nothing. Then out of nowhere Twitter user Jason Tjong (account created in January 2020, the profile says IT journalist in Hong Kong but no publications are listed) put out a series of tweets in February saying everything that was supposed to be coming, first with Chinese New Year 2019, then later with iOS 13, is finally coming in March 2020 along with Octopus App v6, the whole shebang.

To which I say…hope for the best but we’ll have to see how it plays out. There have been so many delays that it’s hard to be optimistic, and Tjong has not revealed any sources or given reasons to back up his tweets. On top of everything else we now have the coronavirus crisis. If his predictions/sources turn out right, great, if not we’ll wait for the next rumor or a real announcement from OCL.

We do have a Apple Event March rumor for iPhone 9 and new iPad, but any event looks increasingly unlikely/impossible during the COVID‑19 crisis. At last year’s spring event Tim Cook mentioned Apple Pay HOP, Ventra and EMV Express Transit for MTA OMNY for 2019. Reality and results were mixed. Apple Pay HOP launched without a hitch, OMNY Express Transit launched on schedule but MTA users stuck with manual swipe MetroCard are irritated by Express Transit (Express Transit in a long term system mixed migration environment was not a good idea), and Apple Pay Ventra is stuck in coming soon hell.

Tjong says the Apple Pay Octopus delay is Apple’s fault not OCL, but again I am skeptical. From a technical side OCL already has extensive mobile experience with their Smart Octopus on Samsung service and has field tested Apple Pay Octopus since December 2018, OCL feedback to beta testers indicated everything was set to launch right up until the delay announcement. From a business side I find it hard to believe that OCL would dump resources into extensive Apple Pay beta field testing and Octopus App development without the business contract ends tied down. I think there are other reasons..reasons possibly related to the Hong Kong protests and the unexplained takedown of Smart Octopus during the Hong Kong Polytechnic University siege, but this is not a popular view.

We can put aside all doubts and pretend that March will be insanely great. Tim will announce Apple Pay for Octopus and more at the March Apple Event, Octopus Cards Limited CEO Sunny Cheung will be invited on stage to unveil the service. Joking aside, the only clarity from the murky chaos that was 2019 and is 2020 so far is this: Hong Kong is in a very different place than it was back in December 2018 and there’s less interest in Apple Pay Octopus.

2/19 UPDATE
Jason Tjong also tweeted that Apple Pay Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Foshan China T-Union transit cards announced by Apple in early January will appear with iOS 13.4 which would be March, he also suggests that China T-Union card mobile integration is less complex than Octopus, again without citing sources or offering explanation. Given the circumstances of the Octopus delay I don’t agree with his tech take, but Apple Pay Lingnan/ShenZhen/Foshan coming more or less simultaneously with Apple Pay Octopus crossed my mind back when those card were announced in December right before the OCL delay announcement.
It makes sense for Apple Pay to align transit card region support whenever possible though I do not think Apple is the reason for the last minute Octopus delay. We shall see. Long term, Greater Bay Area Transit operators are looking to create a single transit card. A multiple release that soon straddles both Hong Kong and surrounding mainland area transit cards with a single digital wallet, not dual mode exactly but close, is a win for iPhone/Apple Watch transit users.

3/15 UPDATE
New Apple Pay Octopus iOS 13.4 launch rumors along with Apple Pay China T-Union beta test screen shots are making Twitter rounds. If true, we could see wide area Apple Pay Transit releases on or shortly after the official iOS 13.4 which could drop this week March 25/26. With the coronavirus crisis in full swing in America now, expect things to be fluid.

Tokyo Cashless 2020: NFC Pay…are we there yet?

Tokyo Cashless 2020 is a periodic look at all things cashless as Japan gears up for the Tokyo Olympics event. If there is a topic you’d like covered, tweet @Kanjo

Mom always had a ready answer for us kids at the start of every family summer trip, “No honey we’re not there yet.” It was vague, non-committal, endlessly cheery. NFC Pay (aka EMV contactless) has made some progress at Japanese checkouts, but as Junya Suzuki lamented recently it’s still not universal. Cashless payments in general however have made good progress thanks to the Japan Cashless rebate program.

Every inbound cashless Japan experience is different, it depends on the kind of trip, the region and personal spending habits. A businessman using plastic credit cards staying in Tokyo area hotels and well known areas, then yes the experience is mostly cashless. A budget backpacker on Lonely Planet/Airbnb trail will have a very different, very cash cash experience. Europeans and Australians will find that their EMV contactless bank cards don’t tap very far and wide.

Just Say ‘Apple Pay’ Conundrum
People would love to be able to just say ‘Apple Pay’ at checkout, but this does’t work very well in Japanese contactless checkout jungle. When you say ‘Apple Pay’ you get:

  • The main card set for Apple Pay Wallet
  • Face ID/Touch ID authentication request

This can play out in different ways. If you have an international issue bank card set as the main card and say ‘Apple Pay’ at Lawson, the reader pulls up the main card with a Face ID/Touch ID authentication request. If you have Suica set as the main card and say ‘Apple Pay’ at Lawson, it pulls up Suica with a Face ID/Touch ID authentication. If you want use Apple Pay Suica Express Transit at checkout, you have to ‘Suica’, not ‘Apple Pay’. Are you confused? The confusion is compounded by poor employee training. You can use EMV contactless at any McDonalds but getting the checkout staff to actually make it happen is a completely different story.

Who’s to blame for this state of affairs? I say everybody: Banks, Card companies, The EMV Consortium, Sony, NXP, The NFC Forum, Apple, Google, Samsung, and especially Visa Japan who refuse to play nice with anybody who plays nice with FeliCa. Instead of working together to create and market a few intelligent payment schemes that work seamlessly, we have a world of this and that pay. The only player to gain anything from the Japanese market card payment mess is, surprise, the card-less QR Code PayPay.

EMV contactless and known aliases
To successfully navigate the Japanese contactless jungle, inbound Apple Pay travelers needs to be acquainted with a few checkout slogans: NFC Pay, credit and Suica. When you see the EMV contactless acceptance logos for Mastercard, Visa, Amex or JCB, say ‘credit’ or ‘NFC Pay’ at checkout. This should work for both plastic EMV contactless cards and Apple Pay/Google Pay/Samsung Pay inbound digital cards. Even if the checkout terminal does not display an Apple Pay or Google Pay logo, you are good to go.

Unfortunately, there isn’t comprehensive resource for NFC Pay store listings. Visa Japan only lists Visa Touch stores, Mastercard only lists Mastercard contactless stores, etc. The best approach for iPhone/Apple Watch inbound visitors is to create a Suica card on your device and be flexible, use a mix of Apple Pay Suica (recharged with Apple Pay cards), NFC Pay and plastic credit cards. NFC Pay nirvana may not be here yet, but we’ll get there…eventually.