Up until iOS 12 adding a Suica card to Apple Pay Wallet has been centered around transferring a plastic Suica card. The Apple setup page assumed you already have a plastic Suica, there was no mention of adding a virtual Suica card or how to do it. Not any more.
In iOS 13 the Suica setup is no longer about transferring a plastic card, it’s all about creating a virtual Suica card in Wallet. This eliminates a lot of setup hurdles for inbound travelers, and Japanese users too, who want to use Apple Pay Suica:
No more need to buy a plastic Suica
No more fuss adding the last 4 digits of the Suica ID number
No more entering a birth date
No more reading Suica card data into Wallet
No more dead useless plastic Suica card
The new iOS 13 Set up a Suica card in Apple Pay instructions are this:
Set Region to Japan
Open Wallet and tap the plus sign
Tap Suica Card.
Select an amount to put on your transit card.
Follow the steps to create a new transit card on your iPhone.
The Suica setup is inbound friendly, as Apple Pay Octopus will be when it launches with iOS 13. JR East has streamlined and beefed up the Mobile Suica system to accommodate the addition of what will doubtlessly be many virtual Suica cards. It appears that all new Suica cards created in iOS 13 Wallet are the ‘My Suica’ variety, this means they are registered in the Mobile Suica system and you can create more than one.
Creating virtual ‘My Suica’ used to require a Mobile Suica account and Suica App, but if this is no longer the case it suggests that all Apple Pay users adding virtual Suica in iOS 13 Wallet are now registered Mobile Suica users….at least from the backend system operations point of view. I suspect we’ll be getting details from JR East, and a new version of Suica App at some point.
There are still some gray areas, such as the status, or necessity of SuicaENG. I hope it sticks around because even though it’s a throwaway one time use app, it adds a virtual Suica without the ‘set Region to Japan’ setup requirement of Wallet. There’s also the problem of Apple Pay Suica card refunds which require a Japanese bank account to receive. I suspect JR East will stick to its guns and tell users to spend the remaining Suica balance down close to zero and remove it from Wallet.
while QR codes have proven remarkably effective at meeting most people’s mobile payment needs, it seems ill-suited for public transit compared with NFC. Since NFC relies on radio waves, payment requires only a tap of the phone. There’s no need to wake it up or turn the screen on, making it as convenient as traditional transit cards.
The limitations of the <QR> technology are apparent even as cities race to install QR code scanners in turnstiles across the country. Over time, though, the inconvenience might be enough to nudge China away from its reliance on QR codes.
The long answer requires a quick look at transit gate technology evolution. The success of Suica can be found in its development process, a fascinating story by itself. The Suica card and transit gate were developed as one thing to replicate the ease of flashing a commuter pass to the gate attendant without stopping.
A video of old style paper ticket manned gates illustrates the start point. There is no physical barrier. People slow down to get their ticket punched but rarely stop. For a commuter pass the user flashed a wallet with a clear plastic window at the attendant and kept on going, shown at the 0:16 mark:
Shigeo Miki came up with an idea of using IC cards for tickets. The magnetic-type ticket automatic gates, which were in use since the 1980’s, had some inconvenient aspects. Old-style passes could be shown to attendants without being taken out of their cases. But to use automatic ticket gates, passengers had to take them out, pass them through the automatic gate, and then put them away again. He thought that was a decline in service quality…
This was the late 1980’s when IC cards were just coming into wider use, but not for transit. The Suica project had a large impact on Sony FeliCa development as did the Hong Kong Octopus project starting in 1992…
Furthermore, systems that read ID data from read-only cards and interact with the main computer each time someone goes through the ticket gate could not keep up with the enormous volume of data processing transactions in rush hour. So Miki and his fellow researchers perceived that the cards must be read/write types.
There we have it, the Suica project goals were: open gates, waving commuter passes, local processing. Magnetic strip paper ticket gates got faster, Omron states the speed is within 600 Milliseconds (MS), and better with the ability to handle and sort multiple tickets at a time. Suica is cool but nothing is cooler than watching the physical action of a well designed machine:
Despite development problems and a low research priority within JR East at the time, Suica success was achieved by moving the battery supply from the card to the gate and creating fast reliable performance with an illuminated target NFC ‘hit area’ tilted forward at 15 degrees, the same design you see today on the JREM EG-20 transit gate. The EG-20 already looks surprisingly similar to the open public transport gate concept. (Here’s a Japanese website that catalogs every JR East ticket device if you are interested)
Smartcard Transit Gates Compared Smart transit cards were an important development that revolutionized transit and launched successful systems such as Suica, Hong Kong MTR Octopus and TfL Oyster. However all smart transit gates are not equal. Compare the Malaysia Touch n’ Go gate speed with Suica on EG-20:
One of the commentators notes the crucial differences: FeliCa (used for Suica and Octopus) is the most efficient NFC protocol, 212 kbps minimum/847 kbps maximum, while Touch ‘n Go is mainly MIFARE Classic at 106 kbps an “early form of ISO 14443A, …the least efficient NFC protocol.”
There is another crucial difference: Japan transit gates are open by default and close only when needed, just like the old manned JR gates, while Malaysia and Hong Kong gates are closed on default or use old fashioned turnstiles. The combination of the Ferrari fast FeliCa combined with the well designed JREM EG-20 gate (and variants) that is default open, keeps people moving, best highlighted in a Pokemon Go event ‘Pikachu’ transit gate video:
Suica speed is part of what makes it fun but there is a serious reason behind it: major Japanese transit operators like JR East have to move a tremendous volume of people through a fixed station infrastructure space that cannot be enlarged. Bigger stations with more transit gates are not an option. So the system focus is using the fixed space infrastructure as efficiently as possible. That is why the Suica transaction speed is less than 200 MS, that is why a Suica transit gate must clear 60 people a minute.
Open Loop Multiple Protocol Transit Gates Compared Using EMV contactless with cards and smartphones, or QR Codes on smartphones for transit instead of native transit smartcards, is a step backwards from the fast read/write local processing model of Suica, and back towards read only centralized processing, one of the original system bottlenecks that Suica was designed to avoid. The QR Codes used for transit in China appear to be particularly slow and a poor match for high traffic stations. Poor gate design is certainly a factor here.
EMV has it’s own transit gate problems as well, as Singapore transit users found out in the recent rollout of EMV SimplyGo service there, things slow down:
It’s fascinating that Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) dumped the fast FeliCa (rated 200 millisecond transaction but Octopus clocks in at around 100ms) behind EZ-Link cards to roll their own faster CEPAS technology (rated 180ms transaction) but are now letting super slow EMV contactless (500ms plus and counting) on their transit reader infrastructure. It’s like ripping out all the cutting edge transit gate technology and replacing it with clunky old supermarket cash register technology.
The last comment in the first Twitter timeline is an important observation: most EMV transit is simply grafted onto the current transit gate infrastructure which was designed for something else, a factor contributing to unreliable performance, forcing users to adapt. Most of the multi-protocol transit gates in service are poor design.
This leads to another EMV issue users have to adapt to: ‘card clash’. When EMV is bolted onto an existing system slapping a wallet on the transit reader doesn’t work anymore, the card has to come out of the wallet. This is still one of the nice things about plastic Suica cards. Young Japanese women in particular seem to enjoy slapping those cute little Hello Kitty wallets on the gate reader with a surprisingly hard thwack, stress relief perhaps? Chicago Ventra support offers insight on the current state of EMV transit:
Get your device ready, first, for fastest entry
“Card clash”: touch only your desired payment method
Multiple credit cards: always use the same card on the same device on transit readers
These are issues that Apple Pay EMV Express Transit is designed to fix by designating a single EMV bank card for transit but it cannot change the inherently slow EMV transaction speed or solve the limitations of EMV bank card architecture which is basically centrally processed read only. There are limits on how much the central processing read only model can achieve when fast, precise, local transactions are required. All EMV Express Transit does it designate a bank card that tells the transit gate reader: I am a real bank card, not a forged one, we’ll settle the bill later.
The Abacus article points out the slow uptake of NFC, blaming it on UnionPay, but it boils down to the PBOC flavored EMV spec itself:
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, VISA’s VSDC specification and MasterCard’s M/Chip specification. Each specification follows the EMV specification for basic transaction processes and security mechanisms, but differs in terms of data element definition and extended application…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
Beijing and Shanghai Transit cards were originally MIFARE but instead of examining what technologies would be best for next generation transit needs, China simply migrated them to the much slower PBOC 2.0/EMV specification implemented on the China T-union transit card architecture. The China T-union card is country wide transit prepaid card spec for interoperable transit cards that can work everywhere, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc.
Unfortunately, the rollout of new format card issuance has been slow and piecemeal, with no apparent promotion push to educate transit users. Chinese users familiar with Suica performance find China T-union cards slower and less reliable at the gate. Because PBOC is slow EMV NFC spec 500 MS transaction speed and tightly chained to UnionPay, the transit gate performance edge is not great enough to ween users away from QR Codes and the point benefits of sticking with AliPay and WeChat Pay.
If the performance gain was similar to the huge Suica over QR difference, coupled with an open flexible backend for using different payment methods to add money, China T-union would stand a better chance of nudging QR users to NFC for transit. As it stands now, there’s no real difference between a UnionPay card and a China T-union card at the transit gate. One is post pay, the other is prepaid, 2 versions of the same thing, marginally faster than QR, but not much.
Whatever the causes for the current situation, it’s a perfect gift to Chinese QR code players, I suspect that the arrangement is also a profitable one for the Chinese government on some level because if it was not, they wouldn’t be adding QR Code readers to transit gates.
QR Codes for Japan Transit Some Japanese tech journalists have fretted about JR East not embracing QR Codes on transit gates because JR Central plans to completely eliminate paper tickets for the next generation Chuo Shinkansen. It’s less about QR and more about eliminating magnetic strip paper tickets. JR East does have limited QR code use for ticket purchases at station kiosks, we’ll likely see wide support of many cashless payment options, QR included, with the new JR East eTicketing system due in April 2020.
QR Codes have seen some limited use on local monorail systems such as Okinawa’s Yui Rail but Suica compatilbilty is coming to the system in April 2020. The next generation Super Suica that does a lot more for much less, will arrive in April 2021. QR Codes for transit use in Japan will reamain a small side show far away from the main attraction.
In summary, the use of EMV bank cards and QR Codes for transit all comes down to transit company priorities for safe operation, better customer service and long term business goals. My position has been and continues to be is that it’s a better long term business opportunity for transit companies to:
Offer robust support of bank cards, QR and digital wallets on the backend for adding money to native transit cards on digital wallets and plastic, where they are really useful and add value without giving control away to outside companies.
It’s a simple choice really, moving people quickly and safely by transit, managed wisely, is a license to make money. A company can either use that license to build something of greater long term value for the users and businesses of the transit region, a win-win, or give it away to someone else.
iOS 13 Apple Pay Suica has been fairly predictable until iOS 13 b6. The latest beta includes a new Wallet method for creating a virtual Suica card directly in Wallet. No more Suica App, no more SuicaEng. The new iOS 13 Wallet method for adding Suica goes straight to a virtual card setup with an option to ‘transfer existing card’ for plastic Suica. It is exactly the same setup for adding Beijing/Shanghai transit cards to Wallet, without the UnionPay only limitation of those cards.
This explains why SuicaEng app has not appeared in other languages: it’s just a stopgap until iOS 13 direct Suica card creation. This makes adding Suica to Apple Pay easier than ever, and is a great addition for inbound visitors coming for the Tokyo Olympics. It also puts Suica on the same footing with the upcoming Apple Pay Octopus which also will support direct card creation. Another nice touch is that it removes the ‘one virtual Suica card’ limit of Suica App and SuicaEng, you can create as many virtual Suica cards as Wallet allows.
I hope we will see more changes in how iOS 13 Region settings work with Apple Pay Wallet. Changing region settings to add Wallet cards confuses users, it needs to be simple. One of the nice things about SuicaEng is that it complete ignores Region settings and adds the card.
iOS 13 b6 also sheds light on the iPhone 7 FeliCa support mystery. A screenshot of a iPhone 7 Hong Kong model running iOS 13 does not mention transit cards when adding Apple Pay cards, while global FeliCa models like iPhone XS include transit cards in the blurb. This is disappointing news for non-JP model iPhone 7 users, but not unexpected. At least we now have some clarity: non-JP model iPhone 7 supports FeliCa for Core NFC Read/Write mode but not for card emulation mode. The jury is out for iPhone 7 JP models but since they already support FeliCa card emulation, they will surely support Apple Pay Octopus. Here is a comparison of iPhone 7 and iPhone XS screenshots.
I like writing but am no writer, so I prescribe to the ‘if you’re not a sharpshooter shoot lots of bullets’ school of wannabes. When the Financial Times, “The painful path of curing Japan of its cash addiction” (paywalled) piece came out, I had 2 hours to kill before going on a business trip and decided to post something while my reaction was fresh, figuring nobody would read it. The piece has not gotten many hits, but a few western journalists based in Tokyo tweeted about it recently, defending the FT piece and the overall ‘Japan failed’ game over narrative.
Here’s the thing. The cashless payments market landscape in Japan is the most messy and exciting one in the world right now. Nowhere else can you find such a concentrated investment in contactless payment infrastructure and different technologies (EMV, FeliCa, QR Codes, smartphones, etc.) competing and playing out in the market.
Japan is also the world’s great guinea pig test market. What works here first is adapted and deployed in other markets, like mobile payments. My take, covered in countless messy posts over the span of 2 years, is actually quite simple. The market revolution of mobile payments and smartphones is just getting started. The hot messy exciting payments situation you see happening in Japan right now will play out, in some other form, in other markets later.
That’s the story I think western journalists are missing. The ‘game over’ Japan narrative has been a stock western journalist in Japan ploy since the end of the Japan bubble, almost 30 years ago. A lot of journalists stick with it because it still sells. It’s entertaining for some people, but it doesn’t convey reality or educate.
Our smart devices are quickly evolving into ‘do everything’ devices that, unlike plastic, don’t care about any particular payment technology. They just work. That’s where the puck is going. If you sit around declaring that the game is over, you’re gonna miss the game. And the opportunity to tell people about it.
The dark mode Octopus card detail UI here does look legit and definitely iOS 13. Oh if I could only get my grubby hands on it. Hopefully we’ll get official details from Apple soon, perhaps in tandem with the Apple Card rollout due this month.