MacInTouch and me

I don’t know why but Ric Ford’s MacInTouch site has been on my mind a lot recently. It’s a feeling I’ve learned to trust, a sign that something is about to disappear for good…like a distant old relative. I stopped reading MacInTouch regularly sometime in 2003 when Ric Ford changed the format from a daily web post incarnation of the old Ford/LePage MacInTouch column that ran in the MacWeek print edition (and disappeared shortly after Steve Jobs returned to Apple), to an edited format of the MacInTouch Discussions forum. At the time I found the new generation of Apple bloggers like John Gruber’s Daring Fireball to be much more informative and fun, though JG is morphing into a political grump these days.

At its best MacInTouch was invaluable for keeping the Mac faithful together and warm in the dark cold late Scully~Spindler~Amelio days. It was like hanging out with other Mac users at a local computer store along with the proprietor. There was actually a place like that for me in Shizuoka, Yaizu actually, a little shop by the harbor called Data Planet that only sold Apple hardware. All the local Mac users would go there after work and hang out to chat, trade information and try out the latest software. A happy time. But there was something more in MacInTouch, there was a strong sense of helping other users with timely, detailed, smartly edited information that I just don’t see anymore in this age of opinion blogs and tech news sites.

I used to write for MacInTouch occasionally as a ‘contributing editor’ covering the MacWorld Tokyo conferences when Steve Jobs still gave keynotes (the last one being 2002) along with contributing editor Henry Norr before he moved on to the San Fransisco Chronicle and was famously fired for joining a demonstration opposing George W. Bush’s Invasion of Iraq. How times change n’est pas? MacInTouch had a run-in with Steve Jobs not long after his return when Apple PR closed down access on a story I was working on.

Apple
If you write for Macintouch I think any interview with Harada san <then president of Apple Japan> would not be appropriate. This is a rumor site that prints unsubstantiated stories about Apple.

MacInTouch #1
Thanks…I’m trying to hash it out now with Jobs, but I don’t know if I’ll get anywhere. (He admitted a kind of blacklisting in a subsequent message, and we’re now debating that.)

MacInTouch #2
I had an extended email exchange with Jobs, and he finally admitted the blacklisting after several weasel messages…it really pissed me off, but it’s in keeping with his reputation.

All of those old posts are long gone and inaccessible but here’s the last thing I wrote for MacInTouch:

MacWorld Tokyo 2002

What a difference a month makes. This was the first springtime MacWorld Tokyo ever and instead of the cold ripping winds of Makuhari, there were warmer whipping winds and cherry trees in bloom for expo goers who took time to find them.

Steve Jobs had no big new products to show off and this was his least exciting Tokyo keynote so far. Even so he put his best foot forward and pulled off a decent show-must-go-on performance. First off he listed all the topics for the day, MacOS X, Digital Hub, iMac, Bluetooth, Cinema Display and iPod with the first 2 topics closely following his San Francisco MacWorld keynote script with a few tweaks for the Japanese audience.

MacOS X, which Jobs said is ‘just about done’ headlined new X Japanese versions of Adobe’s InDesign and the forthcoming Photoshop 7 but as the Adobe Japan executive doing the demo said ‘we won’t be showing it on the floor’. Next up was the Japanese developer ErgoSoft who have had a bit of a renaissance of late with their X version of ‘EG Word’, a word processor, and ‘EG Bridge’ a ‘front end processor’ for inputting Japanese text.

Back in the KanjiTalk System 6 days EG Word and EG Bridge were king of the Mac Japanese word processing market. But after System 7 and localized versions of Microsoft Word hit the market Ergo lost its way and most of their market share. Right now they seem to be the only local developer taking advantage of the advanced OpenType/ATSUI MacOS X Japanese character sets announced by Jobs 2 years ago. Ergo president Yoichi Erikawa showed how easy it was to input and choose 24 different character combinations for the name ‘Watanabe’. He also showed how easy it is to import the extended character sets into InDesign and not have it change to garbage text. He paused for a moment and said to the audience ‘you can’t do this with Windows:..only with MacOS X.’ which got more applause than Adobe.

FileMaker president Dominique Goupil showed off another Mac warhorse with the recently released FileMaker Mobile for iMode cell phones, a very popular home grown item. FileMaker is flexible as ever and he showed how easy it is to add fields to a layout even with iMode users connected. This is a product aimed squarely at the Japanese cell phone market and has many exciting possibilities.

Apple’s Mike Evangelist then showed off Final Cut Pro 3.0 exactly as he did at San Francisco, and finally a LucasFilm executive showed how Maya was used for storyboarding the next Star Wars episode. He also showed a sneak preview clip which got applause but I remember how in the first Star Wars George Lucas used to do more with less. Now with digital effect overkill, he seems to use everything and ends up with nothing. Ho-hum, I’ll wait for the video.

The Digital Hub section outlining iMovie, iTunes, iDVD was an exact re-run of the previous keynote and Jobs ran them all through their paces. With the iMac, Jobs had some ‘good news and some bad news’. For the good news he went out of his way to quell rumors that Apple stores were more important than resellers, saying that Apple had shipped 125,000 new iMacs of which ‘less than 10%’ went to Apple Stores. Also he said that Apple was making 5,000 iMacs a day. ‘So we hope to catch up with demand by April’.

And the bad news? Component costs, memory and LCD displays, have risen 25% on average leaving computer manufactures with 2 choices: keep prices and lose features or keep features and raise prices. Jobs choose the latter raising iMac prices $100 across the board effective today, but he pledged to honor previous prices on all previously booked orders.

In the Bluetooth segment Jobs presented a wire/wireless connectivity model: for network connections we have Ethernet vs. AirPort, for peripherals we have FireWire and USB vs. Bluetooth. Bluetooth for the rest of us will be built into the next version of MacOS X with a beta download available shortly, you can purchase the D-Link DWB-120M USB Bluetooth Adapter from the Apple store as of today. On stage Jobs used the USB Bluetooth adapter to sync his Palm desktop and if you are a Palm user this is a real boon, all you have to do is point and click the Sync button. He also showed wireless modem setup with a cell phone.

The new Cinema Display HD was up next. At 23 inches, 1920×1200 pixels and 3,499 USD, the new display is not for the faint of heart but after seeing it at the Apple booth, it will take your breath away.

And last but not least, Jobs announced a 10GB version of iPod for $499. ‘How long is 2,000 tunes?’ Jobs asked. ‘Enough to last 6 trips between Tokyo and San Francisco’. In addition to the new configuration, the Apple Store now offers custom laser engraving on the back of your iPod ‘for only $49’ and a new iPod firmware update that adds a new ‘Contacts’ menu item. Contacts uses the vCard standard which means you should be able to download data from Palm and Entourage and can store up to 1000 contacts. It all looks convenient enough but I wonder if the next step is a keypad instead of the wheel and ‘iPhone’ instead of ‘iPod’.

If there is any shortage of new iMacs in the retail channel it wasn’t evident on the expo floor. They were everywhere in the Apple booth and beyond. The floor didn’t seem as large as the previous venue in Makuhari, but the layout was good with a healthy mix of big guns, special solutions and game vendors. I’ll have more on that with part 2 tomorrow.

Badly dated of course but looking back it’s easy to see how quickly things were changing after iPod appeared as Apple rebuilt itself and the future. The old MacWorld Expo business model was dying. Apple PR sealed off media access to control their own spin by limiting it to a few select superstar personalities. The cozy old Mac user group model of hanging out at the local family owned computer shop quickly gave way to big sleek Apple Stores with Genius Bars.

I doubt many people remember when MacInTouch was great or what it meant back in the day, when personal computers were really personal. For that reason I will be sad when it finally passes on to the great dark memory hole of the internet. It was a good run…thanks for the memories Ric.

Mobile Suica recharge security block

JR East online services (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net), along with many other online services that have accounts with credit cards, have been inundated with phishing attacks since the Russia-Ukraine situation erupted in February. It has gotten to the point that JRE POINT announced temporary security limitations on July 6: a temporary suspension of JRE POINT service recharge for Mobile Suica (via Suica App) and a 5,000 JRE POINT app barcode use limit per transaction (plastic JRE POINT card use remains unlimited).

There is another security limitation Mobile Suica users need to be aware of: credit/debit card recharge security block. This does not apply to cash recharge at station kiosks, convenience stores, 7-11 ATM, etc., but it can happen with multiple credit card recharges in a short period of time, i.e. heavy users. Unfortunately JR East does not reveal what conditions trigger a recharge security block that displays an error message: チャージをご利用できない状態です/ Recharge is not available. The Mobile Suica support page specifically states that JR East “cannot inform you about the conditions and contents of restrictions.”

Fortunately Mobile Suica recharge security block appears to be somewhat rare, but it is happening more with the recent phishing attack. In general Wallet app recharge tends to be more robust than Suica app recharge but security recharge block seems to affect all credit card recharge. The only user recourse appears to be contacting the card issuer or using the Mobile Suica member online Trouble Report Form (Japanese only). No word on PASMO but users should expect the same situation.

Mobile Suica registered account information can only be changed in Suica (iOS) and Mobile Suica (Android) apps by applying for an account update, it cannot be directly changed in the app, it cannot be changed via a web browser. This offers a level of account security but too many people fall for phishing emails. The short term solution for JR East is to implement 2FA across all of their online services with a single login ID credential instead of the multiple service ID account mess we have now…hopefully soon. The longer term solution will be eliminating ID and password login altogether using Passkeys.

Recharge your recharge, the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean shit in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market

I love articles like this one. It’s fun examining how the writer, freelancer Meiko Homma, takes old news bits, worn-out arguments and weaves them into a ‘new’ narrative with a titillatingly hot title: “QR Code payments won the cashless race, Suica utterly defeated.”

Her article trots out some QR Code payment usage data from somewhere, the PASPY transit card death saga that illustrates the increasingly difficult challenge of keeping region limited transit IC cards going, the fact that Suica only covers 840 stations out of a total of 1630, all while conveniently ignoring recent important developments like the Suica 2 in 1 Regional Affiliate program, and big updates coming in early 2023: Cloud Suica extensions and the Mobile ICOCA launch.

It has the classic feel of ‘here’s a headline, now write the article’ hack piece passing as industry analysis we have too much of these days. The Yahoo Japan portal site picked it up and the comments section was soon full of wicked fun posts picking apart the weak arguments.

I’ve said it before and say it again: the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean shit in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market. PayPay for example, started out as a code payment app but has added FeliCA QUICPay and EMV contactless support along with their PayPay card offering. Just like I predicted, these companies don’t care about payment technology, they just want people to use their services. My partner and I actually see less PayPay use at checkout these days and more Mobile Suica. Why?

The great thing about prepaid eMoney ‘truth in the card’ Suica, PASMO, WAON, Edy, nanaco, is they are like micro bank accounts coupled with the backend recharge flexibility of mobile wallets (Apple Pay, Google Pay, Suica App, etc.). PayPay, au Pay, Line Pay and similar Toyota Wallet knock-off payment apps with Apple Pay Wallet cards, are deployed as mobile recharge conduits that smart users leverage to put money into different eMoney micro bank accounts and get the points or instant cashback rebates they want to get at any given campaign moment. This is where the action is.

And so we have recharge acrobats like Twitter user #1: step 1 recharge PayPay account from Seven Bank account, step 2 move recharge amount from PayPay Money to PayPay Bank, step 3 move recharge from PayPay Bank to Line Pay, in Wallet app recharge Suica with Line Pay card. Or like recharge acrobat Twitter user #2: Sony Bank Wallet to Kyash to Toyota Wallet to Suica.

Phew…none of this involves transfer fees so it’s up to user creativity to come up with the recharge scenario that works best for them. Does it count as PayPay use or Line Pay use or Mobile Suica use? Does it matter?

It’s not about winners or losers, it’s about moving money around. Mobile Suica is extremely useful because of it’s recharge backend flexibility, thanks to Apple Pay and Google Pay (which does not support PASMO yet). This is the case for US citizens working in Japan who get a great return of their Suica or PASMO recharge right now using US issue credit cards because of the exchange rate. This is something visitors to Hong Kong cannot do with Apple Pay Octopus as the OCL recharge backend is far more restrictive than JR East. The biggest gripe users have with Suica is ¥20,000 balance limit.

In the weeks to come we’ll be sure to see hand wringing articles debating the future of Suica, open-loop, etc.,etc., because let’s face it, IT media journalists need something to write about in these challenging times where everything has to be sold as winner/loser, black/white, 0 or 10, and nothing in-between, to get any traction at all. As for me, I think it’s far more interesting, and real, to observe how users are using all these nifty mobile payment tools.

UPDATE 2022-07-04: Thoughts on the KDDI network outage
That was fast. No sooner had the “QR Codes won the mobile payments race” article appeared when major Japanese carrier KDDI experienced a nationwide mobile network meltdown on July 2 JST, lasted a full day with a very slow, still in progress, recovery affecting more than 40 million customers. Suddenly social media channels were full of people complaining that QR Code payments didn’t work, assuming that Mobile Suica and other NFC mobile payments stopped too. Which was not the case though a few fake posts claimed, or just ‘assumed’ people were stranded inside stations. Fortunately there were numerous online articles setting the record straight.

It’s a lesson that people soon forget in our attention span challenged social media era. We saw plenty of QR Code payment downsides in the 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi earthquake that knocked out power and mobile service across Hokkaido. At the time some fake Chinese social media posts claimed AliPay and WeChat pay ‘still worked’ in Hokkaido at the time, of course they did not.

Mobile payment disruptions happen with every natural disaster and war. Good and safe practices don’t come easy when smartphone apps lure us down the easy path without spelling out the risks. It’s a lesson we have to learn again and again, that while network dependent code payment apps have some benefits, they also have limits and security risks. One size does not fit all, NFC and code payments each have their place and role to play in the expanding mobile payments universe. The key is understanding their strengths and weaknesses.

Cashless is fast and convenient? Point app mania reality check

My partner wanted to pick up some cheap t-shirts on bargain sale at Uniqlo yesterday. The Asagaya station building Beans shopping mall has all the latest cashless options but very bad network service so Uniqlo checkout was a comedy routine. First he brought up the Uniqulo app to get Uniqlo points, then I brought up my JRE POINT app to earn JRE POINT, then he finally paid with QR Code dBarai (docomo). But for each app launch and load we had to run to the store entrance to capture enough network connection for the apps codes to load. The staff is very used to this and suggest customers do so when apps didn’t load, patiently folding clothes while they run back and forth. I asked the cashier if this happens all the time. She smiled and nodded. “Cash is probably faster isn’t it?” She smiled and nodded.

Gosh, just when we thought cashless was going to free us from the so called inconvenient drudgery of cash along came smartphone reward point apps that bog down the whole cashless checkout experience, neatly killing off the supposed time saving advantage. You stand in line while the checkout customer fiddles with smartphone, digging around in an app to find the right coupon code thing. You feel smug until it’s your turn and the networks sucks, the discount coupon doesn’t load and bam, you’re holding up the line too. It has gotten to the point where Nikkei XTECH has provided an Apple Pay help article for faster checkout that explains the benefits of using Apple Value Added Services. Will Apple Pay VAS dPoint and Apple Pay VAS PONTA really help us? Probably not as they only work at LAWSON.

There is another checkout trend I see recently. With price increases everywhere people are using cash a lot more, even at places like in-station Beck’s Coffee Shop. Every customer has a Suica but more young people are keeping it in their pocket and plucking down ¥10,000 yen notes for ¥300 ice coffee. Why? I think it’s Kakebo culture at play, it’s easier to budget with cash payments and the small slightly inconvenient physical routines that accompany it. It’s not about doing everything with cash, but good old tsukae-wake compartmentalization helps keep focus and tamps down the impulsiveness when doing everything cashless. Another way of spreading the risk in these uncertain times.

iOS 16 Apple Maps Quick Look

In 2018 Eddie Cue said, “We have been working on trying to create what we hope is going to be the best map app in the world, taking it to the next step. That is building all of our own map data from the ground up.” After 10 years of Apple Maps, 7 years of rebuilding it and 3 years after the all-new map launch…are we there yet?

As I said last year, reviewing Apple Maps is impossible because it’s a very different service in different regions, with Japan an outliner in many ways. All that follows is from a Japanese market perspective that does not apply to using Apple Maps in other places.

In the run up to WWDC22, the Apple Maps team rolled out new features:

If there is one Apple Maps take away from WWDC22 it was the focus on Apple Maps services and leveraging Apple created, Apple proprietary Look Around and detailed 3D city experience in developer apps. For developers using MapKit there is a lot of new stuff to access all new map details. They have access to the entire Apple Maps stack and can incorporate Look Around and the detailed 3D city experience in their apps.

Apple also has a new web service called Apple Maps Server that allows 3rd party app backends to do georelated searches directly with the Apple Maps Server which promises to increase performance instead of wasting mobile bandwidth and battery. It seems like a small step but I’m intrigued if Apple has bigger Apple Maps Server plans later on. Also this:

Old is New
What’s on the slate for the iOS 16 Maps app? With the focus on services i.e. features Apple can add without a new app, not much. We have a refreshed Maps UI that adds multi-stop routing with much better start point~destination point selectors, and condenses various route and guidance options into a single slide-able menu selection row.

For some bewildering reason Apple touts transit cards and fares in Maps as new. They are not. The features have been there since the October 2016 iOS 10.1 Apple Pay Suica launch update, they also come with the same old limitations in iOS 16, like ignoring your transit cards installed on Apple Watch. And it won’t work with transit cards that don’t support Wallet recharge, like Ventra and HOP. Apple is either hard up for showcasing new Maps features or it counts as new because it is new for America.

In field tests there are some nice new little touches. Walking directions now include elevation information, Point of Interest (POI) cards are better arranged, Siri suggestions seems a little more with it (the new high quality Japanese voices are nice too).

I was hoping for some tweaks to transit directions with better transfer and final destination notifications but there is no apparent change from iOS 15, and transit directions remain hopelessly lost on subway routes. No changes either for Japanese cartography and Japan focused Guides remain English language only.

In sum it will be a quiet Apple Maps year for Japanese users. The iOS 16 UI tweaks are nice to have, Look Around will get the new extensions currently being mapped (minus private roads), maybe Real-Time Transit will get real. Definitely no new maps for Japan and the big indoor station mapping effort remains a mystery. Perhaps we’ll find out what Apple is up on that front at WWDC23, but that’s another story for another time.


iOS 16 Apple Maps Gallery (b1)

The Point of Interest card UI is tweaked and more compact.
June 2022 feature availability for Japan