The Suica Part

The arrival of Apple Pay Express Transit on Transport for London this month is getting a lot more press than the debut of Apple Pay Express Transit and Suica in October 2016. Local coverage at the time was focused on the arrival of Apple Pay in Japan, Express Transit was barely mentioned. TfL is also getting more press than the debut of Express Transit on the New York MTA OMNY system earlier this year. Apple even created a special page highlighting its arrival.

I suspect there are a few reasons for the brouhaha. The Oyster IC transit card has been around since 2003, open loop EMV contactless cards service started in 2012, Apple Pay support arrived in 2015. MTA on the other hand only started OMNY with very limited open loop transit service in late May. The majority of MTA users still do the MetroCard manual swipe thing. In short TfL users are very familiar with Oyster transit IC cards, contactless bank cards and Apple Pay. They are well aware of the Express Transit difference. The same is true for Apple Pay users in areas like Sydney with a similar transit card system.

MacRumors did a good job of reporting the initial Express Transit on TfL test ramp up before the official debut. Joe Rossignol’s explanation of Express Transit mode support in “parts of Japan” is rather odd though. Which parts does he think don’t work?

The Suica part covers JR East, but since Suica is part of the Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association this means that Apple Pay Suica works with the PASMO, ICOCA, manaca, nimoca, Pitapa, Toica, Sugoca, Kitaca and Hayaken parts. The Okinawa part will be joining in April 2020. Maybe Rossignol means the parts outside of the blue/pink square mutual transit use area? Most of these are already transit compatible with Apple Pay Suica (the ones with IC arrows pointing at them). This leaves the ones without IC arrows, which will be joining with Super Suica in 2021.

With the exclusion of the soon to join Okinawa OKICA, Apple Pay Suica already covers all the major transit parts in Japan. I have no idea which Apple Pay Suica incompatible parts Rossignol is referring to. The Minobu line? The Oigawa Railway? It is a mystery.

File:ICCard Connection en.svg
Japan Transit IC Map, outside white area cards are due to join Super Suica in 2021
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Touchless walkthrough transit gates coming in 2020, Mobile Suica eTickets more popular than ever

Mobile Suica has been under a lot of stress this week. The cloud service almost went down under a heavy load on November 26, at the same time the Suica App has shot up in the App Store Japan rankings, briefly touching the top 3 which is unusual. At first I scratched my head then remembered that Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTickets become available 30 days in advance, and that means the New Year vacation period. But the unexpected Mobile Suica load and Suica App downloads signal something else: more first time Suica App users than ever before.

Even though Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket purchases are not eligible for CASHLESS rebates, it looks like more Japanese are taking the opportunity to go cashless this year with many first time users signing up for a Mobile Suica account and going all in with Apple Pay Suica/Google Pay Suica. Discounts on some advance Shinkansen eTickets are also pretty good.

In other news Kyodo reports that JR East is developing a new ‘touchless’ walkthrough gate with an overhead antenna design that lets users keep Suica in a bag or pocket. No more waving cards and devices over a reader. It’s also big help for left handed people, Apple Watch Suica users and wheelchair users. Field tests are expected to start in 2020 with a rollout in 2~3 years. It sounds like a perfect match for the new eTicket system that JR East will launch in April 2020 and Super Suica coming in April 2021. It will be Super Suica all the way, we are entering the final years of magnetic strip paper ticketing.

It would be great fun if a few JR stations near Tokyo Olympic venues could have a few walkthrough Touchless gates installed for inbound Apple Pay Suica users to try out. Great for travelers with both hands full. Look ma, no hands! Take that QR Code fans.

UPDATE
It looks like Kyodo News is playing somewhat loose with their reporting. Ever reliable IT journalist Junya Suzuki contacted JR East for confirmation. JR East confirmed the basic story that they are developing a Touchless gate but have not committed to a rollout schedule. The picture that ran with the Kyodo piece is an older photo of an exhibition demo unit and not necessarily the Touchless gate, or the Touchless gate technology in development.

Fields of Dreams: the endlessly looping open loop vs closed loop transit debate

MacRumors reported that Apple Pay Express Transit support is finally arriving, bit by bit, on the TfL system after being announced back in May. I only noticed the piece because somebody threw a link to my site in one of the forum comments and the discussion has some interesting, and deliciously snarky, open loop bank cards for transit vs. native transit card debate.

The ‘Japan has a transit IC card problem’ angle is interesting. Yes, Japan does have a transit IC card problem, if you work for a bank credit card operation that wants to promote open loop, which I suspect is the case in the forum debate. The counter argument presentation-like power points are just too glib: to date no major transit system has junked native transit cards for bank cards, not even Oyster. Transit is a license to print money and the huge transaction volumes in Tokyo alone are mouth watering. The ‘problem’ for bank card players is how to angle for a bigger cut of the action.

The debate perfectly represents the plastic era transit card vs credit card mindset. More interesting to me are the things people don’t discuss: the impact of Apple Pay and Google Pay digital wallet platforms and transit business models. My take is that smartphone digital wallets do away with old plastic era distinctions and create new business opportunities for transit companies, if they chose to pursue them. Most don’t.

Tech analysts love to talk about ‘value capture’. The current cashless payments frenzy in Japan is all about capturing users to sign on with a payment platform then growing the ecosystem with more and more services that users, hopefully, want to pay extra for. Nobody talks about this in the open loop vs closed loop debate. The bank that owns the credit card owns the customer going through the transit gate, not the transit company. Put it this way, JRE POINT that go back into free Suica recharges, Green Car upgrades, etc. are vastly different from bank card points, as are the business platforms they feed customers back into. Moving people are money in motion, who gets a cut and what businesses do with that cut is everything.

It an interesting paradox that Europe and America talk about privatizing public transportation in various degrees but to date only Japan and Hong Kong have built highly successful businesses based on ‘value capture’. The endless open loop vs closed loop debate always comes down to this: you can argue all you want about the parts but in the end it is meaningless. To truly understand things, you have to examine the whole business model, how everything fits together, and how that can benefit everybody while growing and evolving.

Toyota Wallet: if there must be another Japanese Wallet app, please let it be this

As I have pointed out countless times on this blog, Apple Pay Suica is one of the best Apple Pay services that Apple has hosted on its platform so far. The first transit card on Apple Pay remains the best: it combines the speed of the Suica transit card FeliCa architecture, the convenience of the Mobile Suica cloud, and the flexibility of the Apple Pay recharge backend.

The Apple Pay Suica sandwich: an open flexible recharge backend, sandboxed stored value (i.e. not hot wired to an app account), NFC FeliCa frontend.

This last point is under appreciated. The deal Apple and JR East worked out is the secret sauce: Apple Pay cards in Wallet just work for recharge, from Japan or from abroad, with no extra fees across the board, users earn points for the card of their choice. And users still have the option to recharge with cash if they want to.

A new kind of Wallet app
Toyota Wallet for iOS unveiled on November 19 finally gets right what other QR/Bar Code apps like PayPay have not: a flexible backend matched with a flexible frontend. A version for Android is due in the spring of 2020.

Toyota Wallet is built using the PAYCIERGE platform from TIS. The user has a choice between payment with QR/Bar Code in the Toyota Wallet app with Origami Pay or Bank Pay accounts, or payment with a dual mode EMV/FeliCa iD Mastercard prepaid card in Wallet with the backend recharge hosted from Toyota Wallet.

An interesting side note here is that both PayPay and Line Pay have said that FeliCa cards are a possibility. Up until now this has just been lip service. It would be a welcome development if the Line Pay/Yahoo Japan merger produces a FeliCa/EMV dual mode payment option similar to what Toyota Wallet has done.

Toyota Wallet is still not open in the way that Apple Pay Suica is. All of the ‘recharge’ methods are in the SMBC orbit, even iD recharge credit cards have to be SMBC issue (such as Docomo dCard) Visa or Mastercard to avoid hefty recharge fees. It’s not perfect and remains chained to the SMBC financial ecosystem, but Toyota Wallet does point a way forward that I hope Toyota Finance Corp. continues to improve, and that other payment system operators follow.

Summary
The Toyota Wallet flexible backend/flexible frontend development is a step forward for digital wallet possibility. This is the first Japanese wallet app where the frontend technology is a simple user choice, not a straitjacket. It shows the innovation possible in Japanese payments market where the focus is on creative thinking. That this kind of innovation comes first on the Apple Pay platform says all you need to know about Apple Pay being open. Compare this approach to the Europe one where the focus is forcing others to solve problems that Europeans should be solving themselves. That approach is a political one, not an innovative solution, or progress.

What’s the difference between iOS 13 Wallet created Suica and SuicaEng?

iOS 13 Wallet gained the ability to directly create a Suica card without an app. Judging from Twitter posts however, it seems inbound visitors prefer SuicaEng for adding Suica to Apple Pay. This is understandable: SuicaEng is a onetime use app that completely removes the ‘set Region to Japan’ to add Suica requirement that confuses people. The region change is only for adding Suica but many people seem to think that the iPhone Region must be set to Japan to use Suica, which is not true: Suica works regardless of the device Region setting. Apple clearly needs to improve the Wallet UI so that users can easily add different country cards without a confusing side trip to Settings and Region.

It doesn’t matter how a user adds Suica to Apple Pay but there are some interesting differences. There are 3 basic variety of Suica cards when buying a plastic one from a station kiosk or creating a virtual one in Suica App: non-registered Suica, registered My Suica, commuter Suica.

Non-registered plastic Suica cannot be re-issued if lost and the balance is gone too, but the arrival of Apple Pay Suica blurred the lines between non-registered and registered My Suica. Technically the distinction is still there and JR East is not obligated to refund or re-issue a non-registered Suica if it stops working on Apple Pay.

Regardless of the variety, when any plastic or virtual Suica is added to Apple Pay the user Apple ID becomes part of the Suica card ID, permanently attaching it to the Apple Pay and Mobile Suica systems like a petrified barnacle. This is the reason why Apple Pay users must refund/delete all Apple Pay Suica cards and their Mobile Suica account if they migrate to Google Pay Suica (and vice versa).

The differences between SuicaEng and iOS 13 Wallet created Suica boil down to:

  1. SuicaEng creates a single non-registered Suica card in Wallet, it cannot create more than one.
  2. iOS 13 Wallet creates a registered My Suica and can create multiple Suica. It’s a very tight integration between Apple Pay and Mobile Suica.

Not that users will notice any difference because all Suica look and work exactly the same way. The differences are hidden away from the users on the backend, exactly as they should be.