One week in

Apple Pay Octopus has been in service for a week so I asked for some Apple Watch field impressions on Twitter. Overall, users seem pretty impressed:

I am using it daily and it is really out of this world. I use it on my watch and now I can literally go out for a jog or hike with just wearing the watch.

It works perfectly on my AW so far. But from I’ve heard on LIHKG, there some users facing the difficulties on the express mode. Mostly are requiring passcode when going through the gate.

It’s mostly positive. However there’re times where the reader isn’t sensitive enough and need to linger the watch longer. Also going to work first thing in the morning but forgetting to enter pass code in the apple watch is frustrating since it doesn’t inform you need to unlock.

Been using AW Octopus everyday. Use cases include MTR, tram, ferry, 7-11, eating meals at all sorts of restaurants like Tai Hing, Ki’s Roasted Goose, Pret etc. Octopus on Apple Pay drastically improved HK’s cashless experience. It’s definitely okay for me to go out with only AW. Not even with my phone. Feels really good. The speed of payment is also very remarkable. However, the reader in Tai Hing seems to need an extra second to detect my AW, not sure why. Plus AW users might want to wear it on the right wrist, which makes passing MTR gates easier.

Using it everywhere. All good and same speed as physical card, expect bus and some small shops were like a heartbeat slower. Also twice there was no “ping” confirmation sound. Tried AW on my right for mtr, its only good for that, imo left is more comfy for other occasions…

… after so many years of waiting, finally an apple pay suica experience in HK.

You can follow the Twitter thread here. I have noticed a few small gate lag hiccups on my Apple Watch Suica since upgrading to watchOS 6.2.5/6.2.6. The lag is especially noticeable if a workout is in progress. The passcode request at the gate could indicate that Express Transit is deactivated somewhere along the way, either by a loose band activating the wrist detector into thinking Apple Watch was taken off the wrist, or it could be something else.

My Apple Watch insisted that I create a 6 digit passcode recently and disabled the 4 digit passcode option for a few days. Who knows, the passcode requests that some HK users are seeing could be a watchOS bug or an Octopus reader side issue that can be addressed with a firmware update.

Apple Watch is still prone to OS version performance issues that disappeared from iPhone with A12 Bionic and Express Transit with power reserve. Apple Pay transactions on A12 Bionic and later bypass most of the iOS layer and are directly handled in the A12/A13 Bionic Secure Enclave and Secure Element. It makes a big performance difference for Suica and Octopus.

Hopefully the next watchOS update will improve Suica and Octopus performance. Better yet let’s hope that Apple Watch 6 introduces a Apple S6 chip with Express Transit with power reserve. That would solve the watchOS version NFC performance issues for good, just like it did for iPhone.

A12/A13 Bionic makes a big difference in NFC performance,

Apple Pay Octopus Launch Meltdown

Anybody could have seen this one coming. When Apple Pay Suica launched in 2016 we had 2 things: the iOS 10.1 update and the Apple Pay Japan service launch all coming at the start of a Tokyo commute weekday. Lots of iPhone users decided to upgrade and add their Suica to Apple Pay. By 7am local Tokyo time Mobile Suica and Apple Pay iCloud servers were overloaded and not responding.

This time we had 3 things: Apple Pay Octopus, the iOS 13.5.1 update and Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit all launching at the same time. By 11 am Octopus servers were overloaded and not responding, the usual ‘small number of users’ were complaining on Twitter far earlier than that. Duh, so much for anticipating iPhone user demand. Octopus Cards Limited has posted an apology and instructions to fetch Octopus cards lost in the cloud. It a simple matter of adding the Octopus card to Wallet again. In some cases Octopus customers are getting refunds.

At least we know the launch was a success in that lots of iPhone and Apple Watch Hong Kong users apparently want to use Apple Pay Octopus. I guarantee this will drive mobile payments use far more than regular bank cards. Riding the transit and buying stuff with Express Transit is a no brainer.

Apple Pay Octopus launch…for real

Good news for long suffering Hong Kong iPhone users: press invitations labeled ‘Redefining Mobile Payments’ that went out to local media outlets on May 28 signaled Octopus for Apple Pay would finally launch on June 2, which it did in tandem with Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit directions just before 1 am June 2 local Hong Kong time. The press event took place at 12:30 pm.

Didn’t we do this already?

OCL teased everyone when it first announced Apple Pay Octopus as ‘coming soon’ in July 2019, then ‘as soon as possible’ in September, finally postponing it in December for ‘later in 2020’ without explanation. This despite endless beta test leaks that indicated everything was ready to roll and endless launch rumors that never panned out. A timeline:

Global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch
Apple Pay Octopus is just like Apple Pay Suica with Express Transit. It can be used on iPhone 8 and later with iOS 13.5, and Apple Watch Series 3 and later with watchOS 6.2.5. Apple devices from anywhere can add and use Octopus thanks to Apple global NFC support but practical use is limited to having a Hong Kong issue Mastercard, Visa or UnionPay bank card already in Wallet.

iPhone 11 Pro/11/XR/XS have the A12/A13 Bionic exclusive Express Transit with power reserve feature that gives users an additional 5 hours of Express Transit use when iPhone is in low battery power reserve mode. A12/A13 Bionic powered transit card performance is also much improved over previous iPhone models because the Bionic Secure Element directly handles transactions that eliminate iOS overhead. If Octopus on iPhone X doesn’t work well, check this support post.

Apple Watch is the first time Octopus has landed on a smartwatch. As a long time Apple Pay Suica user I can tell you that it’s the Apple Watch killer app. Octopus users will really enjoy the experience on Apple Watch especially when hooked up with auto recharge/Automatic Add Value Service (AAVS).

Similarities with Suica
Octopus is based on the same FeliCa technology that powers Suica, both cards are very similar in scope and use for fast transit and contactless payments of all kinds. According to Wikipedia over 33 million Octopus cards were in circulation as of 2018 used by 99 per cent of Hong Kong residents. The ubiquity of Octopus with Express Transit for transit and purchases will drive Apple Pay use in Hong Kong far more than regular credit/debit cards.

Apple Pay Octopus and Apple Pay Suica both have the same fast Express Transit performance that no other Express Transit cards can match with faster gate performance than the recently added Apple Pay China T-Union mainland transit cards.

New virtual Octopus cards can be created directly in Wallet just like Apple Pay Suica cards or added via the Octopus app (v6). Plastic Octopus cards can also be transferred to Wallet but cannot be used after transfer.

Some attached services are not supported. Be sure to check Important Notes to Customers before transferring a plastic Octopus. Another issue to be aware of is that the Octopus card number changes when transferred which can cause problems with some card ID# linked services.

Not Inbound Friendly
OCL limits Apple Pay Octopus card creation and recharge to having Hong Kong issue Mastercard, UnionPay and Visa cards already added in Wallet. It’s clearly not geared for inbound visitors. This is a shame because Apple supports global NFC on all devices which Samsung and Android devices do not, a key difference.

In practice this means any iPhone 8 and later from anywhere can use Apple Pay Octopus but only when a Hong Kong issue bank payment card is already loaded in Wallet. Suica is very different in this regard: it can be created and recharged in Wallet with any Apple Pay loaded card no matter the brand or country of issue, all without service fees. It’s a very inbound friendly deal for Japan visitors with iPhone.

Unfortunately OCL was limited by restrictive Hong Kong bank agreements and didn’t offer any Apple Pay inbound friendly solutions at the press event. Hopefully they will expand inbound bank card support down the road as banks realize the value of enticing tourists to use Hong Kong transit (see Updates for Octopus for Tourists).

Octopus was the first real transit platform (contactless transit and eMoney) that had a tremendous impact on the development of other transit card fare systems around the world such as Transport for London Oyster. However, OCL needs to aggressively expand Octopus services on other mobile digital wallets like Google Pay especially as MTR moves to add QR Code payment Open Loop support.

Apple Maps Transit Integration
Hong Kong Apple Maps Transit directions launched in tandem with Apple Pay Octopus. It makes sense for Apple to offer both services as an integrated package as they did for the Apple Pay Suica. In Japan, Google Maps transit directions offer more detail and a better UI than Apple Maps Transit even though they use the same data suppliers. Your milage may vary but Google Maps transit directions for Hong Kong has been in place for some time and offers extras like crowding info. Another limitation shared with Apple Maps in Japan: no indoor station mapping.

Greater Bay Area Apple Pay Transit Compatibility
Apple Pay Octopus is the last piece of the transit puzzle that delivers Express Transit convenience to Greater Bay Area iPhone/Apple Watch users who, up until iOS 13.4.1, were limited to China Union Pay (CUP) cards without Express Transit and plastic Octopus cards.

The recently released Apple Pay China T-Union transit cards are interoperable transit cards that work across the country, some 257 mainland cities, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO. China T-Union uses the PBOC 2.0/3.0 protocol, the Chinese variant of EMV with the slowest NFC transaction speeds, they are limited to UnionPay issue credit/debit cards for recharge and cannot be used for purchases. Octopus uses the faster FeliCa protocol and offers an open Apple Pay recharge backend for Hong Kong issue cards.

The advantage for wide area travelers is that they can now add both Apple Pay Octopus and China T-Union cards in Wallet. Having 2 different Apple Pay transit cards in Wallet may not be exactly the same as the dual mode Sold Octopus•Lingnan Pass but it should be close. It will be interesting to hear what the Apple Pay Greater Bay Area transit experience is like using both services.

Why the long wait?
There has been endless speculation regarding the reasons for the Apple Pay Octopus delay. Technically it could have launched on iOS 12 but was held back for an unbelievably long test period over 2 major iOS versions, running from December 2018 and iOS 12 all the way to May 2020 and iOS 13.5, the last major release before iOS 14.

Why? Personally I always felt the unexplained November 2019 Smart Octopus service outage was an ominous sign that OCL plans were under political pressure. Other possible delay reasons include Apple Pay recharge card support and fee negotiations, and lining up Apple Map transit data. There’s no question that the go-slow OCL approach was not helped by the ever-deteriorating political situation.

The Apple Pay Octopus launch story was a long winding road with many ups and letdowns in the very difficult year of 2019. 2020 is also a very difficult year in a different way, though I hope it can still turn out to be a time of recovery.

I’d like to thank all the readers who shared Octopus tips and comments that let me report a complex, ever changing situation. I learned many things, the most important of which is that Hong Kong people are very kind and very smart. Wish you all a safe, healthy and happy transit wherever you go.

‘Redefining Mobile Payments’ June 2 press event invitation
Mobile Suica has a long history dating back to 2007. Mobile use growth had stalled until the Apple Pay Suica launch in 2016. Octopus on Apple Pay will likely drive a similar spurt of mobile use.

UPDATES

July 30: OCL released the Octopus App for Tourists, this is an iOS app for inbound iPhone users to add a digital Octopus to Apple Pay and recharge it. The app requires a foreign issue Mastercard, Union Pay or Visa and the user must select a non HKD currency when adding the card. This is forced dynamic currency conversion and is a card compliance violation: card users should be able to make purchases in the local currency.

While OCL does not charge an upfront Octopus recharge fee, the forced currency exchange average adds 4% compared with direct HKD purchases. This is customer gouging. Why Apple allows this on their App Store and Apple Pay platforms is baffling. The app adds and locks an Octopus card to a non-HKD currency for recharge and cannot be changed. See the Octopus on iPhone and Apple Watch tourist page for details.

June 3 8:00 JST: Octopus issues apology, “Due to the overwhelming response to the launch of Octopus on iPhone and Apple Watch, some customers could not add their Octopus between 11:30 am and 12:19 pm on 2 June,” and compensating some Octopus users
June 2 12:00 JST: Octopus Card Limited site updated for Apple Pay Octopus and a press release
June 2 09:00 JST: Apple Pay Octopus page added to Hong Kong Apple site with instructions for creating, transferring and topping up Octopus cards in Apple Pay
June 2 03:20 JST: Octopus App v6 update released
June 2 01:50 JST: Apple Pay Octopus has launched, rollout expanding in stages
June 2 00:46 JST: Apple Pay Transit directions for Hong Kong appearing in advance of the Apple Pay Octopus

The Contactless Tipping Point, Face ID Apple Pay and iPhone SE Reviews

Back in the different era of 2019, many journalists, both Japanese and gaijin, fretted about the Japanese fondness for hard cash and how things might change with the CASHLESS Rebate government program and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. There were signs that things might be changing. But none of this matters anymore. Forget it.

Everything changed the moment the Japanese Government requested school closure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on February 27, 2020. In Japan, as in the rest of the world, social distance, face masks and rigorous hand washing are now mandatory daily routine. Anything we touch is suspect. This includes money. This is why the COVID-19 crisis will rearrange the contactless payments landscape in Japan very quickly. Nobody wants to risk becoming sick from handling money or tapping public touch screens when they can pay without touching anything.

When living condition baselines changes overnight, it takes time for our brains to adapt. For iPhone users in the new era, Apple Pay has gone from convenience to necessity. Unfortunately Face ID doesn’t work with Apple Pay in this new face mask era. Actually it sucks. Snazzy technology turned albatross, Face ID was ultimately the wrong tech bet to make.

Fortunately for Apple they made a very smart move with the new iPhone SE that incorporates the A13 Bionic with Touch ID. For customers in Japan iPhone SE with Touch ID Apple Pay is the device that perfectly fits current conditions offering the best Apple Pay and Suica experience with Express Transit power reserve plus other good features, at a budget price. For many in Japan, and likely everywhere, Apple Pay use with face masks is a very important decision factor for purchasing a new device. It will likely be a factor in Apple’s bottom line the rest of the fiscal year.

Unfortunately most tech reviewers are still living in the past era of 3 months ago. This is understandable, but good reviewers should take everything into account. That’s why we read them. That’s why I was disappointed when John Gruber, who usually writes great stuff, completely blew it for me with his iPhone SE analysis/review/think piece that does not mention the face mask Face ID vs Touch ID issue at all. That’s the baseline purchasing decision point now. If Gruber needs to think about the issue, fine, but Face ID vs Touch ID in the face mask era is a huge factor buying any iPhone now and he didn’t cover it, any iPhone SE review that doesn’t cover that is worthless.

UPDATE
Gruber’s official iPhone SE review is out. He finally addresses the Face ID with face mask problem…way down in the footnotes:

I must point out here that Touch ID works just fine while wearing a face mask, and Face ID doesn’t work at all. That’s been a consideration for medical professionals and citizens of countries with a culture of face-mask-wearing ever since Apple introduced Face ID with the iPhone X in 2017. Now it’s a consideration for literally billions of us around the world. That’s not enough to even vaguely make me, personally, consider switching to the SE as my personal phone. But your mileage may vary, especially if the nature of your work requires you to wear a face mask all day, not just while out of the house on brief excursions. (But such jobs might also require gloves.)

A culture of face mask wearing eh? While not a snub, it sure feels flippantly dismissive. The footnote escape is a classic way of avoiding serious discussion, or taking the time to investigate the issue deeply for the benefit of his readers, or how it plays out here on regarding iPhone design and technology. iPhone SE is the most important product Apple is releasing this year. The reasons behind it’s unfortunate success deserve proper review and analysis.

All the top US tech iPhone SE reviews are similar and don’t go deep on it, in other words have fun with Face ID Apple Pay with face masks folks. Meanwhile here in Tokyo, stores are refusing entry for customers without face masks.

iPhone SE: Unfortunate Success

iPhone SE is here and perfectly matches the essential points outlined in October:

  • NFC background tag reading in place for new Apple Pay features going forward.
  • Touch ID that removes the Face ID face mask problem in markets like China and Japan, this issue has been constant blind spot in the western tech press, until now.
  • A13 Bionic for superior battery performance and Express Card with power reserve
  • Cheaper battery friendly Haptic Touch instead of the more expensive battery hungry iPhone 8 3D Touch.

And the budget price. The iPhone market position in Japan stalled with iPhone XS/XR as government pressure took away carrier rebates that had driven iPhone sales. The Japan market, like markets everywhere, was ripe for an updated entry level iPhone, but the Touch ID plus A13 Bionic combination is especially potent right now because of the face mask situation in the COVID-19 crisis, and social distancing driving people away from hard cash towards contactless payment use. Touch ID is still the best and stress free experience for using Apple Pay on iPhone. The secret sauce is A13 Bionic that delivers superior Suica Express Transit performance along with power reserve, and much more.

So what kind of user is the new iPhone SE aimed at? The Apple Store trade-in page suggests a big divide at the iPhone 7 Plus point, there is more resale demand for Apple Pay Japan compatible devices.

The challenge for Apple and carriers in Japan is getting pre-Apple Pay Japan iPhone users to upgrade. Many iPhone 6/6S users took the opportunity to get a cheap battery upgrade from Apple during the iPhone performance throttling brouhaha. A big reason why these users have been hesitant to upgrade is the Face ID with face mask issue. This is the dominate issue now for Face ID iPhone users, my own observation is that many people in Japan just turn it off and use passcodes.

Now that iPhone SE solves that problem with top tier Apple Pay Japan features and performance it will be very interesting to see how it plays out. We are already seeing signs that contactless payment use is growing in Japan because of COVID-19 social distance issues. As Tomo Hagiwara of Aquabit Spirals puts it…unfortunate success, behavioral transformation in action. This could be the most important Apple product launch in 2020.

iPhone SE will be a very big unfortunate success.