Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch: First Impressions

Now that iOS 12.3 is out with great Apple Pay Suica performance and no more bugs, I have a new side project: Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch. I moved my daily Commuter Suica to Apple Watch and it’s an interesting experience. Some first impressions.

  • Apple Pay Suica performance on watchOS 5.2.1 on Apple Watch Series 4 is great, but not as great as iOS 12.3 on iPhone XS. Because A12 Bionic removes the iOS overhead for Express Cards with power reserve, Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XS/XR feels light and snappy like a plastic Suica card. I can’t wait for Express Cards with power reserve on Apple Watch.
  • Suica Recharge on Apple Watch sucks and I have discovered how wonderfully useful Suica App really is. I have a Commuter Suica on Apple Watch and a My Suica on iPhone. Both of these can be recharged and managed (with different credit cards attached to each Suica!) in Suica App. It’s super convenient and has opened my eyes to a major Apple Pay Wallet design weakness: iPhone Wallet and Watch App Wallet should just be one thing that manages all of my Wallets cards on both devices in one place. Apple Watch Wallet is great, in a pinch, but it’s a lousy UI experience for managing transit card options and Suica Recharge. Apple Pay transit prepaid card users access those card options far more than credit cards. I added a unified Wallet request for iOS 13 to the Apple Pay WWDC19 wish list.
  • Suica Reminders for low balance and commuter plan renewals are another Apple Watch weak point. They don’t exist. Suica App to the rescue again with Notification Sounds. The 3 beep Suica low balance reminder (¥1,000 or less) works everywhere and is a life saver. It’s far more attention grabbing than Apple Pay Suica Notification Center reminders on iPhone.

A true story: I was buying lunch at a family owned Daily Yamazaki convenience store. You might know the kind, a Showa style convenience store stocked with Yamazaki breads, homemade sandwiches and bento, usually run by an older couple, a store from a different era that will unfortunately disappear.

I bought a bento and paid with Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch. The Suica 3 beep low balance reminder sound from the reader caught the attention of the owner who looked to be in his late 70s. “Suica works on that? It’s so small.” I assured him Suica worked on Apple Watch.

He smiled and said, “That’s really convenient. You’ll never lose it or have to find it when it’s on your wrist.”

It is indeed.

Advertisements

Maintenance and Localization

Online guides are like underwear, if not changed regularly, they get stinky and nasty. There were a number of changes last month from JR East: multilingual help support and SuicaEng. This has greatly simplified Apple Pay Suica setup for virtual cards but has required updates to my Apple Pay Suica Guide and Suica App guide. Specifically I am updating instructions and screenshots that follow JR East’s recommendation of using SuicaEng to add Suica to Apple Pay, leaving Suica App for advanced users who need the extra functions and have the necessary Japanese language skill. It’s a work in progress that I hope to finish this week. It will have to do until JR East completely internationalizes Suica App.

Lots of people complain that JR East is incompetent because after 2 years Suica App is still only in Japanese. After all ‘it’s only an app localization job’. Right?

Wrong, very wrong.

This is exactly the trap that Apple fell into with Apple Maps. The original Apple Maps team and management made the huge mistake of approaching the task as ‘creating a map app’. Only after the disastrous launch of Apple Maps in 2012 did it become clear that the job was not about creating a map app at all. The real job was creating and deftly managing an entire digital map ecosystem. It’s a job that Apple is still learning

Suica App is really just an interface shell for all the gargantuan database systems piped into it from Mobile Suica Cloud. JR East will get the ecosystem internationalization job done eventually, but it must be a huge and expensive task with little hope of directly recuperating the costs. If JR East is taking their time to do system internationalization the right way, I have no problem waiting some more. It’s an investment in the future that hopefully leads to new business opportunities for the Suica platform and an easier to use system for everybody.

The SuicaEng App

Finally! After 2 years of waiting for a full blown English version of the Suica App with all the bells and whistles, JR East has done the smart thing and released the SuicaEng app instead. This simple streamlined English app does one thing: add a virtual Suica card to Apple Pay without a Mobile Suica account or any of the hassle of dealing with the Japanese only Suica App options. It does nothing else but should take care of most immediate inbound needs. It also does away with the ‘Region set to Japan’ requirement.

The same virtual Suica restrictions of Suica App apply:

  • Only one Suica can be added, if you already have a Suica in Wallet you cannot add another one with SuicaEng, a second virtual Suica (My Suica/Commuter Suica) requires the full Suica App and free registration of a Mobile Suica account.
  • Once added, Suica is managed in Wallet or Watch app.
SuicaEng error when Suica already exists on iCloud

The best thing would be no apps at all and adding virtual Suica directly in Wallet, perhaps Apple and JR East will deliver that eventually. Meanwhile anything more complicated than adding virtual Suica: purchasing e-tickets, commuter pass, Green Seat reservations etc., still requires the Japanese only Suica App. I have updated the Apple Pay Suica Guide with the new information and screenshots.

Suica App Commute Plan Limitations

A reader asked about Suica commuter passes and limitations. It’s a good question because there are Suica App limitations to be aware of when creating a virtual Suica Commute Plan for Apple Pay use.

Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association Map
The Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association project started in 2007 and achieved transit and e-money interoperability in 2013. It continues to evolve and incorporate other transit smartcard systems into a single standard. Wikipedia

Let’s review the limitations of the current Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association standard. The various JP transit cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.) are tightly bound to the physical rail network fare area of the card issuer (JR East, JR West, etc.). Transit IC cards are compatible and allow users to travel in any transit IC area with any card, but the system architecture is limited to a single fare area per trip that has to be calculated and paid in same fare area of origin. It does not allow continuous travel between 2 different fare areas (such as Suica and TOICA) on the same trip.

Unfortunately this results in ‘gotcha gaps’ when a user might start a trip from a Suica region station but exit in an area outside the Suica region or an area with no transit IC card coverage at all. Going from Tokyo to Minobu for example: Suica works fine up to JR East operated Kofu but the JR Central operated Minobu line that starts there is outside any transit IC card fare area. Good old paper tickets or cold hard cash only please. If you make the mistake of traveling from Tokyo to Minobu with Suica, the train conductor or a station attendant will issue a paper voucher that you have to use to get Suica reset for transit use when back in a Suica area station. This kind of nonsense should disappear with Super Suica in 2021.

Metropolitan areas like Tokyo (Suica & PASMO) are highly integrated fare areas that operate as one virtual region covering all possible commuter routes that transverse different rail company lines such as JR East, Metro, Seibu, etc. Buses are also part of the mix and covered by Suica or PASMO cards.

Apple Pay Suica supports Suica Commute Plans of course, but there are limitations when creating them with Suica App:

  • The start point must be a JR East station
  • Bus, Shinkansen Commuter Plan (FREX), or Student Commute Plan options are not available

Suica FREX Shinkansen commute plans that cover both Shinkansen and regular lines in the JR East Suica region can be purchased via a web link (virtual), or JR Station (plastic) then loaded into Apple Pay like any Suica card.

Suica bus commute plans have to be purchased at a bus company window such as Seibu, Tokyo Metro, Odakyu, Tokyu, etc. depending on the bus line. Confirm with the bus company that a Mobile Suica commuter purchase is available for the commute route. Purchase the Mobile Suica commute plan then show the attendant your iPhone so they can record the Suica ID card number.

Suica student commute plans are available for university students is the Mobile Suica web site but are complicated by the credit card requirement for using Apple Pay to setup a virtual Suica. Not every university student has a credit card. Mobile Suica support recommends purchasing a plastic Suica commuter pass at a JR East station then transferring it to Apple Pay, but there are some potential glitches. Apple support:

Commuter Suica cards that use romaji names or international phone numbers are not supported.
If you are trying to add a second Suica card to Apple Pay, make sure the name on the second card matches the first name on your My Suica and Commuter Suica card. If you have different names on multiple cards, download and register in the iOS Suica app, and call Suica Support at 050-2016-5005.

For complex Suica commute plan route options not covered in Suica App, Mobile Suica support has a web link to apply for a virtual Suica Commute Plan.

The Japanese Transit Platform Business Model

It’s about time. Somebody from outside Japan finally took in the big picture of the Japanese Transit Platform model and wrote a business outline of it in English. Egon Terplan of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) came to Tokyo and liked what he saw: Falling in Love With the Trains of Japan.

By 2017, Japanese trains carried nearly 30 percent of all rail passengers in the world, more than all of Europe. But unlike many European countries, Japanese rail companies are privatized, with for-profit publicly traded companies running separate rail lines all around the country.

JR East, the largest of the JR companies, carries 17 million passengers per day on 12,300 trains. (By comparison, Amtrak carried just 31.3 million passengers during all of 2016, a record year in ridership; the New York City subway averages 5.5 million daily rides and BART, 430,000.) And JR East’s $26 billion in annual revenue includes no government subsidies.

Terplan then lists what he thinks are the major components:

  1. Allow rail operators to become real estate developers to capture the value they bring to the stations.
  2. Turn stations into major destinations.
  3. Build over tracks to create new land opportunities.
  4. Dramatic reductions in travel time between cities can lead to major increases in rail’s market share.
  5. Interoperable rail cards (Suica, etc.) are key to making rail easy to use nationwide.

Essential points all, but Terplan doesn’t explain the importance of how all the different infrastructure pieces not only integrate (Shinkansen, regular lines, subway, buses, station retail, services, Suica, etc.) but also create a whole that is much larger than the sum of parts, and why. Perhaps he is only outlining the model and will return with a deeper analysis later. I certainly hope so because it’s a great transit model for other countries to adapt and adopt. Hong Kong already has a similar system on a smaller scale as does South Korea and Taiwan.

The last component, nationwide interoperable Japan Transit IC prepaid cards for transit and store purchases aka Apple Pay Suica, is the secret sauce binding everything together into a tight slick business model. That is the missing why and it’s just starting: interoperable features like Shinkansen e-ticketing, commuter passes, local loyalty point systems and hosting everything on digital wallets are still weak points. JR East and Sony are busy creating the next generation ‘Super Suica’ format that aims to integrate everything while reducing costs and taking it to the next level.