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.

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iOS 12.1.2 Apple Pay Suica Performance Issues

No sooner than Apple issued the iOS 12.1.2 update that JR East pushed out a Suica system notice in their iOS Suica App: When Suica Balance Fails to Update. I guess this really means that Apple still hasn’t fixed iOS 12 Apple Pay Suica performance issues for everybody. My experience with iOS 12.1.2 on iPhone XS has been good so far but it takes time to find out what Suica performance on any iOS release really is. Whatever the case may be, fixing dead Suica notifications and a lost Suica Balance is very simple.

Put Suica in Service Mode and let your device sit for 10~15 seconds, then quit Apple Pay or simply put the screen to sleep. A Suica Notification will then appear with the updated Suica balance. Let’s hope that Apple’s New Year resolution list includes quickly fixing Apple Pay Suica performance issues.


Apple Pay Japan Market Info Update December 2018

The Bank of Japan posted presentation material from the 7th FinTech Forum held November 30. The Rakuten presentation has some contactless payment market data for Japan that is worth a look.

Year over year contactless payments use in the first slide basically covers the same period of the MMD Labo report but with different questions. The Rakuten data shows Rakuten Pay in the lead, naturally, at 15.2% and Apple Pay in 2nd place at 12.9%. The MMD numbers showed Rakuten Pay at 13% and Apple Pay at 20%. Google Pay only added Japanese payment support in May 2018 so the full impact will take time to play out, the 30% Osaifu Keitai use figure from the MMD report suggests a possible outcome. 

As I explained in the earlier post, Apple Pay use is highly regional and tied to Suica compatible transit routes. In major metropolitan areas Apple Pay use is higher than Rakuten but Rakuten has done a good job building an ecosystem of e-commerce, travel reservations and other services that offer members large discounts and points. That’s the reason behind the robust growth from 3.4% and the larger nationwide average use figure.

Apple Pay Suica is the entry point for Apple Pay use, the more incentives that customers have to use Suica the faster Apple Pay use in Japan will grow. Sachiko Watatani pointed out that only 27% of Apple Pay Japan capable device users actually use Apple Pay, that represents a lot of potential users sitting on the fence. The Rakuten Pay growth rate shows that points and discounts are great incentives but Apple Pay Suica, convenient as it is, doesn’t offer that. At least not without going to the trouble of getting the right Apple Pay credit cards for the right points. And even then, as setting up and using the JRE POINT app makes clear, it’s not user friendly.

The next big opportunity for Apple Pay Suica growth is ‘Super Suica’ that will unite transit cards, commuter passes and various transit point systems in a single format for plastic and mobile. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen until April 2021. Until then Apple Pay Japan needs to add the other e-money prepaid cards (WAON, nanaco, Rakuten Edy) and as many point system reward cards to Wallet as possible to keep growing. Not only that but also make them work better together than they do on their own. Think PONTA card with the kinks ironed out.

iOS 12.1.1 Suica Express Transit Performance

Apple has never issued an iOS update that specifically mentions Suica or Express Transit Card performance, so each update becomes a guessing game of what’s fixed and what’s not. iOS 12.1.1 was released December 6 in Japan and there has been very little mention of Suica performance on Twitter. Not necessarily a good thing, if performance has changed dramatically, good or bad, people tweet about it.

I reached out to a few trusty Revision B iPhone X Suica user sources. They report no change from the buggy Suica performance they’ve experienced since upgrading to iOS 12. A few iPhone 8 users have also complained about buggy Suica performance. My experience with Suica Express Transit on iPhone XS continues to be excellent though Apple Pay Suica recharge performance is poor when recharging from a Suica notification short cut.

Here’s the iOS 12.1.1 performance score as I see it:

  • Suica Express Transit performance on pre A12 Bionic iPhone: B-
    • Occasional error flicker at transit gates
    • Unresponsive Apple Pay Suica recharge, 50% failure rate when recharging via Suica notifications
  • Suica Express Transit performance on A12 Bionic iPhone: A-
    • Unresponsive Apple Pay Suica recharge, 50% failure rate when recharging via Suica notifications

As pointed out in earlier posts Suica Express Card with power reserve on A12 Bionic is a significant departure from previous devices both in operation and performance. Also the iOS 12 Suica Express Card error flicker issue is a iOS 12 software issue that is completely different from the iPhone X Suica NFC hardware problem.

The quick summary is that Suica Express Card performance has not improved from iOS 12.1. We’ll have to wait until iOS 12.1.2 and try again.

Apple Pay and the art of 2-way disruption: how Super Suica will change contactless payments in Japan and beyond

Super Suica Card
The new ‘Super Suica‘ card will replace all local transit cards for a single national transit and e-money card but still offer all the local commuter plans and point systems.

Global FeliCa iPhone, FeliCa Pixel, Super Suica and all that
Apple Pay Japan arrived just 2 years ago and has clearly disrupted the Japanese contactless payments market in many important and interesting ways. Things can change quickly and the disruption isn’t one way. Here is a timeline:

As I predicted a year ago, the global FeliCa iPhone with NFC switching took Apple Pay to a whole new level and made FeliCa a de-facto NFC smartphone standard checklist feature that Google Pay could not match unless Google made their own hardware version of it, which they have done with Pixel 3 in Japan, their first official entry with Japanese carriers. If Google continues to follow Apple’s lead then Pixel 4 should be global FeliCa with NFC switching that further divides the ‘pure Google’ Google Pay haves from the have-nots.

The Apple Pay Black Ship
Japanese IT journalist Junya Suzuki wrote that Apple Pay would be the ‘black ship’ that would revolutionize Japan’s contactless payments market. Apple Pay was the match that finally lit the fuse of the huge Japanese contactless transit and payments infrastructure investment and launched it into orbit. In the 2 years since it’s arrival. Apple Pay Suica kicked Japan Transit IC card e-money growth into high gear 20% YOY growth even though most of the action is Tokyo area based: estimated e-money transaction growth rates in Tokyo alone are 40%. The first year of Apple Pay Suica proved that stored value (SV) transit cards, not credit cards, are the golden growth path for contactless payments.

And now because of the success of Apple Pay Suica, JR East and Sony are taking it to the next level developing the next generation Suica container format, which doesn’t have a real name yet (local coop transit smartcard?). I call it Super Suica and it’s due to launch April 2021. Super Suica will change Japanese contactless payments and transplant the Apple Pay Suica transformation from the Suica Tokyo home area to all transit regions nationwide. Everything transit will be on Apple Pay, everybody everywhere can use it for transit and e-money. Google Pay and Osaifu-Keitai will be there too.

But Super Suica isn’t just for Japan, it’s part of the vision JR East unveiled at the July 2016 NFC Forum Japan meeting to have NFC transit payment standards that work everywhere:

With a single seamless NFC standard and certification process in place, JR East roadmap goals are very clear:

  • Japanese customers with Mobile Suica devices can use their devices for public transportation and transit payments abroad.
  • Global specification certified NFC devices from abroad can use Mobile Suica.

Current limitations
NFC certification and global FeliCa smartphones are taking care of the hardware side, but NFC transit payments interoperability isn’t there because there hasn’t been a roadmap. Super Suica is the first step to create one. Japanese transit cards have been compatible with each other for transit and e-money since 2013 but important pieces are missing: commuter passes and point systems are still chained to local transit cards and have to be managed locally. You can travel with Apple Pay Suica anywhere, but you can’t add a commuter plan for an area outside of the Suica transit network.

Because of the costs associated with maintaining local data and account management it’s very difficult and expensive for large transit companies to host systems on mobile digital wallets. Nobody outside of JR East has managed to do it. It’s expensive for smaller local transit companies to issue smartcards and impossible to host them on mobile. Super Suica containers will solve these problems and greatly reduce costs not only for plastic card issuance and operation but also for hosting them on mobile digital wallet platforms.

Super Suica Roadmap

Super Suica Containers
The JR East and Sony co-development announcement of a ‘national’ super Suica card sounds exactly what the Aso government proposed back in 2008: one card to replace local Japanese transit card variations such as ICOCA, TOICA, SUGOCA, Kitaca, PASMO, manaca, Nimoca, Hayaken and others into a single card that does it all. JR East and Sony plan to have Super Suica in circulation starting April 2021.

Development is divided between Sony, JR East and JR East Mechatronics (JREM), the JR East subsidiary company that manages Mobile Suica.

  • Sony: updating FeliCa OS for the new format
  • JR East: coordinating the deployment effort with the other transit companies
  • JREM: physical card development, providing background services for issuance and mobile

The press release is terse and light on details but 3 points are very clear:

  • Cost reduction
  • Support for local commute plans, points, branding and more in addition to the regular stored fare transit and e-money features of current issue cards
  • Everybody on board

The aim is clear: instead of complicated expensive account management systems that babysit all the extra functions the cloud magically attaches to current transit cards, with every transit company doing it differently, Super Suica will be a universal container that takes care of the extras on the card itself. There will be established protocols and one common format with a new FeliCa OS version to handle everything.

Current Account based Mobile Suica

Containers vs account management

This approach will streamline and simplify the entire Japan Transit IC system process for plastic cards and mobile, significantly lowering costs without sacrificing the great things about Suica: blazing speed and local processing without a network.

Functions that are geeky and complex like setting up auto-charge or purchasing Shinkansen e-tickets will become much easier and accessible. Missing functions like discount tickets, special fares, and regular line express train ticketing will be possible on mobile. JR East has talked about raising the current 20,000 JPY Suica balance limit, Super Suica is the perfect opportunity to finally do it.

The outcome for Japan
The change for Japan is obvious: the success of the Suica transit payment platform in the Tokyo region is made available everywhere. Actually it already is available everywhere but Super Suica will supercharge it.  JR East will offer to host everything on mobile so that everybody in Japan can use Apple Pay, Google Pay or Osaifu-Keitai for local transit, purchases, while offering all the local goodies and incentives.

Other big players like JR Central and JR West may not opt-in for hosting on Mobile Suica for political reasons but the incentives are certainly there and the cost of getting somebody else’s cloud service to do it will be much easier and cheaper than it is now. JR East looks eager to go the extra distance to get everybody on Mobile Suica cloud and should make clear that Mobile Suica is only managing containers, not account data.

The outcome outside of Japan
The possibilities outside of Japan are going to be interesting. Could the Hong Kong Octopus system opt for the new format and could it be made cross compatible? It’s nice to think that sister systems like Octopus and Suica could do that some day. Even if that doesn’t happen, the Super Suica container format will offer Octopus the same benefits of lower costs and make it easier to deploy on other digital wallet platforms outside of the currently exclusive Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay.

More than cross compatibility however I think Super Suica will shine a much brighter light on the shortcomings of using ‘Open Loop’ EMV contactless credit card payment networks for transit: non-existent account management, simple fares only, no commute plans, no points that tie in with other transit company services, etc. These are problems that are prohibitively expensive for any transit company to fix on their own and the banking industry payment networks will not.

EMV contactless transit shortcomings
EMV contactless for transit might seem like a good idea but it doesn’t deliver as much for the investment as Super Suica.

You know things are really bad when 9to5 Mac writes this about using Apple Pay on the Milan Metro:

A handy tip for anyone wanting to get around with Apple Pay without causing a fuss is to authenticate Apple Pay as you approach the gate. Doing it in advance helps remove the awkwardness of holding up other people if your fingerprint or face isn’t recognized first time, for instance.

This is a perfect example of dead-end last century credit card vs. smartcard, open loop vs. closed loop thinking and where it has brought us. Digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay and Google Pay collapse the differences of open loop vs. closed loop and destroy the old arguments while combining different NFC technologies and middleware software into one compelling new whole the creates an entirely new game: Build a transit payment platform instead.

A stored value native transit card on the front end with a credit/debit card on the backend for Apple Pay or Google Pay recharge is the best arrangement that leverages the strengths of both approaches working together instead of the old antagonistic and wasteful A or B arguments. In the long run it’s a win-win for transit companies and the banking industry.

For Asian countries that already have FeliCa transit systems (India, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Vietnam) Super Suica will let them do more. For transit companies in America and Europe, Super Suica will be a great chance to re-examine long-term goals and choose the best mix of technologies in light of the new business opportunities and models that digital wallets and Super Suica roadmap will offer.

One thing is clear: transit companies that stick with the old ways of thinking will miss unique new business opportunities offered by native transit payment platforms hosted on digital wallet platforms, opportunities that build on transit but also extend it into new places.