Japan’s new economic zone: Rakuten

The April 30 addition of iPhone 12 lineup to Rakuten Mobile marked the transformation of Rakuten Mobile into a first tier carrier on the same level of Docomo, KDDI au and SoftBank. Now that SoftBank is taking Rakuten to court over allegedly stolen SoftBank corporate secrets, I think we know who is feeling the pressure. It is the end of an era. SoftBank was the first carrier to launch iPhone in Japan back in 2007 when NTT Docomo refused and KDDI au could not (the Verizon iPhone problem). They cleverly used iPhone to leverage their position from an industry also-ran into a serious first tier carrier grabbing marketshare for the other majors.

Rakuten Mobile is now playing the hungry upstart with fresh ideas and aggressive plans: pay for what you actually use instead of paying for a monthly allotment just like the good old land line days…how original. Nevertheless SoftBank feels threatened not only by Rakuten Mobile but the total weight of the Rakuten Empire: Rakuten Pay which encompasses Rakuten Edy and Rakuten Suica, and most of all, Rakuten Point.

SoftBank has similar parts, PayPay and TPoint/TMoney, but they are not well integrated across the SoftBank empire and more importantly, they don’t have the synergy of Rakuten. That’s why people in their 20~40’s are sometimes referred to as living in the Rakuten economic zone, leveraging Rakuten Point as currency ‘plus’ to make their real money go much farther for all of their needs.

But there’s one more thing. Now that Rakuten Mobile has the full iPhone lineup, it’s only a matter of time before Rakuten Edy and Rakuten Suica join Apple Pay. That is SoftBank’s true nightmare.

BIC CAMERA VIEW Suica reward point math

If you use JR East regularly a BIC CAMERA VIEW card is the best investment you can make. So I was pleasantly surprised when the Crecolle (credit-kore) site posted a very useful piece about using Bic Camera VIEW card and Apple Pay. I love it when Japanese credit card sites analyze every reward point possibility in detail. The deep dives are always surprisingly useful.

BIC CAMERA VIEW is a dual function card that grafts a VIEW credit card with a Suica. The Suica part works just like any plastic Suica. The only difference is that users can setup the VIEW card part to auto-charge the Suica part at a VIEW kiosk, they can also setup the VIEW to auto-charge a completely separate plastic Suica, very handy. BIC CAMERA VIEW is also a BIC CAMERA store point card. When you add it to Apple Pay only the credit card function is added as QUICPay. The card comes in VISA and JCB credit flavors, mine is JCB so I can recharge my Wallet Suica with Apple Pay.

To test BIC CAMERA POINT reward rates, the Crecolle staff ran 4 purchase patterns with the same battery item:

  1. Apple Pay BIC CAMERA VIEW QUICPay
  2. Apple Pay BIC CAMERA VIEW QUICPay + showing the plastic card for BIC CAMERA reward points
  3. BIC CAMERA VIEW (plastic credit)
  4. BIC CAMERA VIEW (plastic Suica)

The return rates printed on the receipts showed the following:

  1. 1% BIC CAMERA POINTS
  2. 8% BIC CAMERA POINTS
  3. 10.5% BIC CAMERA POINTS
  4. 11.5% BIC CAMERA POINTS

So the lesson here is that if you want maximum points when buying at BIC CAMERA, use the plastic VIEW Suica. Why the big differences? The 8% vs 10% difference is the Apple Pay margin. The #1 and #2 difference between Apple Pay VIEW QUICPay by itself and showing the plastic card is simply that the BIC CAMERA point card is not hosted on Apple Pay as a NFC VAS rewards card. If it was you could do what you do at LAWSON: say ‘Apple Pay’ so that the purchase amount is rewarded via NFC VAS to a dPOINT card or PONTA card in Wallet. The #3 and #4 difference is the benefit of using Suica SF and the JR East Suica float in action bypassing the credit card companies. This last difference is the same force driving endless QR Code payment app campaigns, QR players bypass credit card network margins and pass the benefits to customers.

There is one pattern the Crecolle staff did not test: Apple Pay BIC CAMERA QUICPay and showing the BIC CAMERA App barcode point card, this gives the same 8% but without showing any plastic.

Real life code payments

Doutor Coffee Shops added code payment options recently. The sticker next to the reader says all that you need to know: please have your payment app ready before paying. The downfall of code payments is always the network connection. Maybe network connection is weak, or tapped out, or whatever. Last week I was grocery shopping at a basement store location and noticed customers running from checkout to the bottom of the stairs, tapping their smartphone, then running back to the checkout. Bad network area.

This is all too common and a real pain now that every store chain and their dog has a rewards app. Most checkout goes like this: the customer pulls up the store app for discounts and reward points, then pulls up PayPay, dBarai, Line or any other popular code payment, and if the network gods are benevolent, finally pays. NFC was supposed to save us from slow plastic cards and paper coupon checkout, but in the digital wallet age we’re slow if not slower because the store location is in a crappy network area, inside a building with thick earthquake proofed concrete walls. Welcome to code payments in the real world 101.

The truth is in the tap

The Nankai Visa Touch test launch launched endless Twitter discussions about slow EMV contactless tap speeds and performance issues compared with Suica and other Transit IC cards. EMV contactless transit in Japan is novel so this is expected. But suddenly people are also referencing Junya Suzuki’s 2016 pre-Apple Pay Suica launch era ‘Is Suica Over-spec?’ piece. This has long been a favorite theme in Japanese tech media: Suica is more than we need, EMV contactless is ‘good enough’ so let’s do everything with one card, life is more convenient that way. Be careful what you wish for.

The 2016 launch of Apple Pay Suica was a great success of course, that changed the Japanese payments market and opened the door for the proliferation of QR payment services you see everywhere now. The one card must do it all concept is old hat but Tokyo Olympics sponsors Visa Japan and SMBC are trying very hard to convince Japan that Visa Touch cards are the transit future.

My position was and remains that one size never fits all. It doesn’t have to be a EMV or nothing choice portrayed in tech media, nor should it. Different technologies complement each other for a better user experience. Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica combines the convenience of EMV cards on the recharge backend with the speed and reliability of FeliCa based Suica cards on the NFC front-end, for a best of breed closed loop transit user experience. One interesting thing I pointed out in my retweet of Suzuki san’s Nakai open loop launch piece was that QR Nankai Digital Ticket gate performance in the his video is faster than Visa Touch because it’s closed loop.

The comment touched off an odd but interesting set of tweets from Suzuki san and his followers about gate design, reader performance and walk flow that boils down to this: if the reader transaction speed is slow, increase the distance between the reader and gate flap to keep people walking instead of stopping.

His follow up piece deconstructs ‘FeliCa is faster’ as half misunderstanding transit gate antenna design and RF communication distance because EMVCo reader certification dictates a smaller RF distance, the result of using the EMV contactless supermarket checkout spec on transit gates it was never intended for. All I can say is the truth is in the tap. In theory all NFC flavors and protocols offer the same performance but in real transit use they don’t. Better to get next generation Ultra Wideband Touchless gates in service and dispense with the ‘redesign transit gates for slow EMV contactless/QR transit’ debate nonsense. Design things for the future not the past.

The current Transit IC local stored fare model does have weak points as suggested in FeliCa Dude’s tweet: discount ticketing, rebates and refunds. If you purchase a Mobile Suica commuter pass, you can easily get a refund back to the bank payment card used to purchase the commuter pass. This is because Suica extras like commuter passes and Green Seat upgrades are supplemental attached services that don’t use the SF purse.

Rebates and refunds via the SF (stored fare) purse are a bottleneck. Suica App has a mechanism for dealing with some of this called ‘Suica Pocket’ for JRE POINT exchanges and refunds back to the SF purse. Mobile Suica card refunds are another matter and can only be refunded to a Japanese bank account. Octopus Cards Ltd. (OCL) has a special Octopus App for Tourists that refunds a card balance back to original credit card used for the initial digital card issue. OCL also charges tourist users an arm and a leg for Octopus Wallet recharge and refunding. It would be nice if JR East could do the same…without the outrageous OCL surcharges.

For inbound discount ticketing JR East has adopted a similar approach they use for Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets: discount plans attached to plastic Suica cards. This is the whole purpose of the Welcome Suica + reference paper proving validity for inbound discount plan purchases at station kiosks. It would be great if JR East figures out a way to do the same thing on Mobile Suica.

Domestic discount ticketing and passes are still the glorious, mostly paper ticket mess that is Eki-Net and similar services. Eki-Net itself is still in a slow motion transition towards a Transit IC/Mobile Suica orbit with some things transitioning to QR paper ticketing that replaces expensive mag-strip paper. Eki-Net App is still limited to Shinkansen eTickets and ticketless express train seat purchases. The Eki-Net web site is where you access all the bells and whistles although the experience feels like navigating the Transit IC interoperability chart. Discounts are starting to change somewhat with Suica 2 in 1, totra is the first Suica for disabled users but exclusive to the totra fare region. Hopefully Extended Overlap will see wider use not only for Suica but across all Transit IC cards for more special, and interoperable, discount services.

Japan Cashless 2021: the Wireless Android NFC Reader Suck Index

You too can have the whole transaction world in your hands with the Android based Square Terminal for just ¥46,980

Now that contactless is everywhere, wireless contactless readers have become very fashionable and popular. Nobody wants wires or checkout lines. All of these systems are built around an Android based reading device connected to the internet payment service via Bluetooth, WiFi or 4G with a main terminal, an iPad or a laptop running payment network software. Convenient though they may be, compared with hard wired NFC reader performance they all suck with different levels of suckiness:

  1. stera: this lovely little ‘NFC antenna under the screen’ piece of shit from SMBC, GMO and Visa Japan is so slow that checkout staff put their hand over the stera screen/reader to keep customers waiting until the device is ready to go. This is followed by the instruction ‘don’t move your device until the reader beeps.’ It’s a 2~4 second wait until it beeps. This is 2014 era ‘you’re holding it wrong’ garbage nonsense. I teased one store manager about the hard wired JREM FeliCa readers that were swapped out with stera, “Those were too fast,” he said. Too fast?!
  2. PAYGATE: Another payment provider associated with GMO, slightly faster than stera but still slow, PAYGATE does’t like Apple Pay Suica•PASMO Express Transit very much. Have of the time it ignores it altogether forcing customers into the 2016 era ‘manually bring up Apple Pay Suica’ authenticate and pay maneuver. Another ‘you’re holding/doing it wrong,’ when the fault is on the checkout system side. Passé and totally unnecessary.
  3. AirPay: It’s weird that the cheap AirPay hardware performs better than PAYGATE or stera, it’s even weirder that AirPay performs better than Rakuten Pay which uses the very same reader but is stera shitshow slow.
  4. Square Terminal has gotten lots of media attention in Japan. Too early to experience it in the field yet but I’m not hopeful. Square Terminal is Android based after all and the NCF antenna under the screen design is the worst performing reader design out there. As one Brazilian reader wrote: “I just don’t like the ones running Android because at least here the software is less reliable and I managed to crash a few one by just taping my phone.”

Yep, that observation matches my experience. Payment network providers need better Android readers, the current crop is too slow getting the payment transaction ready to tap. In this era of endless subcontractor layers in the development process, creating a fast reliable Android based NFC wireless reader might be a tall order, if not impossible. The all over the place wireless NFC reader experience certainly doesn’t boast well for open loop advocates.

UPDATE
I ran across another crappy reader experience (above) and retweeted it. A reader had some questions about it, answered here by an anonymous expert. It basically comes down to poorly executed reader polling or not following Sony polling recommendations for FeliCa cards. This is what is happening in the above retweet. It is also what is going on with PAYGATE Station readers, half of the time the proper code hasn’t loaded correctly although this issue seems to be fixed in new PAYGATE Station checkout installations. Which brings us to the point I was trying to make: these performance issues can be fixed with reader firmware updates or transaction system software updates, but never are.

Wildcard polling involves the reader making a request for system code 0xFFFF and expecting the card/device to list all the system codes that it supports. Wildcard polling won’t work on an Apple Pay device in Express Transit mode – instead, the system code must be explicitly polled for (0x0003 for CJRC, 0x8008 for Octopus). You can cause Suica/Octopus to be automatically selected by sending SENSF_REQ (Polling command, 06) for those services explicitly.

I have verified that doing so with Apple Pay will cause the emulated card to be switched out as appropriate – the IDm value will also change, since Apple Pay emulates each card separately, instead of with a common IDm as with Osaifu Keitai. If you read the Sony documentation, you will see that developers are cautioned to also poll for the specific service codes they want to access if there’s no response to a wildcard poll.

Perhaps your reader doesn’t do this, but it’s fairly big omission…it should be doing explicit polling. Simply polling for service code 0x0003 should wake up Suica if selected as an Express Transit candidate, even if you don’t send any other commands. I’ve verified this with an RC-S380 reader and NFCPay.