These limitations are not deal breakers. With many company people teleworking during the COVID crisis there is less need for commuter passes. For users who want the complete Mobile Suica service on a wearable, Apple Watch is still the only game in town. Nevertheless this is a welcome addition for many Android users in Japan.
The Fitbit JP page has a few Suica details. It appears to be a Japan model only device, not a global NFC device…and only the black model support Suica. It’s too early to tell if this development has anything to do with Google finally closing the Fitbit acquisition or if this is the first step towards supporting major FeliCa payment services like iD, QUICPay, Waon, etc. Robust seamless global NFC support across Pixel and Fitbit devices from anywhere would be the first real challenge to Apple Pay Suica on iPhone and Apple Watch.
Only TWO WEEKS left before the launch of QR code payment on 23 January! For this new service, we have installed about 1,000 QR code scanners at stations and conducted a series of system and on-site tests. Prominent purple signage will also be on display to help passengers identify the gates providing the new service.
This is the debut of MTR ‘open-loop’ ticketing. Up until now MTR used the ubiquitous Octopus card, the trail blazing transit card that showed the world what smartcard ticketing can do when extended beyond transit to include eMoney payments, transforming a transit card into a transit payment platform. Unlike Japan however Octopus Card Limited (OCL) was late bringing Octopus to mobile. Part of the problem was that Hong Kong mobile carriers never had an Osaifu Keitai-like standard that bridged the Symbian and Android hardware eras. OCL also wasted time with SIM card mobile support before finally launching the mobile Smart Octopus service first on Samsung Pay in late 2018, followed by Apple Pay Octopus in June 2020 and Huawei Pay Octopus in December 2020.
But MTR still faces a problem that most Android devices don’t support FeliCa even though NFC-F is supported across all NFC capable devices. It’s the global NFC dilemma best illustrated in the Google Pay on Google Pixel situation: Mobile FeliCa is installed on all Pixel devices but Google only turns it on for Pixel models sold in Japan. There are many takes on the reasons why. My take is that Google doesn’t want to do the all the global NFC OS level support work that benefits all Android manufacturers. Google’s stance is, ‘don’t ask us, roll your own embedded Secure Element (eSE) solution.’ And so it’s a race of how many ‘Octopus on XX Pay’ digital wallet platforms OCL can line up for Android and wearables.
For MTR, QR Code open loop transit sidesteps this Android hardware mess, but will it be a success when users have to open a smartphone app with a face mask on at every gate? Apple Pay Octopus on Apple Watch sure beats that problem and then some. Long term I think NFC wearables and UWB Touchless will be the QR killer. Time will tell.
One glaring weakness of the Japan Transit IC system is that it’s not universal even on the very rail networks that built the system. Suica for example is mostly absent in stations outside of Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai metro regions, roughly half of JR East stations. It comes down to cost: hard wiring every station is expensive. This cost problem is one that JR East plans to address by rolling out a cloud based low cost ‘simple Suica’ for all stations. They already missed a 2020 deadline and need to deliver on their promise if Suica is remain a viable payments competitor in the hyper competitive Japanese market.
JR West meanwhile is busy expanding ICOCA coverage on the their rail network with Fukuchiyama and Kisei line additions going online March 13, 2021. JR West also added ICOCA connecting commuter passes for Osaka Metro in December, the kind of arrangement that Suica and PASMO have had in place for years. It makes sense for JR West to expand now in preparation for the Mobile ICOCA launch in 2023.
The Kisei line is somewhat unique in that smaller stations are unmanned and local trains are one man operations with passengers getting off at the front for ticket verification. ICOCA readers are located at car exit points, passengers tap out similar to using a bus. This kind of operation would fit well on similar ‘one man’ operations like the JR Central Minobu line which are still limited to paper tickets.
I knew something was coming when Panasonic JT-R600 all-in-one readers appeared in Starbucks stores starting last summer. Initially these were for EMV chip cards and came with ‘please don’t forget to remove your card’ reminder stickers. EMV contactless is missing though I suspect it will come at some point. Other FeliCa contactless payments such as iD, QUICPay, Waon, nanaco, and Edy are also missing. Line Pay QR is accepted at some store locations but remains limited for now.
Suica/PASMO (and other eMoney like Waon) has been accepted for years at Starbucks locations in stations and malls where tenants integrate payment+reward point systems provided by the landlord. Suica/PASMO support is not native however and bolted onto the Starbucks checkout system. For JR East station area locations tied into the JRE POINT system this means double entry Suica payments: once for the Starbucks checkout and once more for the Suica/JRE POINT payment reader. This will remain in place until JR East and other retail landlords (PAMSO, etc.) come up with a better system for integrating JRE POINT (etc.) with Starbucks’ native Suica support. The big takeaway is that Suica/Transit IC is officially supported and earmarked for all locations.
Contactless payments are a welcome step forward but I wish Starbucks integrated their own reward points via NFC VAS instead of barcode in Starbucks app nonsense. That way I could get JRE POINT and Starbucks point with a single Apple Watch Suica tap at JR East station Starbucks locations without the hassle of iPhone Face ID with face mask. And while we’re on the subject of NFC VAS reward point cards…JR East hurry up with that JRE POINT card for Apple Wallet please.
UPDATE Starbucks is running a ¥100 One More Coffee refill campaign with Suica/Transit IC purchase from January 13~June 30, a ¥50 discount. A good reason to kiss the iOS Starbucks App barcode thing goodbye for the duration and use Apple Pay Suica/PASMO Express Transit instead.
Smart Navigo, the Paris~Île-de-France region digital transit card for mobile, currently on Galaxy devices and Android smartphones with Orange SIM cards, is reportedly coming to Apple Pay in February. Although France was an early innovator of NFC on mobile phones, it did not lead to early mobile transit adoption: Smart Navigo launched in September 2019. Apple Pay Navigo would be the first native transit card (closed loop) for Apple Pay in Europe, it would also be the first smart wearable for Navigo users thanks to Apple Watch. The Calypso based Navigo transit card launched in 2001 and had a large upgrade in 2019 to add more transit services and mobile.
Navigo operator Île-de-France Mobilities has reportedly been in talks with Apple ever since Smart Navigo was first announced in 2017. At that time they said:
“Unfortunately, it won’t be possible for iPhone owners to use the service since Apple does not yet allow third parties to access the NFC secure element in their phones. However, we are happy to explore the possibilities with Apple to offer the same service to all Paris public transport users.
Apple has a uniquely flexible custom embedded Secure Element (eSE) in their A/S Series chips that can be updated to support additional NFC protocols. Calypso is an open protocol that uses NFC-B, it would join the other major Apple Pay protocols, EMV (NFC-A) FeliCa (NFC-F) and MIFARE (NFC-A), that are all proprietary. There isn’t any technical difficulty adding new transit cards. It’s a matter of negotiation and deal making, which can take time.
Apple usually likes to roll out new transit cards following an iOS update. iOS 14.4 would fit a February launch window. There are also reports that Apple Pay Code Payments are working in recent iOS 14.4 internal builds. If all of this pans out, iOS 14.4 could be an important update for Apple Pay users, especially in France.
UPDATE 01 News reports that iPhone users will be able to reload Navigo cards for day/weekly /monthly passes with an updated ViaNaigo app using NFC starting January 20. This is an important first step of implementing Apple Pay support in advance of the full Apple Pay Navigo service launch due in February and confirms the earlier Le Parisien report. It also follows the 2020 Apple Pay Octopus rollout which saw an updated iOS app with iPhone NFC recharge feature released before the service launch.
UPDATE 2 January 13: The updated iOS Ile-de-France Mobilités app (previously ViaNavigo) with NFC reload for Navigo cards was released. iPhone 7 and later devices are supported as this follows Core NFC device specs, however iPhone XR/XS support is missing in the initial release and said to be addressed soon. Developers say this is due to longstanding Core NFC bugs. There is also an issue with iPhone SE2 that needs to be restarted to work properly. No word if the iOS 14.4 update will fix the issues or not.