Recharge your recharge, the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean shit in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market

I love articles like this one. It’s fun examining how the writer, freelancer Meiko Homma, takes old news bits, worn-out arguments and weaves them into a ‘new’ narrative with a titillatingly hot title: “QR Code payments won the cashless race, Suica utterly defeated.”

Her article trots out some QR Code payment usage data from somewhere, the PASPY transit card death saga that illustrates the increasingly difficult challenge of keeping region limited transit IC cards going, the fact that Suica only covers 840 stations out of a total of 1630, all while conveniently ignoring recent important developments like the Suica 2 in 1 Regional Affiliate program, and big updates coming in early 2023: Cloud Suica extensions and the Mobile ICOCA launch.

It has the classic feel of ‘here’s a headline, now write the article’ hack piece passing as industry analysis we have too much of these days. The Yahoo Japan portal site picked it up and the comments section was soon full of wicked fun posts picking apart the weak arguments.

I’ve said it before and say it again: the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean shit in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market. PayPay for example, started out as a code payment app but has added FeliCA QUICPay and EMV contactless support along with their PayPay card offering. Just like I predicted, these companies don’t care about payment technology, they just want people to use their services. My partner and I actually see less PayPay use at checkout these days and more Mobile Suica. Why?

The great thing about prepaid eMoney ‘truth in the card’ Suica, PASMO, WAON, Edy, nanaco, is they are like micro bank accounts coupled with the backend recharge flexibility of mobile wallets (Apple Pay, Google Pay, Suica App, etc.). PayPay, au Pay, Line Pay and similar Toyota Wallet knock-off payment apps with Apple Pay Wallet cards, are deployed as mobile recharge conduits that smart users leverage to put money into different eMoney micro bank accounts and get the points or instant cashback rebates they want to get at any given campaign moment. This is where the action is.

And so we have recharge acrobats like Twitter user #1: step 1 recharge PayPay account from Seven Bank account, step 2 move recharge amount from PayPay Money to PayPay Bank, step 3 move recharge from PayPay Bank to Line Pay, in Wallet app recharge Suica with Line Pay card. Or like recharge acrobat Twitter user #2: Sony Bank Wallet to Kyash to Toyota Wallet to Suica.

Phew…none of this involves transfer fees so it’s up to user creativity to come up with the recharge scenario that works best for them. Does it count as PayPay use or Line Pay use or Mobile Suica use? Does it matter?

It’s not about winners or losers, it’s about moving money around. Mobile Suica is extremely useful because of it’s recharge backend flexibility, thanks to Apple Pay and Google Pay (which does not support PASMO yet). This is the case for US citizens working in Japan who get a great return of their Suica or PASMO recharge right now using US issue credit cards because of the exchange rate. This is something visitors to Hong Kong cannot do with Apple Pay Octopus as the OCL recharge backend is far more restrictive than JR East. The biggest gripe users have with Suica is ¥20,000 balance limit.

In the weeks to come we’ll be sure to see hand wringing articles debating the future of Suica, open-loop, etc.,etc., because let’s face it, IT media journalists need something to write about in these challenging times where everything has to be sold as winner/loser, black/white, 0 or 10, and nothing in-between, to get any traction at all. As for me, I think it’s far more interesting, and real, to observe how users are using all these nifty mobile payment tools.

UPDATE 2022-07-04: Thoughts on the KDDI network outage
That was fast. No sooner had the “QR Codes won the mobile payments race” article appeared when major Japanese carrier KDDI experienced a nationwide mobile network meltdown on July 2 JST, lasted a full day with a very slow, still in progress, recovery affecting more than 40 million customers. Suddenly social media channels were full of people complaining that QR Code payments didn’t work, assuming that Mobile Suica and other NFC mobile payments stopped too. Which was not the case though a few fake posts claimed, or just ‘assumed’ people were stranded inside stations. Fortunately there were numerous online articles setting the record straight.

It’s a lesson that people soon forget in our attention span challenged social media era. We saw plenty of QR Code payment downsides in the 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi earthquake that knocked out power and mobile service across Hokkaido. At the time some fake Chinese social media posts claimed AliPay and WeChat pay ‘still worked’ in Hokkaido at the time, of course they did not.

Mobile payment disruptions happen with every natural disaster and war. Good and safe practices don’t come easy when smartphone apps lure us down the easy path without spelling out the risks. It’s a lesson we have to learn again and again, that while network dependent code payment apps have some benefits, they also have limits and security risks. One size does not fit all, NFC and code payments each have their place and role to play in the expanding mobile payments universe. The key is understanding their strengths and weaknesses.

iOS 16 Wallet: expanding the Apple Pay experience, aka Suica auto-charge for the rest of us

iOS 15 added big new features to Wallet, expanding digital keys from cars to include home, office and hotels and ID in Wallet driver licenses for the first time. There were smaller but important UI changes too. A new add card screen offered new categories making is easy to add transit cards regardless of the device region and quickly re-add previous Wallet items from iCloud. iOS 15 was all about Wallet to the extent that Apple now advertises it as a separate thing from Apple Pay with a separate web page, and even referred to Apple Pay as “one of the most important areas of Wallet” in the WWDC keynote. Very interesting.

iOS 16 moves the focus back to Apple Pay and making digital payments more useful, practical and universal. The WWDC22 Keynote announced Apple Pay Later, in-app ID card verification and key sharing. Apple Pay Later is one aspect of several new Apple Pay functions unveiled in the What’s new in Apple Pay and Wallet session.

Multi-merchant payments: In our online world we can never be sure how many sub-merchants are involved when we order something and how our card information is shared. In multi-merchant Apple Pay, multiple payment tokens are issued for each merchant in the same transaction, preserving user privacy, with the iOS 16 Apple Pay paysheet showing a breakdown of each sub-merchant charge. This feature works mostly on the backend, but showcases how smartly the Apple Pay Wallet team design features to ‘just work’ securely for merchants and customers.

Automatic Payments
My favorite iOS 16 feature as it addresses a lot of interesting use cases, much more than just Apple Pay Later installments which fall under:

Reoccurring payments, which include things like installments and subscriptions, basically any regularly scheduled payment. With the recent Starbucks Japan price increases, I decided to sign up for the new JR East Beck’s Coffee Shop subscription plan. Up to 3 cups a day for ¥2,800 a month. A pretty good deal for commuters like me. The Beck’s subscription service is subcontracted out to an interesting online business venture company called Favy that uses Sign in with Apple to create an account. Payment however is manual credit card entry with the onerous, ubiquitous 3D Secure sign-in. Pass issue and serving size selection (M=¥50, L=¥100 extra) is done in Safari. It works well enough, but canceling or getting payment details is a real Safari expedition. It would be a much better, and faster, customer experience doing it all in Apple Pay.

Automatic Reload: this is the real money feature for me because it plays on the classic snag of using Apple Pay Suica…recharge. All pre-paid cards are a catch-22. Japanese users love them because they like the “I know how much money I’m adding to my card” aspect of manual recharge, but there’s the inevitable, you know you forgot about it, bing-bong ‘please recharge’ transit gate alarm when Suica balance is short.

JR East offers Suica Auto-Charge (auto-reload) as a feature of their VIEW card. The auto-charge option works great with Apple Pay Suica but like all transit card auto-charge, it is tethered to the transit gate NFC system. This means the users gets instant, seamless auto-charge but only on the operator’s transit gates. Suica auto-charge does not work outside of the Suica and PASMO transit gates, not at store terminals, not in other transit card regions like JR West ICOCA. This limitation is a big customer complaint, I and many others would love Apple Pay Suica auto-charge to work everywhere.

Apple Pay automatic reload takes care of this problem very nicely. Suica would recharge anywhere because the card balance ‘trigger’ and reload process is done via Apple Pay instead of JR East transit gates and the Suica system. JR East could keep auto-charge exclusive to their VIEW cards as they do now or easily, selectively expand it. Either way they would greatly increase the usefulness of VIEW and Suica by supporting the new Apple Pay automatic reload feature. The possibilities are are pretty exciting.

Order tracking
Another very useful feature I think people will love using. The addition of QR/barcodes in the Apple Pay sheet is a first and will greatly shorten the order pickup~delivery process. The best use case of Apple Pay and bar codes that I can think of.

ID verification in apps
This is where ID in Wallet gets real. Wallet app has TSA airport checkpoint verification built-in but that’s not going to help all the government issuing agencies, not to mention software developers, around the world who want to implement digital ID verification to unlock various digital services.

JR East for example has centered their whole Super Suica MaaS Cloud initiative around ID PORT and the ability to match various region or age based services (discounts, special fares, etc.). In other words JR East and their sub-merchant or local government agency want to know where I live and how old I am. This is all provided on the Japanese government My Number digital identity card launching later this year on Android, and Apple Wallet later on. But I don’t want my personal details going everywhere. If the MaaS campaign app or website only needs to know that I live in Tokyo and am over 60, that’s the only info I want to give them. This is what the new PassKit ID request APIs in iOS 16 do: give apps only the information they need to perform a verification for a service and nothing more.

Key sharing
Nothing big here, but it does address one iOS 15 Wallet shortcoming for home, hotel keys which that could not be shared and expanded share options beyond mail and messages. I’m doubtful Apple includes office keys in the bargain but the fine print reads: available on participating car brands and access properties. We’ll find out when iOS 16 ships.

And then there’s Tap to Pay on iPhone. It’s really not an Apple Pay function to me because it turns iPhone into a very handy and portable NFC payment terminal, but it makes sense branding wise. Just say Apple Pay for making…and accepting payments. Anywhere the merchant has their payment provider POS app and a network connection, they are ready to go. This is big. Apple has lined up an impressive number payment providers in a very short time who are happy to leave all the hardware certification and secure element management to Apple and focus on software. I can practically feel the intense interest from Japan where local payment providers would love to leverage the global NFC capable iPhone for seamless EMV and FeliCa payment services. It could be an interesting Apple Pay year.

Apple Platform Security May 2022: Tap to Pay on iPhone, Express Mode scare mongers and other fun

Ahh springtime, flowers and the annual Apple Platform Security (APS) update. This year’s version has many Apple Pay housekeeping changes. Previous versions put everything Apple Pay in a single section. In keeping with Apple spinning out iOS 15 Wallet app as a separate identity, Wallet has its own separate section now, covering all the things Jennifer Bailey unveiled at WWDC21: hotel-home-office keys and ID in Wallet. The Apple Pay section adds a new category for Tap to Pay on iPhone with some interesting bits.

The Tap to Pay on iPhone servers manage the setup and provisioning of the payment kernels in the device. The servers also monitor the security of the Tap to Pay on iPhone devices in a manner compatible with to the Contactless Payments on COTS (CPoC) standard from the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council (PCI SSC) and are PCI DSS compliant.

The Tap to Pay on iPhone server emits decryption keys to the Payment Service Provider after validation of the integrity and authenticity of the data, and after verifying that the card read was within 60 seconds of the card read on the device.

What’s interesting to me is that Tap to Pay on iPhone servers are providing a seamless payment reader experience in the same way that Apple Pay servers provide a seamless pay experience. It just works, from setup to use, the same tight integration allows payment service providers to focus on POS app development and forget about the hardware because Apple Pay takes care of everything. As Junya Suzuki tweeted recently, a lot of payment reader hardware is suddenly junk compared to what iPhone is providing with tight mobile integration and Tap to Pay servers on the backend. Now with Tap to Pay apps on the horizon, good thing that iOS 15 Wallet expanded the secure element max to 16 ain’t it?

Speaking of Wallet, this separate section covers all things “access credential” related (hotel-corporate-home-car-student ID) with App Clips suggested for provisioning multifamily home keys. Transit now includes eMoney cards (or is it e-Money, Apple seems confused about it just like Express Mode vs Express Transit) and IDs in Wallet is covered in detail. There is also an intriguing iOS 15.4 Wallet security tweak:

In iOS 15.4 or later, when a user double-clicks the side button on an iPhone with Face ID or double-clicks the Home button on an iPhone with Touch ID, their passes and access key details aren’t displayed until they authenticate to the device. Either Face ID, Touch ID, or passcode authentication is required before pass specific information including hotel booking details are displayed in Apple Wallet.

It sounds almost exactly what we already do with regular Apple Pay cards. Perhaps keys and passes only show a generic icon and checkmark with Express Mode with the double-click + authentication required for show details…it’s not very clear.

Speaking of Express Mode, ‘security experts’ are still scare mongering the masses with the tired old Russian security expert/Apple Pay VISA Express Transit exploit story that made the rounds last November, regurgitated by Forbes in the over the top scary sounding, and sloppily written (this is Forbes after all), “How hackers can drain your bank account with Apple and Samsung tap and pay apps“.

The whole security expert thing reminds me of what my uncle the doctor (who ran a medical research lab at Columbia University) used to say about his disdain for pharmaceutical companies, “They don’t want to cure you, they just want to keep ‘treating’ you with their medicines.” Human nature never changes. The gist is that EMV Express Transit Mode will always be a thorn in Apple Pay’s side because the security is up to the card companies.

The document is worth your time is you have any interest in Apple Pay and Wallet.

WWDC22 Wish List

It is hard to be enthusiastic about this year’s WWDC when Apple’s entire integrated software/hardware business model is coming under attack. With so much distraction these days there’s not much of a wish list, just a few observations for Apple Pay, Apple Maps and Text Layout.

Apple Pay
First up of course, is Apple Pay. After Jennifer Bailey’s WWDC21 appearance where she announced home keys, hotel keys, office keys and ID for iOS 15 Wallet, and the separate Tap to Pay on iPhone PR announcement release in January, I don’t think Jennifer will be in the WWDC22 keynote. She’s not going to appear just to explain that Apple Pay is not a monopoly, that’s Tim’s job with CEO level pay grade, it’s unlikely she’s doing to appear to just recap details of what’s already been announced.

Bailey’s job is to announce new features, and I don’t think that after the big iOS 15 rollout of new Wallet features and Tap to Pay on iPhone there’s nothing really new. And it’s not her job to announce new frameworks, that’s what the sessions are for. Things that I have been wishing for these past few years such include easier, more open NFC Pass certification process and/or new frameworks for developers to access the secure element for payments or use Tap to Pay on iPhone. There needs to a clearer path for developers who want to use the secure element for payments (Wallet) or iPhone as payment terminal (Tap to Pay on iPhone).

Apple needs to open up the NFC/Secure Element Pass certification process and clarify the process

The only possible ‘new’ Apple Pay Wallet feature I can think of is the long in the works Code Payments. It has been lurking in the iOS shadows since iOS 13, so long that Apple legal inserted official mention in a recent Apple Pay & Privacy web page update: “When you make a payment using a QR code pass in Wallet, your device will present a unique code and share that code with the pass provider to prevent fraud.” If Apple Pay delivers native device generated QR code payments without a network connection, just like all Apple Pay cards to date, it would be quite a coup but by itself, but probably not worth a Jennifer Bailey appearance. Other future goodies like passport in Wallet or ID in Wallet for other countires are too far out to mention, at least in the iOS 16 time frame.


Apple Maps
The only new Apple Maps feature that suggests itself is AR enhanced ‘Look Around’ indoor maps for stations. That’s the conclusion after examining the current (February ~ May 2022) backpack image collection in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya. It is highly focused on stations, and stations such as Shinjuku, Tokyo, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, etc., are mostly underground, surrounded with densely packed extensive maze like malls.

This means Apple image collection in Japan is going indoors for the first time, likely at pre-arranged times when people are scarce. This is hard to do at a place like Shinjuku station as multiple companies collectively manage the entire site (JR East, Odakyu, Keio, Seibu, Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation, Tokyo Metro, just to name a few).

Apple needs something new with indoor maps as the current incarnation is inadequate for stations. As Google Maps Live has shown in Tokyo station, AR walking guidance is a good fit for indoor maps that navigate users through intricate, information dense underground station mazes, though Google’s version has its problems. New and improved, AR enhanced “Look Around” style indoor station maps with walking directions that seamlessly guide users from transit gate to final destination would be far more useful than they are now.

Recent image collection suggests Indoor Station Maps might be coming in iOS 16

Overall, I am not optimistic that Apple Maps in Japan can become a top tier digital map service. The local 3rd party map and transit data suppliers that Apple depends on to make up the bulk of the Japanese service are decidedly not top tier. Old problems remain unfixed. In the case of the main Japanese map data supplier things have deteriorated.

Increment P (IPC) was 100% owned by Pioneer but was sold to Polaris Capital Group in June 2021 with a new CEO (ex Oracle Japan) who quickly changed the name to GeoTechnologies Inc. Under hedge fund Polaris Capital Group led management the company has been busy inflating the number of cushy company director positions, never a good sign, and pushing out shitty ad-ware apps like Torima. The focus is leveraging assets not building them.

Apple’s Japanese map problem can only be fixed by dumping low quality GeoTechnologies for a top quality digital map supplier like Zenrin (the amateurish UK backed Open Street Map effort in Japan is not worth serious consideration) or Apple aggressively mapping Japan themselves. Apple has not pursued either option: the image collection effort in Japan is leisurely and limited, its use remains restricted to Look Around. Until this changes, expect more of the same old fundamental Japanese map problems in iOS 16 and beyond. Apple Maps is a collection of many different service parts. Some evolve and improve, some do not. Let’s hope for a good outcome with the data Apple is collecting for indoor station maps.


Apple Typography TextKit 2 migration
WWDC21 saw the unveiling of TextKit 2, the next generation replacement for the 30 year old TextKit, older than QuickDraw GX even, but much less capable. TextKit 2 marked the start of a long term migration with most of TextKit 2 initially ‘opt in’ for compatibility. We’ll find out how much of TextKit 2 will evolve to default on with an ‘opt out’. There are holes to fill too: the iOS side didn’t get all the TextKit 2 features of macOS such as UITextView (multiline text), some of the planned features like NSTextContainer apparently didn’t make the final cut either. We should get a much more complete package at WWDC22. Once the TextKit 2 transition is complete, I wonder if a Core Text reboot is next.


watchOS 9 Express Cards with Power Reserve?
Mark Gurman reported that watchOS 9 will have “a new low-power mode that is designed to let its smartwatch run some apps and features without using as much battery life.” While this sounds like Express Cards with Power Reserve (transit cards, student ID, hotel-home-car-office keys) and it might even mimic the iPhone feature to some degree, it will not be the real thing. Power Reserve on iPhone is a special mode where iOS powers down itself down but leaves the lights on for direct secure element NFC transactions. iOS isn’t involved at all.

Real Power Reserve requires an Apple silicon design that supports the hardware feature on Apple Watch, it cannot be added with a simple software upgrade. Until that happens, a new watchOS 9 low-power mode means that watchOS still babysits Express Cards, but anything that gives us better battery life than what we have now is a good thing. We’ll find out later this year if Apple Watch series 8 is the real Power Reserve deal.

Enjoy the keynote and have a good WWDC.

State of Suica 2022

Now that the 1st wave of Suica 2 in 1 card launches is complete, it’s a good time to review the ‘State of Suica’. And it’s always interesting to examine the cultural differences too, when it comes to labeling trends as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Westerners for example invariably say, what’s the point of having so many Suica card flavors? It’s a waste, better to have just one. It’s a classic double standard professing to want but insisting that life should revolve around single kind of credit card. Japanese don’t seem to care much as the culture is adept at ‘振り分け’: this thing for doing this, that thing for doing that. And the region affiliate users getting Suica for the first time seem pretty excited and all Suica varieties work the same for transit and e-Money purchases.

As of now we have the following plastic Suica card flavors beside the regular Suica available at station kiosks: Rinkai Suica, Monorail Suica, Welcome Suica and Suica Light. On the Mobile Suica side we have: Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Fitbit Pay and Garmin Pay, along with branded Mobile Suica for Rakuten Suica and au Suica on Osaifu Keitai and Mizuho Suica on iOS. Last but not least we have 11 new Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit cards that are the keystone of JR East’s MaaS strategy.

What exactly are the differences? It comes down to commuter passes or points. For Suica 2 in 1 cards specifically, it is both. This is a small but very important difference. All the other non-regular Suica outside 2 in 1, come with specific features and limitations. Rakuten and KDDI au users can recharge those Suica with those outside point systems but they can’t add commute plans. Welcome Suica expires in 28 days, Rinkai and Monorail Suica exist for commuter passes and nothing else, and so on.

Suica 2 in 1 doesn’t have limitations and does more than any other Suica: it can hold 2 different commuter passes (one from JR East, one from the region affiliate) and it supports 2 different point systems: messy JRE POINT which is an optional account setup manually linked to the Suica card number, and local government subsidized region affiliate transit points which are automatic and stored on the card itself. The only thing the user needs to do is use the appropriate card for transit to earn and use transit point discounts.

In a mobile payment era where everybody is distinguishing themselves with increasingly complex reward point schemes, the simplicity and flexibility of Suica 2 in 1 transit points, think of it as locally processed transit point stored fare, can go places that old Suica cannot. Imagine how many more people would use Suica transit in Tokyo if it came with transit point discounts. There are other 2 in 1 features not yet supported by regular Suica: disabled and elderly transit user discounts. These are coming to Tokyo area plastic issue Suica, and PASMO too, this October though I suspect those won’t come to Mobile Suica until it gets an upgrade.

Mobile FeliCa hasn’t been updated to the next generation ‘Super Suica’ FeliCa SD2 architecture yet, but once updated we should see Suica 2 in 1 on mobile and new Suica features, along with more Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards. All in all the new Suica 2 in 1 card format tells us where JR East wants to go.

There are some interesting numbers from the JR East FY results. All things transit took a huge hit in FY 2021 from the COVID pandemic, Suica included, but are now recovering though still below pre-covid transaction levels. Another surprise is the popularity of Eki-Net eTickets, a 39% usage rate is not bad for a service that only started in March 2020. One of the smarter things JR East did with Eki-Net eTicket discounts is making them simple and available to all Eki-Net users and credit cards. The JR Central EX system has 2 different Shinkansen eTicket tiers (EX-Press and smartEX) with larger EX discounts limited to select credit cards.

There are lots of things that JR East needs to do longterm, more Suica day passes, Mobile Suica recharge that is available 24/7, phasing out legacy mag strip ticketing and UWB touchless transit gates. In the short term we have Cloud Suica and Mobile ICOCA coming online in March 2023, the end of the current fiscal year. At the very least it should be an interesting time for JR West ICOCA users, and one more nail in the PiTaPa coffin.