Apple’s Secret Weapon

Technology is hard to cover well in a way that’s clear and easy to understand, that educates and elevates without dumbing down the technology or it’s intended audience. Technology like Apple Pay Suica is especially hard to cover well because it is multifaceted: it merges the Apple Pay platform of Global NFC technology deployed on iPhone and Apple Watch, with the Suica Transit Platform of FeliCa NFC deployed for transit and eMoney on a national scale, and how Apple delivers all of this to a global user base.

With so many parts it’s difficult to explain the greatness and importance of Apple Pay Suica, simply and clearly, and what connects it to Apple Card. Ken Bolido who is the production lead and creative director for Austin Evans, has created a video titled Apple’s SECRET Weapon aka Your iPhone has Super Powers…in Japan. Ken ‘get’s it’ and captures all of it brilliantly: why Apple Pay is Apple’s Secret Weapon, how Apple Pay Suica is a perfect embodiment of that secret weapon, and how it relates to Apple Card. If you want to understand any of this and how it will play out, watch Apple’s SECRET Weapon. It’s essential viewing and a perfect primer for the role Apple Pay Suica will play in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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AWS outage takes down PayPay

The Amazon Web Service outage that started around 1pm August 23 local Japan time took down some PayPay service along with it. Japanese users tweeted about payment and recharge not working. AWS service was completely restored by 8pm Japan time. Engadget JP’s Takahiro Koguchi posted a complete rundown.

Since QR Code payment systems depend on centralized processing, a cloud outage can easily bring down the system for all transactions. While this is a minor annoyance for paying at a convenience store where you can always pay on the spot using something else, it’s not the case when QR is used for transit where large numbers of people can suddenly be stranded. This is exactly what happened in Chengdu last April. It’s a risk of using QR Codes for transit.

Locally processed transactions like Suica are resilient because it was designed to avoid the trap of central processing, the stored balance is held on the card and not on the cloud. When things do go wrong with cloud services like Mobile Suica or Apple Pay, damage is limited to the credit card recharge side. Cash recharge at the convenience store, the station, the ATM is always there as a backup because it only deals with the card, not the cloud.

The Real Reason Japan is not Cashless…but eventually will be

Lots of silly western journalist reportage from the likes of the Financial Times (FT) and PYMENTS.com have attempted to explain the ‘cash addiction’ of Japanese society by spinning it as a failure of Japanese contactless payment technology: FeliCa, QR Codes, etc. They have failed miserably.

They would have done much better if they had gotten up from their desktops, loaded up Apple Pay Suica with a full charge of ¥20,000 and actually bothered to travel outside of Tokyo, with a few local train trips to the Japanese countryside to talk with Grandma Japan. Grandma Japan holds the family purse strings. Grandma Japan has credit cards and transit cards but those are just window dressing.

She is set in her ways, ways that have safely seen the family thought generations, the real household management is arranged around multiple hard cash osaifu ‘purses’. These purses are different accounts at different banks. Bank A is the medical purse, bank B is the insurance purse, bank C is the loan payback purse, and so on.

The Japanese Government knows this and is, slowly, weeding down the number of local banks, twisting arms, encouraging bank mergers while changing banking rules. X Day will finally arrive when Grandma Japan is forced to put all those purses in a single bank. The bank will kindly offer to manage all those purses for her, and oh, here’s this convenient Rakuten Super Suica + credit card that works everywhere in Japan for transit, shopping, getting cash when you need it, and getting points. You can also gift your grandkids with those cards too, and control how much they can use.

Get the picture? At that point Grandma Japan juggling too many hard cash accounts at one bank will be too much because it’s not traveling from bank A to bank B anymore. It’s all virtual in one place. She will throw up her hands and go cashless, and at that point Japan will truly become cashless in the more important way because it’s not about technology, it’s about households and family life. Unfortunately it’s a point that most western journalists in Japan don’t get, and can’t get, until they get their head out of technology and their body out of Tokyo.

Apple Pay Suica Auto-Charge Confessional

I have a confession to make to my brothers and sisters of the Apple Pay Suica Super Smart Shopping League (Apple Pay 4S): I never used Suica Auto-Charge. Until now.

I know, I know, it was a really stupid thing to do even though I had all the power tools at my disposal: Apple Pay Suica card, BIC CAMERA View JCB card, JRE POINT card, Mobile Suica and JRE POINT accounts, Suica App. Somehow I could never quite bring myself to take that final step of turning on the Auto-Charge option in Suica App.

You see, I’m a very manual man. I think it was my addiction to the Apple Pay ‘ka-ching’ sound. Even though it’s audio confirmation that my money is going down the drain, it just sounds so good. That and my addiction to Suica Notification shortcuts, they were always there but never really worked right until iOS 12.3. Those are flimsy but valid excuses. But now that notification shortcut recharge is working good in iOS 13, I knew I had to take the last step. The final blow was the Dr. Shump/Arale-chan JR East View card campaign ads. I always had a soft spot for Arale-chan, I mean if she didn’t originate the pile of poo emoji, nobody did. And so I turned on Auto-Charge.

What can I say? Auto-Charge makes the Apple Pay Suica experience better and smoother in every way. It’s far better than futzing with credit cards, even Apple Pay credit cards, but fellow Apple Pay 4S members already knew that.

I keep the auto-charge amount at the lowest setting, ¥2,000, because my manual man side is uncomfortable with large recharge amounts and prefers manual Apple Pay recharge to keep an eye on the money before it goes down the drain.

I look forward to the day when Suica Auto-Charge functionality extends from Suica/Pasmo gates to all transit gates nationwide. It would be insanely great if JR East opened up Auto-Charge to non-JR East View credit cards, but that will probably remain an exclusive incentive. If Super Suica delivers nationwide transit gate Auto-Charge compatibility, I’ll settle.

iOS 13: Set up a Suica card in Apple Pay

Up until iOS 12 adding a Suica card to Apple Pay Wallet has been centered around transferring a plastic Suica card. The Apple setup page assumed you already have a plastic Suica, there was no mention of adding a virtual Suica card or how to do it. Not any more.

In iOS 13 the Suica setup is no longer about transferring a plastic card, it’s all about creating a virtual Suica card in Wallet. This eliminates a lot of setup hurdles for inbound travelers, and Japanese users too, who want to use Apple Pay Suica:

  • No more need to buy a plastic Suica
  • No more fuss adding the last 4 digits of the Suica ID number
  • No more entering a birth date
  • No more reading Suica card data into Wallet
  • No more dead useless plastic Suica card

The new iOS 13 Set up a Suica card in Apple Pay instructions are this:

  1. Set Region to Japan
  2. Open Wallet and tap the plus sign
  3. Tap Continue.
  4. Tap Suica Card.
  5. Select an amount to put on your transit card.
  6. Follow the steps to create a new transit card on your iPhone.
  7. Return Region to desired preference.

The iOS 13 Suica setup is exactly like the current Beijing/Shanghai transit card setup with one big difference: you use your Apple Pay credit/debit cards to add money to Suica, it’s open ended. China transit virtual cards require an Apple Pay China UnionPay credit/debit card, it’s not inbound friendly.

The Suica setup is inbound friendly, as Apple Pay Octopus will be when it launches with iOS 13. JR East has streamlined and beefed up the Mobile Suica system to accommodate the addition of what will doubtlessly be many virtual Suica cards. It appears that all new Suica cards created in iOS 13 Wallet are the ‘My Suica’ variety, this means they are registered in the Mobile Suica system and you can create more than one.

Creating virtual ‘My Suica’ used to require a Mobile Suica account and Suica App, but if this is no longer the case it suggests that all Apple Pay users adding virtual Suica in iOS 13 Wallet are now registered Mobile Suica users….at least from the backend system operations point of view. I suspect we’ll be getting details from JR East, and a new version of Suica App at some point.

There are still some gray areas, such as the status, or necessity of SuicaENG. I hope it sticks around because even though it’s a throwaway one time use app, it adds a virtual Suica without the ‘set Region to Japan’ setup requirement of Wallet. There’s also the problem of Apple Pay Suica card refunds which require a Japanese bank account to receive. I suspect JR East will stick to its guns and tell users to spend the remaining Suica balance down close to zero and remove it from Wallet.