The Suica 2.0 launch in the Tohoku region on May 27 is not simply a launch. It marks the transition to a whole new business model for JR East. The future is Suica as a mobile payment and services platform that leverages JR East transit infrastructure. It has to be because the traditional business model of selling train tickets is declining along with the population of Japan. Fewer people, fewer trains. Lifestyles and work styles are changing too, as expected, but COVID has drastically accelerated societal shifts that planners expected to happen gradually such as doing away with work day commuting and the need for commuter passes.
And there is mobile. The ability of doing things with an app and a credit card instead of having to go to the station ticket office or kiosk has made a lot of station infrastructure irrelevant. Station infrastructure and ticketing systems built for the era of cash based kiosks for paper tickets, commuter passes is redundant in the Mobile Suica era, and maintaining local JR Green Window Ticket Offices in every station is expensive.
For example, long time JR East commuters have witnessed the gradual elimination of paper ticket kiosks in favor of pink Suica recharge kiosks. This is because over 90% of JR East Tokyo area transit users use Suica or PASMO and the reason why there are fewer expensive maintenance heavy IC + paper ticket gates and more inexpensive easy maintenance IC only gates at stations. Are there are more IC Card only exits in rebuilt stations especially with connecting shopping malls.
Open Loop Reality All of this is taking place while multiple transit companies are testing open loop transit for deployment as a way to increase revenue. One of the issues that people don’t discuss about open loop transit is the lack of integration on a large scale like closed loop Suica. Open Loop doesn’t travel well. When you examine the deployments around the world, it is limited to isolated systems with simple fare structures. That’s why I call the Japanese test installations transit boutiques. It doesn’t integrate well across complex fare structures and multiple transit connected companies. It doesn’t work for reserve seat Shinkansen and express train eTicketing. Complex transit ticket packaging and fare validation speed is where closed loop shines. In real world testing open loop isn’t an improvement over Transit IC. The mix and match transit gate environment, predictably, slows things down. Open Loop has its place in the transit mix, but I believe the return on investment will not live up to expectations.
Integration is the key The promise of Suica 2.0 boils down to creating a whole new level of integration. The current Transit IC standard is a strong one because it integrates cards across different transit regions with cross compatible eMoney purchasing. The integration of mobile with Suica took it to a whole new level as the world’s first transit payment platform, as did Apple Pay integration in 2016. By moving fare processing to the cloud, Suica 2.0 will integrate isolated Suica regions, integrate new flexible fares and new types of commuter passes while promoting local services in new ways. It will eventually incorporate QR ticketing as well. As cloud based transit IC systems are linked together, the integration will spread beyond JR East. Integration is the only way forward for the Transit IC platforms, Suica, PASMO and ICOCA, to evolve and survive and grow in the mobile era. It’s going to be a very interesting journey.
The Suica cross region problem, no thru transit going from the Suica area to the TOICA area for example, is a well known and criticized shortcoming of the Transit IC system. There has been some recent progress with cross region thru transit commuter passes but barriers remain for regular Suica use, a headache for both local residents and longer distance travelers. Despite all the fancy technology, the cheapest cross region thru transit fare choice is paper tickets.
A lesser known Suica barrier remains on the JR East network: Suica service region gaps. Currently there are 3 Suica regions: Tokyo, Sendai and Niigata. There are also some curious gaps between them illustrated below:
Fortunately this is all about to change for the better.
Filling the Suica gaps In 2019 JR East CEO Yuji Fukusawa said the company planned to have 100% Suica deployment by March 2022 but that didn’t happen. Why? Transit use killing COVID, the resulting red ink and redeployed resources are a big reason of course, but system development snags certainly contributed to the missed deadline. There was also a shift from a narrow focus of a lower cost Suica system to a wider focus of Suica 2 in 1, Cloud Suica, a lot of new service parts built around a cloud based centralized fare processing system. JR East’s Suica vision is evolving to a wider, transit service platform encompassing a range of technologies, with FeliCa as one component of a larger whole and flexible new system.
In October 2022 JR Central announced that TOICA is expanding to all JR Central lines and stations. The pressure is now on JR East to complete their delayed Suica rollout to all stations first. But there is something else: it’s an open secret that JR East hosts the TOICA system. JR Central would not make such a big TOICA commitment publicly unless JR East had a new system in place to facilitate the expansion. This new system, which I call Suica 2.0, started operation on May 27 in the Tohoku region.
The launch brings Suica to 45 stations in the Akita, Aomori and Morioka regions but only 9 of these are fully automatic transit gate installations similar to what you find in Tokyo area stations (the same new QR equipped gates shown in the press announcement are installed in Yoyogi station). The rest, 36 in all, are Suica 2.0 validators. Performance is an obvious concern. Suica users are accustomed to the fastest transit gate fare processing speeds on the planet. Will Suica 2.0 performance satisfy the Suica 1.0 experienced customer base who expectation Suica to ‘just work’ like it always has? To understand how Suica 1.0 fare gates achieve speedy performance apart from FeliCa technology, we need to examine why Suica regions exist and how they relate to transit gate performance.
Suica regions and gate processing speed Suica stands for “Super Urban Intelligent CArd” (but there is also ‘IC’ in the name for integrated chip) and was designed for heavily used urban transit as a smart card recreation of visually inspected paper commuter passes. JNR (pre JR East) researchers wanted to eliminate the time it took urban commuters to pull their magnetic commuter pass out of a wallet or case and feed it into the ticket gate slot. This clogged up major station gates at rush hour. The researchers also wanted a centrally processed card system but the networks and processing power of that time could not deal with the rush hour traffic volume. So the Suica architecture was built around locally transit gate processed stored fare (SF) balance from the card. Instead of centrally processed payments, fares are processed at the station level and synced with the central server, said to be about 6 times a day.
Transit gates have very little memory, most of it dedicated to their main task of local processing Suica fare at the exit point. Low overhead is a necessity. They can’t hold massive fare tables, hot card lists, dead card lists and so on. Only the bare minimum information required to do the local processing job is periodically synced with the central server. Limiting fare processing to specific heavy use regions is a necessary strategy in keeping the local fare processing overhead low and speedy. This is why a Tokyo Suica/PASMO region transit exit gate only processes the fare from a Suica or PASMO (or any Transit IC card) that started the journey in the same region. It’s also the reason why Transit IC cards are generally limited to 200 km point to point trips in their respective local regions, though there are some interesting loopholes.
It’s the same situation writ large with when traveling across transit IC card regions. Border stations like Atami (Suica and TOICA) have 2 sets of exit gates: one for travelers from the Suica region, one for travelers from the TOICA region. Continuous cross region transit across Suica and TOICA regions is limited to special cross region commuter passes and special cross region stations, again to keep the local processing overhead low.
It’s important to note however that IC coverage extensions to border stations with 2 sets of different gates and cross region commuter passes, are very recent 2021 developments. This is the JR Group companies laying the foundation to remove IC transit barriers in the near future. Because Suica 2.0 can process any and all Transit IC fare configurations, transit gate memory limits for local processing are no longer a concern. The barriers will come down when gate hardware • firmware is updated and Suica 2.0 cloud servers are in place.
Conceptually, Suica 2.0 is simply going back to what the creators of Suica originally envisioned: centralized fare processing. Specifically the Suica fare processing hockey puck is moving from the station level to centralized cloud servers. The Suica card itself is exactly the same as it is now, transit gates still handle all mutual authentication read~write functions.
The original aims of Cloud Suica with lower costs and flexibility are still there, the JR East Suica 2.0 press release builds on those with emphasis on a distributed server processing system for both Suica service expansion (more stations and no region barriers) and service functions (all kinds of cloud linked services). Let’s examine the new kinds of services JR East is promising to deliver with Suica 2.0.
① Barrier Free Suica transit with no more region gaps. A main goal of Suica 2.0 and bigger than it might seem. Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets are already ‘barrier free’ with Suica, through clever use of Shinkansen transit gates, but Ticketless Limited Express trains are stuck with Suica barriers such as the Tokyo to Sendai Hitachi and Tokiwa Limited Express trains. Suica users have long complained that service gaps forces them to travel with paper tickets, or they are forced to pay in cash at the exit gate because they tapped in with Suica in Tokyo and forgot the Suica barriers. This problem, and many more barrier Suica gap issues will be eliminated.
② Automated Fare Discounts Part 1: Commute Plan Lite. This is similar to the recently launched Off-Peak Commuter Passes, think of it as short term ‘commute plan lite’ with tons of options. You buy a discounted fare option for certain routes, use times or frequency and it’s automatically linked with your Suica. And unlike the current Suica App method, the items are added in the cloud, not written and stored on the card itself.
③ Automated Fare Discounts Part 2: Fare Discount Gift Coupons. In a similar vein, fare discount reward coupons for store purchases with Suica can be automatically gifted with a tap at the payment terminal. Kinda like the old free parking ticket with store purchase gimmick only far more useful.
④ Linked MaaS services. JR East has been experimenting with MaaS programs like RingoPass but linking MaaS services with Suica 1.0 is a real pain. Suica 2.0 should make bundling much easier, it’s also an opportunity to clean up the current mess of apps.
Reality check and missing pieces Glossy JR East press releases are one thing but reading between the lines of the Suica Service Roadmap there are hints of missing pieces. Suica 2.0 is all about eliminating physical transit barriers but in the mobile app era there are lots of software barriers that need to be addressed too. Right now JR East online services are hosted in a bunch of apps that don’t fit together very well. It’s a maze of walled gardens: lots of service apps each with different accounts and login, making them work together is a real pain. The real problem is there is no one app to see and manage all the services and tickets attached or linked to your Suica.
A few things need to happen to make Suica 2.0 truly useful.
The current version of Suica App lives a double life: one half pulls things off the Mobile Suica cloud, one half does local housekeeping attaching Commute Plans, Green Car Seat Tickets and recharges to Suica card. Meanwhile Shinkansen eTickets, MaaS and other online services live in different apps with different accounts IDs. Wouldn’t it be nice to have all these services living in one cloud savvy Suica App that shows and manages everything attached to your Suica? Absolutely yes please.
Local Processing Fail-Safe?
We all know that cloud and mobile services fail. Stuff happens. Safe railroad operation requires fail-safe design. Japanese IT journalists like to pooh-pooh FeliCa and Suica reliability, heaping praise on how ‘fail-safe’ the Transit for London open loop Oyster system is. But London transit doesn’t have to deal with major earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, torrential rain and flooding, train communication cable arsonists, communication cable damaging trackside fire disasters, not to mention sarin gas and cable cutting terrorists. Japanese tend to take safety and security for granted but these infrastructure risks are very real. They have all happened. Suica 2.0 will be a highly centralized system, the higher the centralization, the higher the associated risks when it fails.
Does Suica 2.0 have a fail-safe backup? Here’s a possible, and from emerging details, likely scenario. We all know programmers don’t like using a new API for mission-critical programs unless they have to. They like to stick with what they already have for compatibility with a smooth gradual transition strategy to the new API. Same for Suica 2.0. Automatic Suica transit gates could be upgraded with both the Suica 1.0 ‘Suica Region local processing API’ and the new Suica 2.0 ‘Region-Free central processing API’. If something goes wrong with the Suica 2.0 central servers, the exit gates switch to reliable local processing Suica 1.0 API mode to keep passengers moving with station level fare processing or perhaps regional level fare processing depending on the JR East distributed server setup. Long story short, If this backup is not in place we can expect this to happen.
Suica 2.0 rollout and the QR Eki-Net Connection By all accounts the Suica 2.0 May 27 launch seems to be a happy marriage of ‘truth in the card’ Suica Stored Fare balance + central fare processing without any loss of fast transit gate speed. It works just like the Suica we’ve always had. Region barriers remain however, and they have increased: the 3 new Tohoku additions (Aomori•Morioka•Akita) each represent a new Suica region. Transit IC card barriers will eventually go away when Suica 2.0 is deployed across the entire JR East system. People can travel anywhere on the transit IC network not having to think about barrier nonsense, just like paper tickets. Sounds great but when does it happen? Let’s take a look at the JR East rollout schedule.
As of May 27, 2023 we have six Suica regions, however Suica extensions announced for 2024 and 2025 give us a clue how the barriers will drop. The 2024 Yamagata Suica extension will be added to the Sendai region, the 2025 Nagano Suica extension will be added to the Tokyo region. Sequentially we can expect Sendai to be folded into the Tokyo region first, then Niigata and finally Tohoku as missing station gaps between regions are filled.
JR East says the Suica region barriers will drop by 2026, at the latest, when Suica 2.0 is rolled out across the entire rail network.
An interesting point here is that QR Eki-Net service starts in the very same Suica 2.0 Tohoku launch region which means that QR Eki-Net uses the same Suica 2.0 fare validation system. Suica 2.0 does QR too. When Suica 2.0 goes wide, so does QR. It’s one package with 2 parts as shown in the Suica Service Roadmap: the Suica 2.0 Platform and a ‘new’ (and unnamed) Ticketing system, which might be the venerable (and earthquake hardened) JR Group MARS system updated for the mobile transit era.
And when does seamless cross region IC transit for Suica, TOICA, et al. happen? Hopefully the JR Group is coordinating so that the Suica 2.0 rollout is mirrored by the other JR Group companies. The JR Central TOICA announcement certainly suggests so. Slight differences are already apparent: JR East prefers cloud connected Suica 2.0 validators at unmanned stations. JR Central and JR West prefer the bus style approach of having on board enter and exit validators for rural lines with unmanned stations. Either way is fine, just get it done as quickly as possible. Let the Transit IC barriers drop away into the past where they belong. Because with Suica 2.0 in place and barriers gone, the way is also cleared for fare capping, automated discounts, specialty ticketing and lots of new cloud based transit services.
This post was originally published 2023-02-27 and was reposted with the latest information from JR East on 2023-06-21.
One of the great things about Japanese trains is how seamlessly train travel connects nationwide. Reserve a ticket, get your seats assigned and travel to your destination anywhere in the country even on different JR company express trains and Shinkansen. This is the legacy of the JNR developed MARS system (Magnetic electronic Automatic seat Reservation System) for express train and Shinkansen seated ticket reservations that powers station ticket kiosks, travel agency systems and nationwide ticket reservation offices. MARS is the tabernacle of JR ticketing. Back in the JNR days ‘Green Window’ reservation window in stations staff knew everything inside out and got you the best connections at the best price. They still do for the most part but are quickly disappearing in favor of online reservations. MARS was designed so well that it has been difficult for JR Group to move forward to ticketless mobile apps with the same JNR era MARS-like unified vision.
But even in local regions cross company thru transit is a given even though designated local regions do not use the JR Group MARS ticketing system. There is a small catch however: you must have a ‘connecting ticket’ specifically designated for the destination on a different connecting company line. For paper tickets that is.
One great innovation of Suica, PASMO and the Transit IC standard was that it did away with the need to purchase special connecting local area tickets. Just tap and go, each company transit gate automatically calculates and deducts the stored fare (SF) from Suica. Another innovation of Suica was IC fare. IC fare is, in almost all cases, slightly cheaper for local area transit in the Tokyo region as the fare is calculated in 1¥ unit increments instead of the 10¥ increment for paper tickets, a benefit of lower cost ticketless IC fare processing. Cheaper IC fare is also encouragement to use IC cards instead of paper tickets. As of FY 2021 JR East says 95% of Tokyo area transit uses Suica/PASMO.
Nevertheless, despite Suica being around 20 years and the Transit IC standard in place for 10, paper mag strip tickets are still with us. Why? A number of reasons but the biggest one being they are essential for long distance interconnected transit. Travelers can get on a local JR West train in the Osaka region, transfer to the Shinkansen and ride to Tokyo, transfer to a JR East local train and ride to their destination with a single purchased set of paper tickets, usually with a discount when purchased far enough in advance. Can’t we already do this with Suica and the like? Yes and no.
Bad JNR Breakup The 1987 breakup of JNR had some bad repercussions that are still with us today. It came at a crucial point just as the next generation ticketing Suica smart card was in development, delaying deployment for many years. One outcome was this delay fossilized JR Group interconnecting tickets to MARS based paper ticketing.
Post breakup JR companies developed their own transit IC card systems with little regard for MARS JR Group integration, limiting coverage to high volume traffic areas where they could recoup transit IC system installation costs. This resulted in large sections of lower traffic rural lines being left off the Suica/Transit IC map with paper tickets the only option. I experience this situation whenever I travel from Tokyo to Minobu. Suica only goes to Kofu, but the Minobu line is not wired for Transit IC as the Minobu station signage makes very clear.
A transition from mag-strip paper tickets but what about MARS? When JR East unveiled their next generation transit gate prototype in late 2019 with Suica and QR Code readers but no paper ticket slot, it was clear that closed loop QR ticketing was the transition plan for retiring paper tickets. Mag-strip paper recycling costs are increasing and mechanical paper ticket transit gates are expensive to purchase (said to be 10 million JPY per unit) and maintain. Migrating to QR eliminates these costs…but it will be a long transition. The end of mag-strip paper tickets will only be happen when all JR Group companies have QR integrated with an updated MARS for ticket reservations and validation.
Filling gaps Despite all appearances, JR Group companies have been busy creating a foundation of new services that fall into basic categories:
•Extensions: (1) Closing Transit IC gaps on their respective systems with hard wired stations or readers installed on trains for tap-in/tap-out transit, (2) Extending Transit IC beyond JR Group systems with lower cost cloud based solutions or government subsidized installations for connecting transit operators. •Cross region transit between Suica-TOICA-ICOCA-SUGOCA regions (Atami, Maibara, Shimonoseki, etc.), this has started with through cross region Transit IC commuter passes, the next step is through cross region for regular cards. •Online Reservation and Ticketing: MARS integrated Eki-Net, EX/Odekake-Net that offer eTicketing for Shinkansen, Ticketless reservations for express trains and special seasonal package tickets. •Special Issue: Suica/PASMO for disabled users with discounts that replace paper passes
JR East Suica is extending to cover the entire rail network starting in the Tohoku region in May 2023 with a new lower cost cloud based Suica system (aka Super Suica Cloud), Suica has recently expanded to cover Tohoku region bus companies via the Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Card program that kicked off in 2020. Suica/PASMO for disabled users will also launch.
JR West Has been extending ICOCA with the final extensions coming to the Shimonoseki region in March 2023 along with the Mobile ICOCA launch.
In short QR will be a mobile only default replacement for MARS paper tickets while JR East-Central-West are extending Suica-ICOCA-TOICA to be the default mobile + physical card mode for local travel. This covers all of Honshu but we still don’t know what Transit IC expansion + QR MARS plans are in the works for the smaller, financially weaker JR Group companies: JR Kyushu, JR Hokkaido, JR Shikoku.
The Eki-Net QR Super Suica Cloud Connection One of the little noticed key aspects of the JR East Eki-Net QR Ticket announcement is the initial service launch area and time: Tohoku. This is the same area where the Suica 2.0 extension is launching in May 2023. Eki-Net QR starts here over a year later, between October 2024~March 2025. This new Suica system has a few tricks up the sleeve that give a clue how Cloud Suica and Eki-Net QR complement each other. Let’s start with the new Suica/PASMO cards for disabled users launching in March 2023. Fare discounts for disabled users are very complex as they are certified by the resident local ward or city. Up until now paper passbooks were manually examined at entrance or exit to verify the fare discount.
Suica/PASMO disability fare cards are the first time the discount is validated by the Suica system. Look very carefully at the valid use regions because Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards were designed to support special fares on non-JR East transit and region affiliates will support Suica/PASMO disability cards when they launch. As both Cloud Suica and QR will use the same cloud linked transit gates, it’s a given they will also share the same backend validation system.
Where does Eki-Net QR fare fit? The Eki-Net online reservation and ticketing system we use now is be the same one people will use to buy and display QR Code tickets. You can already use QR Codes to pickup paper tickets from a station kiosk, displaying the same QR Code to go through a gate is the next natural step. The essential question is which fare grouping QR tickets will reside in. Currently JR East has 2 basic fare groups:
eTicket and Ticketless (Suica / Transit IC cards) Local region fare tier rounded to 1¥ that is usually slightly cheaper, Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets with bigger discounts, Eki-Net Ticketless Express Train Reservations with bigger discounts
Paper Tickets Local region fare tier rounded to 10¥ that is usually slightly more expensive, express train and Shinkansen tickets without eTicket/Ticketless discounts, special campaign and seasonal tickets, package tours, etc., with discounts.
The JR East Eki-Net QR diagram give us an idea of how it will work for long distance, multi-stage travel in the JR East region:
As the diagram shows, the only possible MARS integration point is the Shinkansen ticket portion. The rest of the ticket is internal JR East local fare ticketing. The most interesting point is the first local transit leg from Kami-Morioka to Morioka. This is the Yamada line that does not have Suica service and is not included in the May 2023 Cloud Suica expansion. This is why no tap-in validation shown at the start point.
The logical progression is that Eki-Net QR tickets simply replace the paper ticket tier. There’s a huge variety of one-off specials and package tours that don’t fit well in the Suica eTicket/Ticketless box that would be ideal for QR treatment. We shall see but I suspect JR will want to keep some differentiation in place because NFC Suica/Transit IC ticketing works without a network connection, QR Code ticketing does not. And we all know that station network environments are the worst.
New Transit Gate Design Last but not least we have QR reader equipped transit gates that JR East will start installing in stations starting December 2022. Like the paper to QR transition, installation will see a gradual replacement of older end-of-life combo Suica + paper transit gates with new Suica+QR+paper transit gates. We may also see installment of the earlier Suica + QR prototype gates that JR East tested in 2020.
One aspect of both designs is the QR reader is placed way in front of the Suica reader, which is placed as far back as possible. This peculiar design has an important function of preventing ‘Suica Express Transit’ card clash when a user is going though the gate displaying a QR Code. JR East doesn’t want an extraneous Suica card read/write to clash with a QR read that sets Suica to ‘start transit’ mode. The gates will almost certainly automatically turn off the blue Suica reader when it detects a QR Code, but keeping the readers far apart is a good thing. We don’t want any MTA OMNY-like launch nonsense. A similar NFC/QR clash is common in Europe when the different readers are place too close.
Looking Ahead This is only a start. JR East has only announced the broad outlines of their paper to QR transition, the real transition will kickoff when other JR Group companies announce their plans which they have not done so far. One thing is for sure, the trusty old JNR MARS based mag-strip paper ticket reservation system is finally getting an upgrade for the cloud based mobile ticketing age.
Now that Google Pixel Watch Suica is here, the obvious questions are: is it global NFC or is it limited to JP models, is Suica the only JP payment service? EMV is there of course, PASMO joined Google Pay recently with clear signs that Wear OS support is also in the works. At the very least we can expect PASMO in a future Pixel Watch update, but so far there is no mention of iD, QUICPay and other Google Pay FeliCa payment services on Wear OS.
On the global NFC side, things turned out exactly as predicted (copied below from May 2022). Pixel 7 Mobile FeliCa support is the same old ‘cheap instead of deep‘ story: all models have the same NFC hardware with Mobile FeliCa loaded, but Google only fully activates it for JP models, in other words they continue to kneecap NFC on non-JP Pixel phones.
Pixel Watch lists FeliCa on the spec page for all models and regions, it is global NFC…but is kneecapped in the initial Wear OS version. The Mobile FeliCa Cloud (aka Mobile FeliCa Lite) powered backend is the same used by Garmin and Fitbit that delivers a geolocation locked subset of Mobile Suica services; you get the stored fare balance (SF) functions and little else. All worldwide models support Suica but it can only be added on registered devices physically located in Japan, that is to say FeliCa support is limited by location not the device model. While not ideal, it does provide some highly useful digital payment functionality for inbound visitors with those devices.
Instead of limiting Suica by geolocation that Garmin and (Google owned) Fitbit do, Google kneecapped Pixel Watch Suica for some unknown reason, limiting Suica to JP models as Pixel Watch help documentation makes clear. It looks like a major fuckup for an expensive smart device from a leading tech company that can and should work the same everywhere.
Fortunately Google promises a Wear OS update that removes the NFC kneecap allowing all Pixel Watch users to add Suica when in Japan, just like Garmin and Fitbit. We shall see if Google keeps their promise. Pixel Watch Suica has other limitations similar to Garmin and Fitbit: no Suica commuter plans, no Suica plastic card transfers, no Suica Green Car Seats, no Suica Day Passes, etc, but you can register Pixel Watch Suica for extra services: JRE POINT, Eki-Net, Touch and Go Shinkansen.
In short, that state of Google Pay on Pixel 7•Pixel Watch is not the Apple Pay-like overhaul for robust native global NFC across the entire Pixel family many were hoping for. If Google delivers on their promise to remove the Pixel Watch NFC kneecap, all those users can at least use Suica. It does raise the question I asked back in May, if all Pixel Watches do Suica, why not Pixel 7? Pixel 7 is perfectly capable but Google is keeping that NFC kneecap in place. And there is the glaring Google Pay gap between Pixel 7 JP models which support all contactless JP payments from Suica to iD to Edy, while Pixel Watch only supports one: Suica.
Meanwhile Apple Watch remains the only full featured global NFC Suica wearable because Apple took the time and effort to do Apple Pay right…what else is new?
I’ll update this post with Pixel FeliCa details as they become available.
Will Pixel Watch finally deliver global NFC Google Pay? (May 2022) Ever since Apple made global NFC standard on all iPhone and Apple Watch models in 2017, global NFC has become a litmus test of ultimate Apple-like user friendliness. When inbound devices can add Suica, it’s not only cool, but also necessary to get around. Garmin and Fitbit wearables do the global NFC thing, but Android remains stubbornly ‘buy a Japanese smartphone to do the Suica FeliCa thing.’
Which brings us to Pixel Watch which got a sneak peek at Google I/O 2022. The buzz on Japanese Twitter was basically: I want one, but not if it does’t have Suica support. Fair enough, I bet a lot of people are thinking that and not only in Japan. After all, Hong Kong users would love having a Pixel Watch that supports Octopus.
The good news is that Suica appears to be coming to Google Pay for Wear OS. Various Suica string have appeared in recent Google Pay APKs. This is expected: it would certainly be very awkward if Pixel Watch doesn’t support Suica when Fitbit devices do.
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 and internet connections instead of being tethered to JR East/PASMO transit gates and the Mobile Suica system. JR East could keep auto-charge exclusive to their VIEW cards as they do now but opening it up to all Apple Pay credit cards would greatly increase the usefulness of Suica. JR East could still keep the VIEW advantage with JRE POINT recharge points. Automatic Apple Pay Suica reload would also help alleviate, if not eliminate, the ¥20,000 balance limit problem for most users. 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.
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.