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.


How much will Smart Navigo HCE suck? (Updated)

It’s interesting parsing app reviews that say ‘this app sucks’. How does it suck and why? As I’ve said before, the overwhelming negative App Store reviews for Suica App are less about the app and more about poor network connectivity due to a variety of factors: carrier auto-connect and free WiFi or overloaded mobile connections messing with Mobile Suica recharge and other online functions. People assume the WiFi and cellular icons at the top of the phone screen indicate a healthy internet connection, which they decidedly do not.

Most users see Suica App as the software that controls everything Mobile Suica AND iPhone NFC hardware. It does not of course but people dump all blame on Suica App anyway. Fortunately most of what Mobile Suica does is done without an internet connection. The only time it needs one is recharge time with a credit card in Apple Pay Wallet app or Suica App.

Yet all that complaining over online Mobile Suica app services however, tells us something important about mobile internet connections in station areas, on trains and subways: they suck. Despite ubiquitous 4G LTE~5G cellular and WiFi coverage, reliable internet is notoriously fickle in those famously busy Japanese train stations. This is the real reason behind all those ‘this app sucks’ Suica App reviews. Interestingly enough, this is the same performance gripe with the mobile myki system in Victoria. Like Mobile Suica this became a problem because mobile internet connections weren’t up to the job of delivering reliable, trouble free ‘anytime, anywhere’ recharge/top-up, which people tend to do in transit.

Which brings us to Smart Navigo, the Île-de-France Mobilités (IDFM) Paris region transit card for mobile that is going wide on Android smartphones this year. IDFM has spent a lot of time and expense working with Calypso Networks Association (CNA), the transaction tech used for Navigo, to implement the less secure network dependent Calypso HCE ‘cloud’ secure element approach as the default mobile transit tech for Android devices in 2022.

It is very unusual that IDFM chose HCE as their go to mobile strategy on Android when the more secure hardware embedded secure element (eSE) is standard on all smartphone NFC devices, and does the job without internet connections. HCE is very different from eSE in that both NFC smartphone and the reader need a connection to talk with a server. HCE was also conceived for leisurely supermarket checkout, not the challenging transit enviroment. How does Calypso HCE compare to the network-less eSE experience? CNA says:

For security reasons, transactions using the personalization key or the load key are not possible through the NFC interface, and must be done with a secure connection to a server.

Only the Calypso debit key is stored in the HCE application for validation on entrance and control during travel, coupled with a mechanism of renewal of the Calypso Serial Number (CSN) to mitigate the risk of fraud : a part of the CSN contains date and time of validity of the debit key which shall be checked by the terminals.

Thales says: poor mobile network coverage can make HCE services inaccessible. In short no internet connection, no mobile transit service. Let’s compare the basic mobile transit card features of Mobile Suica with Calypso HCE:

It’s too bad IDFM didn’t study Mobile Suica shortcomings, they could have learned a few things. Most certainly they understand HCE shortcomings but chose it anyway for unknown reasons. Perhaps there are challenges getting Calypso retroactively installed on the eSE on many different Android devices and HCE was the only way to rollout Smart Navigo quickly. The Android platform reputation for keeping devices up to date with the latest software is lousy due to the slow manufacturer response.

Right out of the gate Smart Navigo HCE won’t support power reserve NFC transactions even on Android devices that support it for regular eSE NFC. In total, there are 6 core Smart Navigo features that are internet connection dependent vs 1 Mobile Suica feature. 6 more things to complain about when they don’t work…in other words the Smart Navigo HCE suck index is 6 times greater than Mobile Suica. If Suica App is anything to go by, there are going to be a lot of bad Google Play reviews for the HCE version of the Île-de-France Mobilités App.

iPhone and Apple Watch users can be thankful that Apple Pay Navigo will use eSE (as Samsung Pay Navigo already does), and avoid most of this mess when the service launches in 2023, matching the Mobile Suica experience, feature for feature.


2022-07-13 Update
IDFM started open beta testing of their Smart Navigo HCE via a signup website. Any Android 8 NFC capable device can be used, most Pixel users are out of luck however as only Pixel 6 is listed. There are also differences from regular Express Transit Mode capability of eSE as iGeneration points out:

During validation <transit gate tap>, this application does not need to be launched, but the phone must have its screen on and be unlocked. This is a major difference with the “Express mode” of iPhones <and Apple Watch> that can work without waking them…

I’m beginning to wonder if IDFM and Calypso went with HCE, despite the downsides and the fact that modern NFC capable smartphones all have eSE as standard, because of licensing fee headaches. Assume that Mobile Calypso don’t come pre-installed on smartphone eSEs, unlike EMV, then imagine the nightmare of: (1) dealing with all the Android manufacturers to retroactively update their devices so they are compatible with eSE Navigo (such as currently found on compatible Samsung Pay devices), and (2) getting Google Pay on board. Going the HCE route likely avoided a lengthy messy delay getting Navigo on mobile for the Android masses.

This is exactly the mess that Apple Pay takes care of behind the scenes so users don’t see or deal with any of it. That’s the value of having a gatekeeper, better UI and security encourages users to use NFC payments and Apple Pay use far exceeds any other digital wallet…this is the benefit that Apple Pay delivers to developers. Too bad it’s going away for EU users that the EU is forcing Apple to give up their NFC gatekeeping role, which is very sucky indeed.

USA transit fare system evolution

Reece Martin posted an interesting video, So you built the wrong transit system, that examines the American penchant for building cheap light rail systems that don’t make long term sense. Public transit is a waste of money to Americans with money, so cheap is only way to fund and build public transit infrastructure. The problem is this cheap short term thinking costs more money in the long run. It’s a ‘one size fits all’ mentality.

But as Reece points out, systems can evolve from humble beginnings. Many private Japanese rail lines started out as street trams (that evolved from horse trams) but evolved into the heavy duty regional rail lines we have today. Fare system have evolved too, from paper, to mag strip, to IC smartcard and now mobile devices.

Transit fare systems in America suffer from the same short term cheap thinking, on full display on the MTA OMNY system, the world’s first EMV only open + closed loop fare system. When it’s completed in 2023, barring more delays, MTA will have farmed out every aspect of their fare collection and OMNY transit card issue to banks.

Not to rehash points I already made about OMNY, but Reece’s wrong transit system analogy struck a chord. And unlike rail system evolution, once the transit fare system in locked into the bank payment card infrastructure, from technology (EMV) to payment network processing (VISA, mastercard, AMEX, etc.), it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible to change anything later on.

But why is America so short sighted when it comes to public transit, never investing in a long term self-sustaining viable business model? I ran across an interesting take that explains it neatly. The USA will never have a transit platform business because public transit is a welfare and jobs program, not a self-sustaining business model:

Public transportation in the US is generally very bad and very heavily subsidized. It’s cheap because extremely little service is being run, and the government picks up most of the bill.

Public transportation in the US is less of a way normal people get around, and more of a welfare program and jobs program. Even in places where public transportation is a way normal people get around, e.g., NYC, it is run more like a jobs program than an essential public service.

Reddit user Sassywhat

Open loop fare systems are also vulnerable in new ways nobody predicted: imagine the mess if payment networks go down in a cyberwar, à la the Moscow metro when digital wallets and bank payment card networks were suddenly and omniously turned off. In the case of OMNY where, unlike Moscow metro, everything is EMV payment networked…there is no backup in-house payment settlement system, there is no plan b.

In other words not only is OMNY EMV one size fits all, it’s all or nothing.


Related post: Hidden Assumptions

Tight pants and other Face ID Express Transit fuckups

Express Transit is the best and most natural way of using Apple Pay. It first came to iPhone with Mobile Suica in 2016, expanding incrementally until finally going wide with iOS 15 Wallet. Suica has been around so long in Tokyo that younger generations don’t know anything else, it’s ubiquitous. Used global NFC iPhones and Osaifu Keitai are ubiquitous too so there are a lot more people using Mobile Suica, and complaining about it.

Mobile Suica complaints aren’t a bad thing. All those bad Suica App reviews on the App store and complaints on Twitter mean that people use Mobile Suica enough to download Suica App, register an account, use it, then go online and complain. It’s a gold mine of information, invaluable feedback telling us what trips users up at transit gates, a user base with 15 years of mobile transit experience. Any transit operator looking to implement good mobile transit service would greatly benefit from studying strengths and weaknesses of Mobile Suica, the worlds largest, oldest and most widely used mobile transit card service. Unfortunately nobody bothers to do so.

Tight pants + face masks = Face ID fuckups
As always, most Apple Pay Suica problems boil down to Face ID issues that disable Express Transit. Mobile Suica support even has a dedicated help post it puts out regularly. Face/Touch ID and Express Transit are joined at the hip. When Face/Touch ID is disabled, Express Transit is also disabled, a passcode is required to turn them on again. From the iOS 15 user guide: you must always enter your passcode to unlock your iPhone under the following conditions:

  1. You turn on or restart your iPhone.
  2. You haven’t unlocked your iPhone for more than 48 hours.
  3. You haven’t unlocked your iPhone with the passcode in the last 6.5 days, and you haven’t unlocked it with Face ID or Touch ID in the last 4 hours.
  4. Your iPhone receives a remote lock command.
  5. There are five unsuccessful attempts to unlock your iPhone with Face ID or Touch ID.
  6. An attempt to use Emergency SOS is initiated.
  7. An attempt to view your Medical ID is initiated.

You might think a passcode unlock is always the same, however there are surprisingly different Express Transit results at the gate show in the following video clips.

  • The first video shows Express Transit in normal action when Face ID (or Touch ID) and Express Transit mode are on. This is exactly what Suica users expect at transit gates and store readers. When it doesn’t work like this every single time, they complain.
    The second video shows a passcode request after restarting iPhone (#1), not something that would happen in real world use but I wanted to show the different kinds of passcode requests.
  • The third video is the most common one: the Apple Pay screen appears with a passcode request (#5-five failed Face ID attempts when wearing a face mask), this is exacerbated by Face ID Raise to Wake which is why I recommend that Face ID users turn it off when wearing face masks. There is a similar but separate issue when a user inadvertently pushes the side buttons (#6-emergency SOS • iPhone shut down), this happens more than you might think because side buttons are easily pressed when iPhone is in a tight pants pocket, especially when iPhone is in a case which is pretty much everybody.
  • The last video shows manual Apple Pay card selection and authentication when an Express Transit is not set, this is also how Apple Pay works on open loop transit systems without Express Transit support such as Sydney’s Opal.

An interesting side note about Japanese transit gate reader design UI. The blue light NFC reader hit area not only makes a great big visual target, it tells us the gate is ‘ready and waiting’. Notice how the blue light goes off when the reader is busy with a card transaction, then blinks on again ready and waiting for the next card. Watch the above videos carefully and you’ll notice the blue reader light stays lit with every false read attempt. Only when the correct card is brought up does it blink off and complete the transaction. When there’s a real problem the blue light changes to red.

This is simple, clever and user friendly design as your eyes are naturally focused where your hand is but you don’t see the design anywhere else except the new OMNY system readers. Copying the Japanese gate reader UI design is a smart move by Cubic Transportation Systems and MTA but their LED screen NFC hit area combo design appears to be somewhat fragile. The green ‘GO’ might seem like a nice touch but I suspect it subliminally makes a use wait for it. More feedback isn’t always better. Every millisecond wasted at the transit gate is a bad design choice.


Fixing Face ID
iPhone users in America only became aware of Face ID shortcomings thanks to COVID face mask mandates. Yes Virginia, Face ID sucks with face masks and Express Transit users in New York and London came face to face with issue #5: five successful Face ID attempts disables Face ID and Express Transit. It got so bad that MTA pleaded with Apple to ‘fix Face ID’. Apple dribbled out some Face ID “fixes” that didn’t fix very much.

iOS 13.5 introduced a Face ID with face mask passcode popup tweak that didn’t make passcode entry any easier and certainly didn’t fix Face ID use with a face mask. People quickly forgot about it.

iOS 14.5 introduced Unlock iPhone with Apple Watch that was widely ballyhooed by tech bloggers but real world use was a different story:

I find it fails me too often on the daily commute and in stores, usually at the very moment I need to launch dPOINT or dPay apps at checkout. I also get the feeling that Apple Watch battery life takes a hit too… If it works for you that’s great, but the Unlock with Apple Watch end user experience will be all over the place.

Also telling was that online Face ID/Express Transit complaints continued to grow despite the iOS 14.5 feature. Unlock with Apple Watch is a one trick pony, it unlocks a Face ID iPhone when a mask is detected, nothing more, no Apple Pay, no Face ID fix.

iOS 15.4 introduced Face ID with a mask for iPhone 12 and later. This is the first true fix for using Face ID with face masks, finally doing all the work Face ID does from unlocking iPhone to authenticating Apple Pay and apps. It’s not perfect as it doesn’t fix Face ID for earlier iPhone X-XS-11 models, and there are trade offs as it reduces Face ID security for the convenience of keeping your face mask on. In my experience Face ID with a mask on iPhone 13 Pro is certainly an improvement but slower and less successful than using Face ID without a mask. Face ID with a mask is also somewhat quirky. It doesn’t like strong backlighting, some users report frequent ‘look down’ requests depending on the their type of face and glasses.

Now that Apple has a focused Face ID with face mask roadmap that restores the Face ID Apple Pay experience, we can ignore all that mushy ridiculous Touch ID + Face ID dual biometric iPhone talk. Expect Apple to focus on improving Face ID with a mask performance on legacy Face ID on iPhone 12 and 13 in future iOS updates and delivering phenomenally better Face ID technology in future iPhones.

iOS 15.4 Face ID with a mask restores the Apple Pay Suica Express Transit experience

The iOS 15.4 update is out. The biggest feature by far is Use Face ID with a Mask. It makes daily iPhone use a much better experience for those wearing face masks with iPhone 12 and later. Even though America and other countries are rolling back face mask requirements, many Japanese will probably keep them on even if Japanese authorities follow the maskless trend. Wearing a face mask has become such an ingrained second nature that people wear them even when it doesn’t make sense, like walking in an empty park at a night.

When it comes to using Suica you might think Express Transit mode removes all Face ID with face mask Apple Pay issues. Here’s the thing, Suica is easily the most used Apple Pay card in Japan and the most used transit card on the Apple Pay platform. You still need Face ID authorization to recharge a Suica in Wallet, and there’s the Face ID misread problem. 5 Face ID misreads deactivates Express Transit Mode that Suica users depend on.

The Face ID with face mask misread problem is big enough that JR East Apple Pay Suica support reissued a notice outlining the causes. 5 Face ID misreads is very easy to do when wearing a face mask and it deactivates Express Transit Mode without any UI feedback or alert, tripping up Express Transit Suica users at the transit gate or store reader with a passcode prompt. Unexpected passcode prompts at transit gates or bus exit readers with people behind you are flustering ‘I wanna go back to plastic’ experiences.

I also wonder if QR Code payment apps have brainwashed young people into thinking they have to open an app for every payment and transit gate. There are enough user comments on social media to suggest people open Suica App in the mistaken assumption they need launch Suica App to use Suica. Imagine doing that every time you want to use Express Transit Suica…head scratchingly pointless.

The good thing is that iOS 15.4 Face ID with a face mask solves this mess…finally. In Japan that’s big. Face ID with a mask restores the Express Transit Suica and the whole Apple Pay user experience to what it was before Face ID. It’s too bad that Apple didn’t have this feature in place back at the iPhone X launch because Face ID without the ‘use with a mask’ option seriously dented the whole Apple Pay and Express Transit experience. That omission was a big design failure on Apple’s part. At the very least Apple should have included distinct and clear UI notification so users could tell when Face ID misreads had disabled Express Transit mode.

iOS 15.4 Face ID with a mask is long overdue. Between the iPhone X NFC problem and the 5 Face ID misreads disable Express Transit problem, the stellar Suica experience on Face ID iPhone has been a long slow disaster. iPhone Face ID users in Asia complained about the Face ID with face mask issue for years but this fell on deaf ears. Why did it take a COVID crisis for Apple to fix it?

Hopefully Apple leadership has finally learned an important lesson, with improved, highly secure, face mask friendly Face ID and better Express Mode status feedback coming to a future iPhone near you.