Mobile ICOCA announced for early 2023 launch

Mobile ICOCA Announcement

That didn’t take long. When Mobile PASMO was announced in January this year with Apple Pay PASMO launching October 6, it was clear that a basic shared ‘Super Suica’ mobile infrastructure was coming together for a larger transit card rollout for ICOCA and other cards.

JR West announced Mobile ICOCA today for a March~April 2023 launch. Details follow the service outline of Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO and I think we can expect the same kind of rollout: Android Osaifu Keitai first, closely followed by Apple Pay ICOCA and Google Pay. Kansai commuters will rejoice when they finally have the choice to add their ICOCA to a digital wallet. ICOCA is the Kansai region ‘Suica’.

It will be interesting to see if other transit cards like manaca will make an announcement soon. Suica and PASMO account for 80% of Transit IC card issue who have gone mobile, adding ICOCA would nudge that number to 90%. The next biggest card yet to go mobile is the Nagoya area manaca.

Apple Pay PASMO launch day behind the scenes

「モバイルPASMO」の実現までに13年もの歳月がかかった裏事情, CNET

The every reliable Junya Suzuki has posted exactly what I hoped he would: nitty gritty launch day event details. A quick rundown with commentary if you can’t read his original Japanese post.

Big Apple Presence
A large number of Apple Japan folks were on hand at the October 6 Apple Pay PASMO press event with media invited from America. Apple Pay VP Jennifer Bailey also checked in with a message via video link. Highly unusual given that a single person is what Apple usually fields for recent Suica announcements like the Apple Pay MIZUHO Suica. This is big in itself but it’s helpful to know some basic Transit IC card market share numbers. Suica and PASMO are #1 and #2, combined they represent 80% of all transit IC card issue. ICOCA is #3, manaca is #4.

The addition of Apple Pay PASMO is why Suzuki san now refers to Tokyo as a “キャッシュレス経済圏 “Cashless Economy Zone”. The Suica and PASMO zones blur and become one thing in a digital wallet. Mobile Suica membership passed 10 million users last month, total Suica issue (plastic and mobile) is about 85 million.

Out of the Suica issue numbers Suzuki san pulls an important growth figure: the 2020 Suica mobile to plastic ratio is 12%, at the 2016 Apple Pay Suica launch the ratio was 7%. That growth is the power of Apple Pay in action, and also Google Pay. The mobile growth curve will accelerate with the addition of Garmin Pay Suica and wena 3 Suica. That’s why Apple Pay PASMO is a big deal, not only for Tokyo, but for PASMO and Apple too. It is this shift that Suzuki san says finally drove PASMO to commit to delivering a mobile service after years of dithering.

But what about the other transit card economic zones and how will they be integrated into the mobile mix? For ICOCA the only question remaining is ‘when’ Mobile ICOCA arrives, ‘if’ is no longer an option. ICOCA is the Suica of the Kansai area, manaca is the Suica of Aichi. Osaka and Nagoya don’t want to be left behind the Tokyo cashless economy zone.

My own take outlined in Hello Apple Pay PASMO and Road to Super Suica is that PASMO is a dry run for other mobile cards. The template is ready to roll, right down to the recycled but sleeker modernized Suica App stuff in PASMO App.

The Apple Watch Transit Gate Wrist Twist

The new JREM gates introduce yet another Apple Watch Suica•PASMO wrist maneuver or contortion depending on which wrist.

Transit gate tappers are endlessly fascinating to watch: feather touchers, slappers, pocket fumblers, precision marchers, schlep slumpers. The daily routine is never routine.

Apple Watch transit-gating has a different set of challenges compared to plastic transit cards and smartphones, and a different set of circumstances: left wrist vs right wrist, transit gate reader position and NFC antenna read sensitivity with the much smaller Apple Watch NFC device.

There is also the crucial wrist twist. Apple recommends a quick wrist twist so Apple Watch faces down to the reader for better NFC reception, best shown in the Apple Pay Octopus Ride and Buy video:

Twitter user S posted a fascinating take on the subject. S wears his Apple Watch Suica on the right and keeps it facing up on the reader, not down. Apple Watch Journal has a great video showing this in action. The Apple Watch face up trick works on JR East gates but not so well on PASMO gates. Why? JR East gate readers are manufactured by JREM. PASMO gates are a mix of Omron, Toshiba and Nippon Signal.

I notice PASMO gate difference with Apple Watch Suica, some gates work great face up, others not. When you use the same stations everyday you develop a natural sense of the best gates. The differences are tiny but noticeable if you pay attention. Even so I am not a face up Apple Watch Suica user, I go sideways and it works everywhere.

The Ides of October

Yesterday, October 1, was the 15th day of the month by the lunar calendar. October is always a rush season of product announcements but the news cycle this year has been…well crazy doesn’t even begin to describe it. Part of the problem is COVID driven online announcement events. These were new and sorta cool 3 months ago but have degraded into slapdash scheduled info dumps.

It’s been especially brutal in Japan this week with the Docomo Account/Yucho Bank security crisis and NTT Docomo buyout stories soaking up all the media attention. On the ides of October we had Pixel 5, Wena 3 smartwatch, Apple Pay PASMO announcements, and the Tokyo Stock Exchange outage. Japanese IT journalists holed up at home or tiny APA HOTEL rooms are overwhelmed trying to keep up.

The Wena 3 announcement got a little lost in the shuffle but had some interesting e-payment developments: Suica, iD and QUICPay joined Rakuten Edy which has been on Wena for some time. It’s weird that Sony has taken this long to add, more or less, full FeliCa support in their home market.

Most of the online buzz was centered on Wena 3 Suica support which follows the Garmin Pay Suica launch in May. Wena 3 Suica shares the same Google Pay recharge backend that Garmin does, I suspect Wena 3 and Garmin both use Mobile FeliCa Cloud. The same Garmin restrictions also apply: no plastic card transfers, no Suica commuter passes, no auto-charge, no Green Seat upgrades.

That said I think many users will enjoy using Suica, iD and QUICPay wrapped in the strikingly designed Wena 3 lineup. My only regret is I don’t have one to tryout.

Dear Apple and JR East, we need Apple Pay Family Suica

watchOS 7 Family Setup is a bigger deal than many people might think at first glance. Apple Cash Family is just one part of the service with transfers from a parent’s iPhone to a child’s Apple Watch. It’s the most compelling Apple Cash use case I can think of, and Apple Watch for children without iPhone is appealing to parents in a way that iPhone by itself is not.

I’ve always said that if Apple Watch ever gained direct Suica loading with parental controls, Apple could make a killing selling it into the Japanese education market. watchOS 7 Family Setup is almost there for the JP market but needs one more thing: Family Suica.

Next generation ‘Super’ Suica is coming early 2021 and next generation FeliCa is shipping in November. We already have digital car keys in Wallet that can be shared and Mobile Suica will be doing a lot more on the cloud with Super Suica. Apple and JR East have all the necessary new features they need to create an insanely great Apple Pay Family Suica.

The service outline is simple and combines what car keys do in Wallet with digital key sharing and Apple Cash Family does with transfers and limits. A master Apple Pay Suica ID is setup on an iPhone and manages family member Apple Pay Suica on other devices. The master ‘organizer’ would transfer stored fare (SF) via Messages and set spending limits just like Apple Cash Family does. Simple intuitive convenience.

Apple Pay Family Suica also needs transferable commuter passes. That way a parent can set one up for a child, transfer it to Apple Watch and renew it remotely. Transferable commuter passes would also be handy in our COVID teleworking era as working parents might not need a pass every working day. A “hey honey can I borrow your pass today,” thing that plastic transit card users do all the time.

So far nobody has managed to to produce a smartwatch that matches the super convenience of Apple Watch and Apple Pay Suica. If JR East and Apple produce Family Suica, they would effectively future-proof both next generation Suica and Apple Watch in the Japan market.