Apple Pay Octopus Ides of March

UPDATE: Apple Pay Octopus launched June 2, latest details here

Here we are again. Apple Pay Octopus has been languishing in beta test hell for over a year with no public release in sight. The last official news was the 2019 year end launch delay to ‘later in 2020’ and the Octopus App v5.6 update that added support for iPhone recharge/top up of plastic Octopus cards. Hong Kong beta testers found code references in v5.6 that clearly indicated Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) originally intended to release Apple Pay Octopus first and iPhone app plastic recharge later, but the order was flipped with the delay.

A few weeks ago a reader contacted me that OCL is updating the Schedule of Fees and Guidelines on March 1, 2020 turned out to be nothing. Then out of nowhere Twitter user Jason Tjong (the profile says IT journalist but no publications are listed) put out a series of tweets in February saying everything that was supposed to be coming, first with Chinese New Year 2019, then later with iOS 13, is finally coming in March 2020 along with Octopus App v6, the whole shebang.

To which I say…hope for the best but we’ll have to see how it plays out. There have been so many delays that it’s hard to be optimistic, and Tjong has not revealed any sources or given reasons to back up his tweets. On top of everything else we now have the coronavirus crisis. If his predictions/sources turn out right, great, if not we’ll wait for the next rumor or a real announcement from OCL.

We do have a Apple Event March rumor for iPhone 9 and new iPad, but any event looks increasingly unlikely/impossible during the COVID‑19 crisis. At last year’s spring event Tim Cook mentioned Apple Pay HOP, Ventra and EMV Express Transit for MTA OMNY for 2019. Reality and results were mixed. Apple Pay HOP launched without a hitch, OMNY Express Transit launched on schedule but MTA users stuck with manual swipe MetroCard are irritated by Express Transit (Express Transit in a long term system mixed migration environment was not a good idea), and Apple Pay Ventra is stuck in coming soon hell.

Tjong says the Apple Pay Octopus delay is Apple’s fault not OCL, but again I am skeptical. From a technical side OCL already has extensive mobile experience with their Smart Octopus on Samsung service and has field tested Apple Pay Octopus since December 2018, OCL feedback to beta testers indicated everything was set to launch right up until the delay announcement. From a business side I find it hard to believe that OCL would dump resources into extensive Apple Pay beta field testing and Octopus App development without the business contract ends tied down. I think there are other reasons..reasons possibly related to the Hong Kong protests and the unexplained takedown of Smart Octopus during the Hong Kong Polytechnic University siege, but this is not a popular view.

We can put aside all doubts and pretend that March will be insanely great. Tim will announce Apple Pay for Octopus and more at the March Apple Event, Octopus Cards Limited CEO Sunny Cheung will be invited on stage to unveil the service. Joking aside, the only clarity from the murky chaos that was 2019 and is 2020 so far is this: Hong Kong is in a very different place than it was back in December 2018 and there’s less interest in Apple Pay Octopus.

2/19 UPDATE
Jason Tjong also tweeted that Apple Pay Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Foshan China T-Union transit cards announced by Apple in early January will appear with iOS 13.4 which would be March, he also suggests that China T-Union card mobile integration is less complex than Octopus, again without citing sources or offering explanation. Given the circumstances of the Octopus delay I don’t agree with his tech take, but Apple Pay Lingnan/ShenZhen/Foshan coming more or less simultaneously with Apple Pay Octopus crossed my mind back when those card were announced in December right before the OCL delay announcement.
It makes sense for Apple Pay to align transit card region support whenever possible though I do not think Apple is the reason for the last minute Octopus delay. We shall see. Long term, Greater Bay Area Transit operators are looking to create a single transit card. A multiple release that soon straddles both Hong Kong and surrounding mainland area transit cards with a single digital wallet, not dual mode exactly but close, is a win for iPhone/Apple Watch transit users.

3/15 UPDATE
New Apple Pay Octopus iOS 13.4 launch rumors along with Apple Pay China T-Union beta test screen shots are making Twitter rounds. If true, we could see wide area Apple Pay Transit releases on or shortly after the official iOS 13.4 which could drop this week March 25/26. With the coronavirus crisis in full swing in America now, expect things to be fluid.

iOS 13.4 beta 2 Apple Pay Suica tweaks and questionable UI choices

Apple Pay Suica has more commute plan UI tweaks in iOS 13.4 beta 2. Commute plan information displays correctly now, and with more detail than before, but the renew button is gone and evidently dynamic: it only appears during the 2 week commute plan renewal period before expiration date. The design goal is clear but cannot absolutely confirm it until my plan enters the renewal period on April 15, hopefully beta testers will confirm it on Twitter before then.

A dynamic Suica commute plan renew button makes sense because the button does not function outside of the 2 week renewal period, but I’m not sure it’s the best UI choice. Most users will be confused when there isn’t a renew option showing. No button, no user feedback. My own choice is for a button that is always there but greyed out until it’s active for the renewal period.

What UI Apple delivers for the official iOS 13.4 release is anybody’s guess but the constant Suica tweaking before iOS 13 Dark Mode and after is telling. Apple is making questionable UI choices because Dark Mode severely limits UI color schemes. That is why Apple Pay Wallet buttons are black for daytime and white for Dark Mode. Grey is not an option. That’s why Apple is playing with dynamic buttons that only appear when needed. Dark Mode in fine in limited doses but things like Apple Maps Dark Mode are a disaster, Apple Pay Wallet Day/Dark Mode is a mixed bag. I hope iOS 14 Dark Mode delivers a better design than what we have now.

Outside of the UI, I’m happy to report that Apple Pay Suica performance on iOS 13.4 b2 is the best ever.

Update: My assumptions were correct and confirmed that iOS the Suica Commute Plan ‘Renew’ button is dynamic and appears only when the 2 week renewal period is active. It makes sense but what a weird UI to be coming from Apple, it doesn’t look or feel Apple-ly at all.

Location aware Apple Pay Suica fixes the region setting problem

Changing the iPhone region to add Apple Pay Suica confuses a lot of users. Many are not familiar with region settings and what they do, and it’s far too easy to think that a Japan region setting is a requirement to use Apple Pay Suica, which is not the case. When it comes to iOS 13 Apple Pay and NFC switching, the region is a simple filter so that user only sees Apple Pay card options for a given region, not the whole Apple Pay world. In this situation region setting becomes a stumbling block, most inbound iPhone users are probably not even aware that they can add and use a deeply useful Japanese contactless digital transit card with a few finger flicks.

This is a problem because the current iOS Region preference setting mixes 2 different job functions. Twitter user Zetton neatly explained the issue: the iOS Region setting defines the cultural space the user lives in and how iPhone treats some data, but Apple Pay uses regions in a different way to show available location options. It is this user cultural space vs current location option dichotomy force fitted into a single region setting, that confuses users. This is why JR East created the one time use SuicaEng app that completely dispenses with region settings for adding Suica to Apple Pay. iOS 13 rolled direct Suica card creation into Wallet, look ma no apps, but the ‘change region setting to Japan’ to add Suica downside was still there. Until now.

There are signs that Apple is working around the region problem by presenting location aware ‘add Suica’ Wallet notifications. It’s not universal and impossible to test if you already have Suica, but it seems the separate ‘add Suica’ option also appears in Wallet based on user location in Japan, regardless of region setting.

I suspect the add Apple Pay Suica location prompt is a backend feature in testing phase. It’s a smart move because Apple Pay Suica on global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch is going to be the best way for inbound visitors to get around town during the Tokyo Olympic games this summer and Google Pay Suica is still not available for inbound Android users. Ditto the recently announced Android only Mobile PASMO. Apple has a golden marketing opportunity in Japan that won’t happen again, they should make the best of it. The sooner Apple completely retires the ‘device region set to Japan‘ requirement for adding Suica, the better

Last call for Apple Pay Octopus 2019 launch

UPDATE: Apple Pay Octopus launched June 2, latest details here

Apple Pay Octopus was announced in July as ‘coming soon’ with no official indication from Octopus Cards Limited when coming soon would happen. Today is the last day of November, on December 1 an updated Octopus Schedule and Fees Guideline went into effect. From December 1 all Octopus issue switched over to a new 3,000 HKD stored value limit and users can upgrade older cards to the new limit:

Starting from 1 December 2019, the stored value limit of all newly issued Octopus products – including On-Loan Octopus, Sold Octopus, Bank Co-Brand Octopus, Smart Octopus and Octopus Mobile SIM etc., will be HK$3,000.

From a technical standpoint it makes sense to host a new service when the system is ready to automatically upgrade older physical Octopus cards to the new stored value limit when transferred to smartphones. However, I seriously doubt the new stored value limit is a factor in the Apple Pay Octopus launch delay. The protests in Hong Kong that started just before the OCL July announcement are a much bigger factor. I suspect the protests were also a factor in OCL suspending Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay services without any explanation.

The Apple Pay Octopus launch has been on a long damn winding road since beta testing started a year ago. The clock is ticking, if a launch doesn’t come in the next 2 weeks or so, Apple Pay Octopus is a no show for 2019. My take is it will happen in 2020.

Toyota Wallet: if there must be another Japanese Wallet app, please let it be this

As I have pointed out countless times on this blog, Apple Pay Suica is one of the best Apple Pay services that Apple has hosted on its platform so far. The first transit card on Apple Pay remains the best: it combines the speed of the Suica transit card FeliCa architecture, the convenience of the Mobile Suica cloud, and the flexibility of the Apple Pay recharge backend.

The Apple Pay Suica sandwich: an open flexible recharge backend, sandboxed stored value (i.e. not hot wired to an app account), NFC FeliCa frontend.

This last point is under appreciated. The deal Apple and JR East worked out is the secret sauce: Apple Pay cards in Wallet just work for recharge, from Japan or from abroad, with no extra fees across the board, users earn points for the card of their choice. And users still have the option to recharge with cash if they want to.

A new kind of Wallet app
Toyota Wallet for iOS unveiled on November 19 finally gets right what other QR/Bar Code apps like PayPay have not: a flexible backend matched with a flexible frontend. A version for Android is due in the spring of 2020.

Toyota Wallet is built using the PAYCIERGE platform from TIS. The user has a choice between payments with QR/Bar Codes in the Toyota Wallet app with Origami Pay (credit) or Bank Pay (debit) accounts, or payment with a dual mode EMV/FeliCa iD Mastercard prepaid card in Wallet with the backend recharge hosted from Toyota Wallet.

An interesting side note here is that both PayPay and Line Pay have said that FeliCa cards are a possibility. Up until now this has just been lip service. It would be a welcome development if the Line Pay/Yahoo Japan merger produces a FeliCa/EMV dual mode payment option similar to what Toyota Wallet has done.

Toyota Wallet is still not open in the way that Apple Pay Suica is. All of the ‘recharge’ methods are in the SMBC orbit, even iD recharge credit cards have to be SMBC issue (such as Docomo dCard) Visa or Mastercard to avoid hefty recharge fees. It’s not perfect and remains chained to the SMBC financial ecosystem, but Toyota Wallet does point a way forward that I hope Toyota Finance Corp. continues to improve, and that other payment system operators follow.

Summary
The Toyota Wallet flexible backend/flexible frontend development is a step forward for digital wallet possibility. This is the first Japanese wallet app where the frontend technology is a simple user choice, not a straitjacket. It shows the innovation possible in Japanese payments market where the focus is on creative thinking. That this kind of innovation comes first on the Apple Pay platform says all you need to know about Apple Pay being open. Compare this approach to the Europe one where the focus is forcing others to solve problems that Europeans should be solving themselves. That approach is a political one, not an innovative solution, or progress.