Free Mobile Suica for Everybody in 2020

JR East announced the end of the Mobile Suica ¥1030 annual membership fee for all Android devices on February 26 2020. Mobile Suica is free for Apple Pay users. JR East also announced the end of Symbian OS feature phone support with most devices being cut off from Mobile Suica on February 25 2020, and the rest following on December 22 2020 along with some Android devices.

All of the ‘offed’ devices can still use Suica for transit and purchases but are limited to cash recharge which can be done at station kiosks and any convenience store. Users who want to keep their Mobile Suica account will have to migrate to an eligible Apple or Android device.

JR East is also terminating Mobile Suica Shinkansen e-ticket purchases this year and will replace it with a new service similar to JR Central’s Smart EX. Details should be coming soon.

All in all it looks like JR East is clearing the Mobile Suica deck for the 2021 Super Suica launch.

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Japan Cashless Map for 2019

The Crowd Cast cashless map illustrates the rich variety of Japanese payment platforms

Because of its long history pioneering many of the technologies used for contactless payments, Japan is one of the most interesting, complex and difficult markets to study and analyze cashless payment trends. Accurate analysis of Japanese cashless/contactless payment trends is challenging because of fragmentation and regionality. Every market report or survey is just one tiny fragment of a much larger moving picture. An accurate map is good starting point.

Fintech startup Crowd Cast, Ltd. CEO Takashi Hoshikawa has a blog and posted a handy helpful cashless map for 2019. It’s not perfect however so I tweaked it a bit to clearly outline the 3 basic cashless groups: plastic cards, NFC, QR.

Digital wallets like Apple Pay and Google Pay work with all the NFC flavors (A-B-F) but Apple has made a much deeper investment integrating FeliCa into the basic technology bundle that powers Apple Pay alongside EMV, delivering it globally as a payment solution that “just works”. EMV contactless is called NFC Pay in Japan and is slowly being deployed alongside existing FeliCa payment networks so that POS systems and readers “just work” with everything. Hopefully it will all be up and running in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

QR Codes are not big outside of China and I don’t see conservative markets like Europe or the US taking them up. Japanese QR Code payment platforms are cropping up thick and fast but availability has not translated to actual use. ICT Research & Consulting has released a market report on mobile cashless payments (for ¥95,000) that basically covers 2018 with a web survey of 4,062 participants. The teaser page offers a few interesting free data tidbits. I don’t trust web based surveys as a tool for analyzing a highly regional and fragmented market, but the cash vs cashless chart illustrates exactly what I wrote in the Apple Pay Japan One Year Mark: people use contactless payments like Apple Pay for coffee and train fare but do not use Apple Pay for buying a couch. However the chart offers an interesting point: Japanese people use (plastic) credit cards for larger purchases and cash for smaller ones.

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The Apple Pay Japan Story so far
Japanese IT journalist Junya Suzuki predicted that Apple Pay would be the ‘black ship’ that would revolutionize contactless payments in Japan. Apple Pay turned out to be the match that finally lit the fuse of the huge Japanese contactless transit and payments infrastructure investment and launched it into orbit. The global FeliCa iPhone is a inflection point that many people have yet to recognize, one that will soon provide Apple Pay another growth opportunity in Hong Kong. A year ago I wrote:

Apple Pay in Japan is all about Apple Pay Suica which we already knew. In the Suica home base area, the Kanto region, contactless payments grew from 20% of total transactions to more than 40% in the year that Apple Pay Suica has been available… What used to be ‘some people some of the time’ is quickly transitioning to ‘most people most of the time’.

Stores and businesses interviewed for that post report that contactless digital wallet payments (Apple Pay, Google Pay, Osaifu Keitai) use continued to grow throughout 2018 but nothing is simple or straightforward:

  • Apple Pay Suica continues to drive the Apple Pay story in Japan but is highly regional as initial uptake is tied to commuter passes which are currently restricted to the JR East rail network. Nevertheless Suica issuance continues double digit growth. Japanese customers prefer easy to use prepaid cards, they will always be the gateway to cashless for the majority.
  • Only 30% of iPhone users with Apple Pay Japan capable devices (iPhone 7 and later) use Apple Pay. I suspect Osaifu Keitai and Google Pay uptake is similar or lower.

The upcoming 10% consumption tax increase will offer incentives and tax discounts for cashless purchases. The cash vs cashless trends outlined above are positive signs that change is possible with the right set of incentives and ease of use environment:

  • Plastic will continue to be king with prepaid cards the king of kings. One of the many advantages that digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay have over QR Code platforms is that plastic cards are always there as a last resort physical option. This is very important for many customers, especially the elderly. And they don’t need a battery.
  • Reward point systems and cards need to be digital (such as VAS powered Ponta) that automatically link with the appropriate transactions. Digital wallets only replace physical ones when everything can be matched and loaded on smartphones.

For Apple the key will be getting more Japanese iPhone customers to use Apple Pay by making different service parts work together in new ways that don’t play together well, i.e. the sum must be greater than the total of the parts. Think Rakuten. Rakuten has done an excellent job building an ecosystem of e-commerce, travel reservations and other services that offer members large discounts and points. This approach will pay huge dividends when the 10% consumption tax arrives October 1.

Smart Octopus Samsung Pay Updated Image Hints at Apple Pay Smart Octopus Launch

Samsung has updated their Smart Octopus on Samsung Pay advertising. The tag line used to read “only on Samsung Pay“, the updated tag reads “First Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay“. The Samsung Pay Smart Octopus exclusive window is over. I think we are getting very close to a Smart Octopus Apple Pay launch possibly coming with the iOS 12.1.3 update.

Apple Pay Smart Octopus and the iOS 12.1.3 Release Window

JR East posted a special maintenance schedule this month for Mobile Suica on 1/15, 1/22 and 1/28. The work appears concentrated on the Suica Recharge backend which hopefully points to improved Apple Pay Suica Recharge performance.

I think it also points to something else: a iOS 12.1.3 release with Apple Pay Smart Octopus/Hong Kong transit directions for Apple Maps service around January 29 Cupertino time, early am January 30 in Hong Kong. The timing fits with a full beta test cycle wrap up but more importantly it fits as a kickoff for the Chinese New Year vacation period, good news for an important market to Tim Cook who desperately needs some good news right now.

Go for it Tim! It will undoubtedly help Apple sell more global FeliCa iPhones because Smart Octopus on Apple Pay is a great marketing angle for the iPhone XR/XS models with Express Card power reserve and bulletproofed FeliCa performance. I have yet to experience a single Apple Pay Suica gate error from my iPhone XS with daily use since the launch date.

UPDATE
It occurred to me after posting the above that Apple has introduced transit cards and the technology behind them with larger point releases: iOS 10.1 for Suica (FeliCa) and iOS 11.3 for Beijing and Shanghai Transit cards (Apple flavored PBOC 2.0 ED/EP). In this scenario iOS 12.2 is the logical starting point for Smart Octopus on Apple Pay. However, Octopus is FeliCa which has been part of Apple Pay for over 2 years, Apple has ample engineering and testing experience with the technology to add Smart Octopus with a smaller point release, or none at all which was the case with contactless student ID cards.

iOS 12 Suica Performance Issues Update

iOS 12/watchOS 5 Suica performance continues to be a very mixed bag for many as Apple closes in on the iOS 12.1.3 update. There are no showstoppers but glitches are constant enough that there’s even an Reddit thread on the subject, a first. Suica performance glitches fall in 4 basic patterns:

  • Suica Express Card error flicker: occasional error flicker at transit gates with iPhone 7, iPhone 8, iPhone X (Rev. B) and Apple Watch 2~4. This is a completely different issue from the iPhone X NFC hardware defect. There is no workaround and will likely be fixed in an iOS update at some point…we hope.
  • Dead Suica Notifications/No Suica Balance Update: Suica Notifications stop working and Suica Balance fails to update at transit gates, store readers and Suica recharges. This affects iPhone 7, iPhone 8, iPhone X (Rev. B) and Apple Watch 2~4 but is easy to fix by putting Suica in Service Mode for a few seconds.
  • Slow or unresponsive Suica Recharge: this is probably more of a backend system issue between Apple Pay iCloud and Mobile Suica than iOS 12 but Apple Pay Suica recharge fails half of the time on the first attempt. This affects all devices and there is no work around except to try again. The Mobile Suica maintenance this month (January 2019) might help.

Suica Recharge works…sometimes
  • Express Card power reserve mode kicks in with iOS up and running. This only affects iPhone XS and iPhone XR. Express Card power reserve mode kicks in for some reason when it should not. Suica still works fine but the Apple Pay Suica UI stops working. No notifications, no balance update, nada. Service Mode does not revive Suica notifications but the fix is simple: restart iPhone and all is good.