Smartphone payments grow with Japan CASHLESS Rebate program

Good news: Japanese consumers are using less cash and more cashless payments. The winners are smartphone contactless apps like Mobile Suica (NFC) and PayPay (QR) which saw use rates grow from 16.4% to 28.6% in the August 2019 to January 2020 period. The CASHLESS Rebate program has clearly lifted all cashless methods which it was designed to do. The bad news? We have no idea where the economy is going in the coronavirus crisis with the Tokyo Olympics in the balance.

The new cashless payments market report from Mobile Marketing Data Labo (MMD) has a few other interesting tidbits. Apple Pay Suica is the most used payment method on iPhone followed closely by PayPay, convenience store purchases are nearly 80%.

The growth of smartphone payments makes sense because it’s one the easiest ways for users to enjoy the benefits of the CASHLESS Rebate program with multiple payment choices, and most convenience stores offer an instant 2% rebate for cashless purchases. The next challenge is how cashless payment trends play out after the rebate program ends June 30.

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Apple Pay Octopus Ides of March

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 (account created in January 2020, the profile says IT journalist in Hong Kong 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.

Tokyo Cashless 2020: NFC Pay…are we there yet?

Tokyo Cashless 2020 is a periodic look at all things cashless as Japan gears up for the Tokyo Olympics event. If there is a topic you’d like covered, tweet @Kanjo

Mom always had a ready answer for us kids at the start of every family summer trip, “No honey we’re not there yet.” It was vague, non-committal, endlessly cheery. NFC Pay (aka EMV contactless) has made some progress at Japanese checkouts, but as Junya Suzuki lamented recently it’s still not universal. Cashless payments in general however have made good progress thanks to the Japan Cashless rebate program.

Every inbound cashless Japan experience is different, it depends on the kind of trip, the region and personal spending habits. A businessman using plastic credit cards staying in Tokyo area hotels and well known areas, then yes the experience is mostly cashless. A budget backpacker on Lonely Planet/Airbnb trail will have a very different, very cash cash experience. Europeans and Australians will find that their EMV contactless bank cards don’t tap very far and wide.

Just Say ‘Apple Pay’ Conundrum
People would love to be able to just say ‘Apple Pay’ at checkout, but this does’t work very well in Japanese contactless checkout jungle. When you say ‘Apple Pay’ you get:

  • The main card set for Apple Pay Wallet
  • Face ID/Touch ID authentication request

This can play out in different ways. If you have an international issue bank card set as the main card and say ‘Apple Pay’ at Lawson, the reader pulls up the main card with a Face ID/Touch ID authentication request. If you have Suica set as the main card and say ‘Apple Pay’ at Lawson, it pulls up Suica with a Face ID/Touch ID authentication. If you want use Apple Pay Suica Express Transit at checkout, you have to ‘Suica’, not ‘Apple Pay’. Are you confused? The confusion is compounded by poor employee training. You can use EMV contactless at any McDonalds but getting the checkout staff to actually make it happen is a completely different story.

Who’s to blame for this state of affairs? I say everybody: Banks, Card companies, The EMV Consortium, Sony, NXP, The NFC Forum, Apple, Google, Samsung, and especially Visa Japan who refuse to play nice with anybody who plays nice with FeliCa. Instead of working together to create and market a few intelligent payment schemes that work seamlessly, we have a world of this and that pay. The only player to gain anything from the Japanese market card payment mess is, surprise, the card-less QR Code PayPay.

EMV contactless and known aliases
To successfully navigate the Japanese contactless jungle, inbound Apple Pay travelers needs to be acquainted with a few checkout slogans: NFC Pay, credit and Suica. When you see the EMV contactless acceptance logos for Mastercard, Visa, Amex or JCB, say ‘credit’ or ‘NFC Pay’ at checkout. This should work for both plastic EMV contactless cards and Apple Pay/Google Pay/Samsung Pay inbound digital cards. Even if the checkout terminal does not display an Apple Pay or Google Pay logo, you are good to go.

Unfortunately, there isn’t comprehensive resource for NFC Pay store listings. Visa Japan only lists Visa Touch stores, Mastercard only lists Mastercard contactless stores, etc. The best approach for iPhone/Apple Watch inbound visitors is to create a Suica card on your device and be flexible, use a mix of Apple Pay Suica (recharged with Apple Pay cards), NFC Pay and plastic credit cards. NFC Pay nirvana may not be here yet, but we’ll get there…eventually.

Transit IC only JR East Shinkansen eTicket reservations start today

The new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service debuts March 14, but 30 day advance ticket reservations mean it kinda starts today. The best explanation, Japanese only at this point, is the Eki-net online guide that outlines the new reservation, purchase and seat assignment process for PC and smartphone web pages. I find the smartphone online version more streamlined than the PC one but they are straight forward if you are familiar with Eki-net. The basic Eki-net process is the same until step 7, the section where you assign the eTicket (s) to your registered transit IC card (s). The differences from smartEX are interesting:

  • You can register up to 6 different transit IC cards to a single Eki-net account: Suica, Mobile Suica, PASMO, Kitaca, ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, PiTaPa, nimoca, SUGOCA, Hayaken
  • A single Eki-net account can reserve/purchase up to 6 Shinkansen eTickets then assign tickets and seats to registered transit IC cards

JR East Shinkansen eTickets are geared for family travel in a way that smartEX, EX-Press and the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTickets ending March 13 are not. Other systems can only attach a single IC transit card per account. The flexibility opens up some interesting possibilities, since Apple Pay Suica is just another transit IC card, one person can buy and assign eTickets up to 6 difference Apple Pay Suica devices. The downside is that transit card linking is completely manual and up to the user to update information when a new card is issued or the Apple Pay Suica ID number changes (less common than before but still happens). There are bound to be some very short trips that end with a transit gate error. Some other observations:

  • eTickets require a Transit IC card (paper tickets can be issued in the event of a lost transit card)
  • eTicket reservations are currently limited to Eki-net online but Eki-net app will gain eTicket support when the service launches March 14
  • As Suica App is tied to Apple ID and the Mobile Suica cards registered to it, I don’t see Shinkansen eTickets being integrated back into Suica App anytime soon
  • I don’t see QR Code ticketing support coming until after the transit IC eTicket system is complete and necessary gate infrastructure in place, a few years down the road at best

Eki-net eTickets are limited to JR East operated Tohoku, Yamagata, Akita, Hokkaido, Joetsu, Hokuriku Shinkansen lines. The next obvious question is when will other ticketing be migrated to Transit IC, and what kind of discounts will be offered?

Discounts, incentives and ticket system silos
Most Japanese don’t buy express train or Shinkansen tickets at regular prices. The whole point of Eki-net, smartEx, and all the other account based ticketing systems are the discounts and incentives to get people out of the ticket office line and online. Each operator has their own complex set of discount schedules which they guard and control carefully because it is their business engine.

For this reason I am not optimistic we will see an all-in-one train ticket app. Sure, there is some integration of JR East eTicket and JR West e5489 because they share Hokuriku Shinkansen operations, and there might even be an app than integrates many different ticket systems, but I don’t see it offering all the discounts of stand alone apps like Eki-net, EX, Odekake-net, etc. I also don’t see multi-lingual support in the mix, at least not in time for Tokyo Olympics. The fun starts March 14 with many things still coming down the pipe, from next generation Suica to new transit gates. It will be an interesting time.