Apple Pay PASMO and the transit IC card rush to mobile

Mobile PASMO was announced in January 2020, launched on Android Osaifu Keitai in March and will land on Apple Pay with the iOS 14 update this fall. As early as April Apple was already dropping hints that Apple Pay PASMO was on the way.

9 months is a quick turnaround for announcing and launching an entirely new mobile transit service across 2 digital wallet platforms: Android (Osaifu Keitai) and Apple Pay. It sure beats Cubic Transportation Systems who have yet to get Apple Pay Ventra out the door more than a year after it was first announced in March 2019 on the far less complex Chicago transit area.

While many Apple Pay users in Japan are happy to have PASMO, there is always that nagging question: if I already have Apple Pay Suica that works nationwide, what’s the point of Apple Pay PASMO? All the major transit cards are cross compatible, the only difference is commuter passes…and reward points. As FeliCa Dude so astutely explained in his excellent Reddit post, Mobile PASMO is a boondoggle, the result of JR East and PASMO Association failing to cooperate and mutually host commute plans…and points.

All Japanese transit cards are slightly different versions of Suica. There could easily be one national transit card and Japanese users absolutely would love having it, but ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, SUGOCA, Kitaca, nimoca and Hayaken want to hang on to commuter passes…and points. The good news is that (1) Mobile PASMO got off the ground in a very short time, (2) JR East is providing Mobile Suica cloud assets. I suspect Mobile Suica is likely hosting Mobile PASMO as well but whatever deal they cut is hush-hush.

Suica growth, the CASHLESS tax rebate effect, COVID and all that
Junya Suzuki beat me to the punch today with an excellent piece that covers the Apple Pay PASMO announcement and several recent Suica trends including the recent addition of Suica to Square. The most important one to me is the July 2020 edition JR East factsheet Suica section: “Number of e-money available shops”. The number of Suica ready stores increased 50% YOY by 324,000 in the March 2019~March 2020 fiscal year with store growth outside of station areas increasing the most.

This is a direct result of the CASHLESS Tax Rebate program which provided merchant subsidies for cashless infrastructure. That program ended June 30 but there is talk in government circles of implementing a similar program to boost the economy and drive cashless use in the COVID era.

JR East factsheet Suica Section

Suzuki san points out what I have said in other posts, Mobile Suica growth from the October 2016 Apple Pay Suica start point is remarkable: 9.3 million users as of March 2020. And the growth rate is accelerating. Smaller and less expensive mobile devices like Apple Watch with Apple Pay Suica and Garmin Suica make the mobile transition attractive for a wider number of users.

JR East factsheet Suica Section

With restricted travel in the COVID era every single transit company in Japan is facing tremendous pressure to reduce costs. Moving away from high cost plastic transit cards with cut and past Mobile Suica IT assets and next generation Suica card architecture will be the easiest way to do that.

The rush to mobile
It starts now. Apple Pay PASMO marks the start point of a transit IC card rush to mobile digital wallets. Mobile PASMO is rebranded Mobile Suica. With next generation aka Super Suica coming in 2021, at the very least I think we’ll see similar arrangements from JR West ICOCA, JR Central TOICA and other major transit IC cards. With the addition of MaaS NFC Tag Suica, we’ll see a faster, wider uptake of Mobile Suica and sister services for payments everywhere.

And for those Open Loop advocates out there Junya Suzuki has some surprising analysis regarding the Japanese transit scene: despite some limited installation such as Okinawa Monorail, he does’t see transit companies going in for Open Loop in any big way. Mag strip paper ticketing will gradually be eliminated as next generation transit gates go into service over the next few years but mobile transit cards and paper QR Codes will be the replacement, not Open Loop.

As I have said before, the whole ‘Open Loop vs Closed Loop aka EMV contactless bank cards vs Native IC transit cards’ debate is pre-mobile plastic era out of date thinking. Mobile wallets and apps have tossed that whole game out the window for good. Why do you think QR Code payments and UWB Touchless are coming to Apple Pay in iOS 14? It’s a whole new crazy game. Better get used to it.

Road to Super Suica: cloud integration

Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service via Suica App ended in March 2020, replaced by the cloud based JR East Eki-net Shinkansen eTicket service. Since Mobile Suica Shinkansen is gone and Ekinet eTickets live on the cloud, I assumed that iOS 14 PassKit would remove the Mobile Suica Shinkansen related (isInShinkansenStation) call because there’s no need for it anymore.

A reader pointed out that I was wrong. iOS still uses the PassKit Suica Shinkansen call with Eki-net eTickets and Notification Center throws out the same ‘Shinkansen’ Suica Notification when the user goes through a JR East Shinkansen gate with a cloud based eTicket.

The eTicket cloud service interaction with the local Apple Pay Suica card on iPhone offers some insight into what JR East (JRE) is up to as it closes in on the next generation ‘2 in 1’ Suica architecture due for release in spring 2021. JRE has said many times and in many ways that the future of the Suica platform will combine cloud services with the fast local processing of the FeliCa powered Suica architecture. However, details are few, with different pieces dribbled out in bits.

What’s the overall vision and goal of next generation 2 in 1 Suica, which I call Super Suica? There’s a lot of ground to cover so let’s examine things in 2 basic categories: the card architecture (offline and local) and the platform (cloud) even as those distinctions are increasingly blurred. Here is my take based on what JRE has announced so far.

Super Suica: the Transit Card

Next Generation Suica “2 cards in 1” architecture, new FeliCa OS, new IC card format announced by Sony, JR East, JR East Mechatronics (JREM) in September 2018 for release in spring 2021.

The next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Suica architecture hosts partner transit cards and services on Suica infrastructure, effectively extending the Suica system to non-JRE transit companies. 2 in 1 partner transit cards gain the benefit of Suica hardware and Mobile Suica infrastructure with considerable cost savings related to plastic card issue and management. The heart of Super Suica remains the offline stored fare. JRE hopes to grow Mobile Suica cloud services as much as possible with the lower cost next generation Super Suica architecture and a Cloud Suica backend system.

Stored Value Update, Region expansion and Commuter Pass Changes
Starting with the basics, it’s a no-brainer that Super Suica will raise the current ¥20,000 stored value limit, likely doubling it to ¥40,000. This would put it in line with other eMoney prepaid cards like WAON and nanaco, also similar to the recent Hong Kong Octopus stored value update. The increase would have broad appeal to tourists, business travelers and shoppers everywhere and extend the JR East ‘Touch ‘n Go” ticketless Shinkansen service area.

Transit cards cover wide areas but transit card commuter pass areas are currently limited to sub-regions hard-wired for IC transit card support. Source JR East fact sheet Suica section

A long standing hurdle for Super Suica to clear is the transit IC card region limitation. The current Transit IC system uses unique fare regions for each card (Suica, ICOCA, TOICA, etc.) and the stored value doesn’t work across fare regions. Transit systems within the same card region such as JR East and PASMO have their fare systems connected so that a user’s transit card can enter a JR East station then exit a PASMO member station with the fare instantly calculated and deducted from the offline card balance.

This region limitation is a problem for transit users in fringe areas. In order to use an IC transit card they have to exit and re-enter separate transit company gates at specific transfer station points. The only viable cross region options have been mag strip commuter passes or paper tickets.

2 in 1 Commuter Passes
In September 2019 JR East, JR Central and JR West announced new cross region commuter pass rules going into effect in spring of 2021, exactly when Super Suica arrives. The new cross region transit card commuter passes cover cross region regular train transit up to 300km.Superficially the changes are about making cross region local to Shinkansen transfers easier for commuters, but the timing, and the necessity of issuing brand new cards for cross region commuter passes suggests other changes are coming.

The ‘2 in 1’ Super Suica concept has special meaning for commuter passes. The current Suica only supports 2 basic patterns via a card id commuter pass account number: JR East only lines, and connected commuter passes covering JR East and connecting lines. 2 in 1 Super Suica will support 2 separate commuter passes: one hosted by the non-JR East transit partner for rail and bus lines and one hosted by JR East.


Super Suica: the Platform

File:ICCard Connection en.svg
Japan Transit IC Map

One primary aim of Super Suica is extending the platform reach with shared infrastructure to rural areas too small to establish their own local transit cards. Pay close attention to the transit cards outside the pink area, with the exception of PiTaPa. These are 2nd tier local area transit cards currently orphaned from eMoney or transit interoperability. There are also ‘off the map’ areas such as Utsunomiya Light Rail and Iwate Transit Co. Ltd. who have announced Super Suica 2 in 1 agreements with JRE.

Super Suica enlarges the pink area to include those 2nd tier and off the map cards. Those who sign on join the common interpretability area for transit and eMoney, and also gain access to Mobile Suica hosted Apple Pay Suica, Google Pay Suica and Osaifu Keitai. This is a real boon for smaller areas who, up to now, couldn’t afford to launch their own card operations. I suspect it will be very attractive to all transit card operators who run on shoe string budgets, they can save money by offloading card operations to JRE and get the mobile support in the bargain.

What does Super Suica mean for the major transit cards like JR West (ICOCA), JR Central (TOICA) and others? It depends on what kind of deal JRE offers them. Even if the majors don’t sign on directly I see them getting access to the new Suica card format and Mobile Suica IT assets.

2 in 1 Reward Points and Auto-Charge
In addition to the 2 in 1 commuter passes, Super Suica also supports different reward point systems. ‘2 in 1’ partner Super Suica users will be able to exchange points for a Super Suica recharge just like they do now with JRE POINT and Rakuten Pay points. Auto-Charge for 2 in 1 partner branded credit cards will certainly be supported as well. Points and Auto-Charge may seem mundane but they are very important to customers and transit companies, a vital part of luring foot traffic, new businesses and visitors to local areas in an era of shrinking passenger traffic.

Expanding and leveraging the Recharge Backend
The ever expanding Mobile Suica recharge backend is a fascinating development mostly ignored by the media even though it’s where the action is. Suica and the other transit cards are a huge green pasture full of cash (less) cows waiting to be milked by card companies and payment platforms. JRE lets them milk Mobile Suica cows for a cut. Up until Apple Pay Suica came along in 2016, JRE was the only recharge backend. As of July 2020 there are 5: JRE, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Mizuho, Rakuten. 2 in 1 partners will have the ability to add their own recharge backends with apps, if they so choose.

Other points to remember: the recharge backend only works on iOS and Android platforms, point rewards can be used for Suica recharge. Currently that only works with JRE POINT and Rakuten Points but this will be extended to the ‘2 in 1’ partner point systems.

JR East plans to grow Suica financial services and has invested in crypto coin ventures

MaaS NFC Tag Suica
It’s clear that the really big Super Suica changes will be on the cloud side. Transit card eMoney has been a huge success, but Suica has to evolve to remain a viable payment platform in today’s hyper competitive world of mobile payments.

That next step is Suica NFC Tag payments. Think of it as Suica transactions without a reader, let’s call it MaaS Suica. JRE joined the MaaS alliance in November 2019 closely followed by an December 2019 press release announcing NFC Tag tests with 4 partners: JRE (Suica), DNP (NFC Tags), Sony (FeliCa) and AquaBit Spirals (NFC Tag SmartPlate payments software).

JRE & us (AquaBit Spirals) have announced to conduct technical verification for the use of NFC tags focusing on transportation and ‘payments’, and that the role of Sony is to investigate technical specs as part of promoting a lifestyle through ‘FeliCa’ tech. You may know what we mean😉

AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara

It’s clearly implied by the diagram and by comments from AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara that Suica powers the NFC Tag payments middle section via the cloud. This means the Suica card balance on a device works ‘over the cloud’. Suica is unchained from the NFC reader infrastructure and can be used to pay for any kind of NFC Tag linked service or item. This is still a pilot test program but has connections with the Cloud Suica system JR East is planning to roll out.

JRE has also been testing MaaS solutions using QR Codes instead of NFC Tags with their Ringo Pass app for Saitama. The pilot project is covered in the NFC Forum article JR East Railway And NFC Propelling The MaaS Revolution. A 2nd MaaS pilot project has been announced for Sendai. An interesting side note here is that the old card reader+Windows+plastic Suica card Suica Internet web shopping service is going away this year, the final plug is due to be pulled by September 2020. We should be hearing about NFC Tag Suica in 2021.

NFC Tags and App Clips level the playing field with QR
One of the ways PayPay and other QR Code players disrupted the Japanese market so quickly was leveraging the low entry point bar of static QR codes combined with mobile smartphone apps. All stores need is an official QR Code sticker. Small merchants are freed from having to invest in POS hardware to go cashless.

NFC Tags eliminate the cost advantage of QR and level the playing field. Combined with the capabilities of iOS 14 App Clips, they become a killer app:

The pieces appear to fit very nicely now: the NFC background tag sheet pops-up ‘while the screen is on’, the right code snippets load in for a simple focused task, the user can Sign In with Apple ID if needed, and pay with Apple Pay. Simple, uncluttered action; no apps, no Safari launch. And we have background NFC tag reading on every current iPhone model.

MaaS Suica wrapped up in new technologies like App Clips and background tag reading iPhone has the potential to take the Suica eMoney payment platform to a whole new level. Success depends on how aggressively JRE promotes the service and how they license it to sister transit card operators. It would be great if we got MasS Suica, MaaS ICOCA etc. working seamlessly as a single mobile payment just like transit cards do now.

Cloud Suica for more mobile
Super Suica, the card, and Mobile Suica aim to deliver more services, such as the renewed and expanded Eki-Net coming in 2021, a lower cost internet based cloud infrastructure while keeping the great thing about Suica: super fast secure offline transactions and interoperability.

Based on what JRE has said over the past 2 years in the press and in recent company announcements, it seems we’ll have 4 basic versions of Suica: (1) Hard-wire Suica (what we have now) for major stations and stores, (2) Cloud Suica, lower cost cloud based fare processing for transit gates that cover rural stations not currently on the Suica map, this cloud backend is also expected to power closed loop QR code ticketing (3) MaaS NFC Tag Suica powered by the Suica Cloud backend for reader-less App Clips-like mobile payments, (4) Licensed Mobile Suica assets and card architecture for PASMO, ICOCA and other partners.

There will be 2 kinds of Super Suica partners:

  • Direct 2 in 1 partners host cards on Super Suica as outlined in 2 in 1 Suica Region Affiliate card program.
  • Indirect partners get the new Suica card architecture, New FeliCa OS improvements, Mobile Suica IT assets and wireless Suica gate system technology. The arrangement will be similar Mobile PASMO who licensed Mobile Suica IT assets but run their own cloud service with their own backend mobile recharge, commuter passes and reward points.
Apple Pay PASMO will be coming to Apple Pay with the iOS 14 update

Mobile PASMO was first announced in January 2020, launched on Android Osaifu Keitai in March and Apple Pay PASMO with arrive with the iOS 14 update this fall. 9 months is a quick turnaround for announcing and launching an entirely new mobile transit service across 2 digital wallet platforms: Android (Osaifu Keitai) and iOS/watchOS Apple Pay. This speedy rollout was possible because Mobile PASMO is rebranded Mobile Suica cloud assets.

Think of Mobile PASMO as a trial run for the major transit card players following the same strategy and launching Mobile ICOCA, Mobile TOICA, etc., starting in 2021. Next generation Super Suica won’t be a slam dunk national transit card that does it all, but it will be start line towards that goal in a race that has already started: a new foundation of shared infrastructure and services with transit companies working toward a cohesive de facto standard that has lots of mobile potential.

In these COVID challenged times all transit companies are under enormous pressure to reduce redundant infrastructure, streamline and bury old grudges. The current situation will drive Super Suica and mobile uptake as the payoff is more mobile services with reduced operating costs. Another case of COVID driven ‘unfortunate success’. I remain hopeful that, in the end, we’ll be pleasantly surprised.


UPDATES

Japan Cashless X-Day

Anybody care to chart the Japanese cashless transformation?

Now that the CASHLESS Rebate program is over with transaction rates reportedly going back to ‘normal’ (an estimated 1% rise over rebate program rates), JP media outlets report that some smaller merchants might go back to cash to keep profit margins intact. Real transaction rates are always hush-hush but QR payment rates recently revealed in connection with the Japan QR (JPQR) unified code scheme give us an idea what goes on behind the curtain:

NTT Data already lowered basic CAFIS transaction rates in response to the stera payment co-venture from SMBC-Visa Japan-GMO. As the JPQR transaction rate chart makes clear, banks and payment players have plenty of transaction rate wiggle room. The Japanese government is pushing cashless. If necessary the push will become shove for lower rates and yet another cashless program but where do things stand right now?

July 2020 is the proverbial “X-Day” crossover point: Japan is cashless now, even though the transformation is uneven, ongoing and very messy. On the customer side cashless is the mindset and survival behavior for many Japanese, even for older folks who under normal circumstances would prefer using cash until they day they die.

Faced with the reality of handing money that carries the risk of infection, people are going cashless instead especially with contactless smartphone payments. Junya Suzuki was right all along: Apple Pay turned out to be “the black ship of payments” catalyst that finally nudged Japan from cash to cashless. That and COVID.

Market analysts will undoubtably demand chart data that clearly explains and quantifies the transformation before declaring a ‘winner’ but they have a long wait. That’s because the cashless transformation is sloppy with huge regional variations, all happening right before us. But all of this is an afterthought and our priorities are different now, getting accurate market survey information of any kind in the current environment is extremely difficult.

The Tokyo Olympics was supposed to be the event heralding the cashless era but the COVID crisis has forced much more change very quickly. Evidence is best found in the countless little rituals of daily life that have evolved and are not going back. Merchants who do go back to cash face the risk of fewer customers: when offered a choice people choose cashless.

This realization hit me yesterday when my partner complained about his Docomo dPAY points taking a hit because the Summit supermarket staffer tapped a wrong payment button on the new POS cashless menu options added on July 1. He wanted to pay with iD. A year ago he never used iD, dPAY or Apple Pay and never wanted to, but life changed.

These days I hear contactless reader sounds everywhere, FeliCa chirps and EMV beeps are common as clear plastic sheeting and foot position floor stickers at checkout. And just when posting this the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism announced that Japanese Expressways will be going cashless only with ETC. If there’s anything that defines this sea change it is this: it’s not a ‘victory’ over cash that the media sometimes depicts, nor does it feel like progress. In the COVID era it merely feels like survival.

My Number Point Part 1

UPDATE 2022-06-30: My Number Point program part 2 started June 30, see the JRE POINT guide for Suica + JRE POINT My Number Point part 2 registration details.


Now that the CASHLESS Rebate program is over, we have a new Japanese government program promoting cashless use for points: My Number Point. And yes it comes with an app. There’s just one tiny gotcha: you have to have a plastic My Number card because as the campaign name makes clear, the whole enterprise is about motivating people to register for a one. The initial campaign program runs July 1~March 30 2020. Users can get the equivalent of up to ¥5,000 in points in exchange for ¥20,000 worth of cashless shopping.

The basic idea is that starting from July 1, you use the My Number Point app to read the NFC tag in your My Number card and register your cashless payment service of choice: Suica, PayPay, credit card, etc. The full list is here.

After you buy ¥20,000 worth of stuff by August with your registered cashless payment, you get points. We won’t know how bad the sign up process is until it goes live. At best it looks convoluted, and a lot of hoops for only ¥5,000 in points. COVID is already more than enough motivation for going cashless but payment players are dutifully offering extra points for registration.

As your dutiful field reporter, I volunteer to dive into the NFC tag registration process on July 1 and tell you all about it. Here’s the official list of compatible iPhone devices.


Suica/JRE POINT Registration
Okay, I did it. The registration process, like the app, looks and acts like a government bureaucracy product. It’s not pretty but gets the job done. But it’s a fun exercise using the My Number Card NFC tag for secure login. Here is a quick summary.

Before you start: you’ll need a My Number Card, and a JRE POINT account with your Mobile Suica registered.

(1) Have your My Number Card and 4 PIN login code ready and launch the app. The My Number Card NFC tag read with iPhone seems very allergic to any surrounding metal. Hold the card in your hand, it takes about 8 seconds for a successful read.
(2) Follow steps 1~6 shown here to login and get to payment system registration
(3) You need 3 pieces of info from your JRE POINT account: the JRE POINT exchange number, the registered katakana account name, the registered birth date. Tap the link to the JRE POINT page and login, copy the JRE POINT exchange number and paste it in the Payment Service ID, past the katakana name (no spaces) in Security Code 1, enter the registered birth date into Security Code 2. Enter the last 4 digits of your current iPhone number in the last field.

JRE POINT Info for My Number Card Point registration

(4) After entering and confirming your JRE POINT information you have to enter your My Number Card PIN and read NFC tag again. This completes the process, you should see a green confirmation checkmark.

From here all you need to do is purchase ¥20,000 worth of goods or recharges with Mobile Suica by August 31. The timing and details of the My Number Point bonus into your JRE POINT account should be coming soon. Check the My Number Point page for details.

iOS 14 App Clips unlock the power of NFC background tags

We first got a taste of iOS 14 App Clips with the slick Titanium Apple Card setup that leverages the NFC background tag reading ability, now called NFC with reader mode, of iPhone XR/XS and later. Jennifer Bailey gave a sneak peek of NFC background tag Apple Pay in May 2019 but the pieces weren’t in place for a WWDC19 rollout.

The first problem was the iPhone lineup. iPhone 8 didn’t fit because only A12 Bionic devices and later support NFC background tag reading. This was solved with the release of A13 Bionic powered iPhone SE and deletion of iPhone 8 from the lineup.

The second problem was the clunky ‘launch an app’ or ‘launch Safari’ to do anything. This has been a problem for NFC tag solution providers like SmartPlate. User interaction needs to reside on a task focused pop-up sheet while the screen is on. The new iOS 14 App Clips framework that works hand in hand with iOS 14 Core NFC to load just what is needed to take care of the NFC tag task at hand, is the right solution.

The pieces appear to fit very nicely now: the NFC background tag sheet pops-up ‘while the screen is on’, the right code snippets load in for a simple focused task, the user can Sign In with Apple ID if needed, and pay with Apple Pay. Simple, uncluttered action; no apps, no Safari launch. And we have background NFC tag reading on every current iPhone model.

There are a few flies in the ointment:

  • Face ID in the face mask era is a lousy unlock and Apple Pay user experience, App Clip powered NFC background tag reading is gonna rock on Touch ID iPhone SE even though it was designed for Face ID.
  • A network connection is required, Apple Pay transactions at the NFC reader work without a network connection but App Clips + Apple Pay transactions need a network connection for the obvious reasons of loading app clip content, and because of this…
  • A weak borderline WiFi connection can jam the entire process even with WiFi Assist turned on.

The NFC advantage over QR Codes here is that background tag reading automatically pulls up the App Clip sheet when the screen is on while QR Code users have to manually pull up the QR reader app and scan a code to join the fun.

The combination of App Clips, NFC tags and Apple Pay will be extremely disruptive in markets where NFC and QR payment players are very competitive. Places like Japan. PayPay and Line Pay lose their edge. Smart QR payment players can adapt and add NFC tag support in their payment apps. And they can bypass Apple Pay if they want to, though it won’t be as slick. Ultimately they are not wedded to QR codes, PayPay and Line Pay have always said they would add NFC if customers want it.

App Clips finally unlocks the power of background NFC tag reading and is the other big WWDC20 Apple Pay development in addition to CarKey and Apple Pay QR Code AliPay payments. App Clips puts NFC tags on equal footing with QR Codes for the first time with the added edge of the ‘when the screen is on’ background tag read sheet pop-ups. This will be huge.


UPDATES

October 22 2020: The first Japanese iOS App Clips for ordering via NFC tags and QR have started at Kitasando Coffee and Tailored Cafe.


UPDATES

Apple Pay Code Payment + App Clip Connection: App Clips and Apple Pay Code Payments belong together
Apple Pay Contactless Payment Adoption 4Q 2020 Outlook: App Clips and App Clip Codes start rolling out in Japan and USA
Using App Clips at Kitasando Coffee