iPhone SE: more Apple Pay Suica making way for Mobile PASMO?

Suica was the big thing that put Apple Pay front and center in Japan. It still does, everybody loves using Apple Pay Suica Express Transit for Face/Touch ID-free transit and store payment in our face mask era. The funny thing is that Apple is slowing removing Suica as the Apple Pay poster child. The process started with iOS 13.4 Apple Pay Wallet blurb text that removed the hot market brand ‘Suica’ name replacing it with the very pedestrian unmarketable ‘transit’.

Now we have another Suica removal from the iPhone SE spec page Apple Pay section. Other iPhone 11/Pro/XS model spec pages all have the Suica blurb. Why? I said it before and say it again: Suica has massive brand recognition in Japan and Apple Pay has leveraged the Suica brand at every opportunity. Apple would not swap Suica for generic wording lightly, not without a very good reason. That reason is more transit IC cards coming to Apple Pay. Mobile PASMO, please stand when your name is called.

Advertisements

JR East Shinkansen eTicket Service Launch (Updated)

March 14 marked the end of Mobile Suica Shinkansen ticketing in Suica App and the start of a new open IC transit card eTicket Shinkansen service. It doesn’t have name. It’s just one of many ticket options available in the good old JR East ‘Eki-net’ (Station-net) online ticket reservation service, well known and not loved by many. A Japanese friend said it best, “You would think that a top tier Japanese company like JR East with many smart employees would create something better than Eki-net or pay somebody to do so.”

The problem is not that Eki-net doesn’t work. It works, but throwing everything new (IC transit card eTickets) and old (email tickets and paper tickets) in same Eki-net shoebox is a cluttered unwieldy package, a confusing and messy UI not nearly as convenient as JR East wants us to believe. Instead of a sleek new Shinkansen eTicket service, we get the same stodgy paper ticket service with a new hard to find eTicket option.

JR East would have been better off making a clean break by rebranding the new eTickets as a completely different service with a new spiffy name and separate multi-lingual app, just like JR Central’s SmartEX with the addition of new eTicket options over time. The less is more SmartEX approach focuses exclusively on Shinkansen eTickets and eliminates local line travel options because those are covered by Suica/ICOCA/Toica, etc. Eki-net on the other hand makes a big deal of ‘big trip’ options covering everything from Shinkansen and regular express trains to tour packages and car rentals.

The Eki-net approach does have one advantage over the 2-tier JR Central/JR West SmartEX (free membership with small discounts) and EX-Press Reserve (annual membership fee/special IC card/bigger discounts): Eki-net is ‘flat’ with free membership, offering the same discounts to all members in one service. Shinkansen eTickets are only available at launch from the online Eki-net site. I recommend the more streamlined smartphone online browser version. JR East has announced an updated Eki-net App for App Store/Google Play with eTicket support that should be coming March 21 (now postponed to an unknown future date). The new eTicket service is also available to JR West e5489 ticket reservation service members as JR West shares Hokuriku Shinkansen operations with JR East.

The end of Mobile Suica eTickets in Suica App means a mandatory app update that strips out the retired service. Users must update to the new 2.6 version by March 18. After this date older Suica App versions stop working. The migration from the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service has good and bad points:

Good Points
JR East Shinkansen eTickets are compatible with all major transit IC cards. This finally opens JR East operated Shinkansen lines to plastic and mobile transit cards, the old system was limited to Mobile Suica. An interesting new twist is that up to 6 transit IC cards can be attached to one account for family or group travel.

Bad Points
The migration from the Mobile Suica Shinkansen/Suica App system means no more Suica App/Apple Pay in-app purchases, you must register an Eki-Net account, yes another JR East service, and a credit card. The current Eki-net system is designed around the account registered credit card for paper ticket pickup at station kiosks using the card PIN code, this effectively eliminates Apple Pay/Google Pay as an in-app purchase choice. Last but not least the new Shinkansen eTicket service is Japanese language only.

New IC/QR gates at JR Takanawa Gateway Station opening March 14

Shinkansen eTickets are only the first step in a long term migration away from mag strip paper tickets. Mag strip ticket gates are more expensive than transit gates with NFC or QR readers with higher maintenance costs, there is also the increasing cost of recycling the special mag strip paper.

Paper tickets for all transit will remain a cash purchase at station kiosks, as they must, these will be QR codes instead of mag strip. The tricky parts are: 1) how much ticketing can be ported over to the transit IC card side 2) what local transit fare tiers apply to QR. Since Shinkansen eTickets are simply one time purchase options attached to a transit IC card number in the cloud, theoretically any purchased option can be attached to a transit IC card number. Local transit has fare tier for cash tickets and a less expensive one for transit IC cards.

I see local transit cash fare tiers staying in place for station kiosk purchased QR paper tickets, but I don’t see smartphone app QR Codes for one time local transit. The cheaper fare tier incentive for reusable transit IC cards will likely remain in place. This leaves smartphone app QR Codes for express trains, limited use tourist/season/campaign passes and group travel.

Mag strip tickets have served us very well for the past 30 years. The final migration to Mobile/NFC/QR will be interesting but I’ll miss those marvelously mechanical ticket gates from Omron.


UPDATE
Eki-net app v1.2 is out and supports Shinkansen eTicket reservations. The reservations process is straight forward and similar to SmartEX: choose the Shinkansen line, set stations points+date+time, select a Shinkansen train. The next step is departs from SmartEx because the Eki-net eTicket service supports up to 6 transit IC cards (plastic, Mobile Suica, Mobile PASMO), you select the transit IC card to attach the eTicket. The final step is ticket purchase with the Eki-net account registered credit card. A big difference with the old Suica App Shinkansen service is that Apple Pay in-app purchases are no longer supported.

I hope that JR East restores Apple Pay in-app purchase at some point. Setting up a new account and registering cards for every new JR East service, (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-net, etc.) is also a huge pain and practically impossible for occasional users. Sign in with Apple ID and Apple Pay support for on the spot purchases is a much better deal for people who don’t want to juggle multiple accounts, passwords and credit cards. Last but not least Eki-net is Japanese language only, and account creation/management requires a trip to the awful Eki-net web site. Please fix this JR East, with so few people riding trains right now you have the free time to do it.

Mobile PASMO Q&A

What is Mobile PASMO?
Mobile PASMO is an app service, identical to Mobile Suica, for Android v6 Osaifu Keitai devices or later. Users can recharge a virtual PASMO card on the device with a registered credit card, purchase or renew commute plans, view use history, restore the PASMO card from the cloud in case of a lost device, PASMO bus transit users can also earn ‘Bus Toku’ points. Mobile PASMO launched March 18. Details are listed on the Mobile PASMO site (Japanese only).

Is it compatible with Google Pay? (Updated)
Not at this time. Users need to be careful: active Google Pay blocks Mobile PASMO transactions. Bank cards are limited to Mobile PASMO app registered credit cards: American Express, JCB, Mastercard, Visa. Credit card registration is processed by PASMO and seems to be the weakest part of the system where users are experiencing the most trouble (the rest of the system appears to be licensed Mobile Suica IT assets). Only Japanese issue cards are accepted.

Is the Mobile PASMO app multi-lingual? (Updated)
Everything is Japanese language only. Android users can download the Mobile PASMO app on Google Play.

Can I use Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO on the same device? (Updated)
Only 6 recent Osaifu Keitai Type 1 devices support multiple transit card installs. On older Type 2 devices you can only install one and have to choose. As FeliCa Dude explains in his excellent Reddit post, “Mobile PASMO: the “me-too” that’s all about them, and not you” the Mobile FeliCa Android stack on older FeliCa chip devices isn’t like Apple Pay and does not support multiple transit cards or the ability to select one for Express Transit. Type 1 devices updated to Osaifu Ketai 8.2.1 can set one (and only one) ‘main card’ for Express Transit use, with Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO on the same device. Here is a full device list of Type 1 (Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO), Type 2 (Mobile Suica or Mobile PASMO), Type 3 (Mobile Suica).

I have a Mobile PASMO capable Type 2 device, which mobile transit service should I use?
It all comes down to commuter pass use, if you live in the Suica/PASMO region and use a JR East line on any part of your commute, Mobile Suica is the best choice that gives you the most options on Apple Pay and Google Pay. If you do not use a JR East line as part of your commute, Mobile PASMO is the natural choice.

Will Mobile PASMO be coming to Apple Pay? (Updated)
iOS 13.4 has some indications that Mobile PASMO might be coming at some point. Mobile PASMO uses licensed Mobile Suica assets and technology, the backend is very similar with a different operator. Apple Pay Wallet does have the ability to host multiple transit cards and select one for Express Transit. In theory a user could have a Suica and a PASMO together in Wallet. We’ll have to wait and see if the PASMO group has enough cloud resources to plug into Apple Pay/Google Pay and how willing they are to deal with non-JP issue credit cards.

Isn’t next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Suica supposed to fix this? (Updated)
Mobile PASMO throws cold water on the one big happy mobile transit family concept of next generation Suica: sharing resources instead of “me too” fiefdoms. Even if the new card architecture fixes all the current shortcomings, which it is supposed to do, nothing can fix the selfish mindset of transit companies who refuse to cooperate. As FeliCa Dude points out, Mobile PASMO is a boondoggle, the result of JR East and PASMO Association failing to cooperate and mutually host commute plans. I suspect that auto-charge transit company premium branded credit cards are getting in the way. Japanese transit companies need to put aside old grudges and cooperate intelligently to get all transit players on mobile as fast as possible. Everybody loses out if they do not.

UPDATE: Japanese programmers digging into Mobile PASMO details find that PASMO licensed Mobile Suica IT assets for Mobile PASMO service. This makes a lot of sense and is an encouraging sign that Mobile Suica cloud resources can be licensed to host other transit IC cards for mobile (ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, etc.).

UPDATE 2: Junya Suzuki posted an article with more Mobile PASMO system details. One leading company in the PASMO Association (Tobu, Keio or Odakyu) licensed Mobile Suica assets and technology from JR East. Cut and paste IT. As said above, this is encouraging because other transit companies (JR West, JR Central et al) can license Mobile Suica assets and park it on whatever cloud service they want: AWS, Azure, NTT Data and so on. Mobile plumbing for connecting Apple Pay and Google Pay is already in place.

UPDATE 3: the Mobile PASMO device link keeps dying, here is downloadable PDF copy as backup:

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.

The Mobile PASMO Super Suica Challenge

The recently announced Mobile PASMO has some serious limitations lucidly explained in FeliCa Dude’s ‘Mobile PASMO – something we shouldn’t need‘ reddit post. It shines a light on the unfortunate petty politics of Japanese business culture, a catch-22 that ends up killing the very opportunities Japanese companies work to create. Mimicchii is a good Japanese word for it: so obsessively stuck on pointless small details that one completely misses the big opportunity. The PASMO association knows they will loose out, eventually, but hang on to their one and only advantage, commute passes, in the hope they gain a better losers bargain in the end. But how much opportunity is lost by then?

As FeliCa Dude points out, Mobile PASMO is a pointless waste of money and system resources to replicate what Mobile Suica already does:

PASMO is inferior to Suica in many respects, the idea of deploying Mobile PASMO and removing the user’s ability to choose Mobile Suica is fairly short-sighted. Such a development likely cost many hours and much money, but is effectively a boondoggle and a monument to the stubborn failure of JR and the PASMO Association to sort out a way to issue commuter passes on each other’s cards.

Taken to an extreme each transit card player would build its own mobile service but this is impossible in an era of shrinking ridership and resources.

Come together into one mobile service please…

The next generation 2 cards in 1 Suica due in 2021 aims to fix the current state of affairs. Architecturally I expect the problems will be solved, but corporate politics are another matter. JR East will have to offer enough cost saving incentives and flexible extras for the other major transit card players to host their service assets on Mobile Suica: commute plans, Shinkansen eTickets and more. It’s certainly in everybody’s best interest to do so. Time to put aside the mimicchii politics and duplication. If Japanese transit companies can’t come together to build the future, everybody loses.