It’s very odd when you consider that global FeliCa iPhone 8 is the only smartphone in the world that you can use out of the box to add a Suica card and use SmartEX to ride the Shinkansen with just iPhone 8 and Apple Pay Suica. You do not need a Mobile Suica account like any other smartphone because Apple built Suica functions and connectivity into Apple Pay.
That is unique and interesting but why did JR Central go out of its way and devote resources to support JR East and Apple Pay Suica when their own TOICA transit card only exists as a plastic one? It doesn’t make sense: all the elite EX-PRESS business travelers who use the JR Central Shinkansen regularly will dump TOICA and go all in with Apple Pay Suica. Companies invest resources for a reason, something is going on.
It is also very odd that PASMO registered the Mobile PASMO trademark on Apple Keynote day as the first step before anything else including, it seems, creating a plan. Clearly a branding trademark is on PASMO’s mind. Let’s look at these intriguing pieces from a branding perspective.
The Apple Pay Suica diagram looks like this:
Apple invested a lot of time and effort to add global FeliCa and emulate all the Suica FeliCa functions in Apple Pay and on iPhone hardware. As Japanese IT journalist Junya Suzuki pointed out in his Mobile PASMO piece, all the Japanese transit cards are compatible on the outside but on the inside there are differences in how they use the FeliCa chip and add service extras.
Implementing all those differences and service extras in Apple Pay and on iPhone hardware is a lot of work for Apple. There is also the problem of a PASMO building their own mobile service with limited financial resources. And there is very little time until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
PASMO’s trademark move suggests the solution is simply going to be a branding one:
Start with a basic service that offers the 2 big things Japanese users want most:
Credit card loyalty points
JR East started simple by dropping EX-PRESS Shinkansen options from the Suica App until JR Central had iPhone Apple Pay Suica interoperability in place. JR Central is doing the same with the browser only simplistic SmartEX JP registration process.
This model can work for iOS apps too. JR East could host a PASMO app in addition to their Suica app:
The evidence so far suggests this is how Mobile PASMO will play out. It provides an easy model for PASMO and the other transit cards to get on board Apple Pay quickly then add back service extras over time. JR Central cooperation with JR East and Apple Pay Suica is another sign that things are warming up on several fronts.
Junya Suzuki digs into the technical and financial challenges facing PASMO bringing Mobile PASMO to market. He was kind and tweeted me right after meeting with PASMO-Seibu Railway officials that the trademark registration was just that. I suspect plans are farther along than a trademark application but for now, let’s take PASMO’s word.
The most fascinating thing to me is the numbers. As of March 2017 (6 months after the Apple Pay Suica launch) the breakdown for Suica cards is:
64 million total Suica (plastic and mobile)
4.4 million Mobile Suica, about 7%
Even though the Japanese market is just reaching the 1 year mark of Apple Pay Suica, and 11 years of Mobile Suica service on other mobile phone, there is a long way to go.
PASMO is far smaller, the last reported figure from 2014 was about 20 million. Current estimates are 25 million. At the Mobile Suica rate that translates to a little over 1 million potential Mobile PASMO users.
The financial challenges of building a viable mobile service infrastructure from a far smaller user base are clear. The obvious solution, and likely outcome is a service deal with Mobile Suica. But this has technical challenges as well.
Suzuki san lays out all the FeliCa details that I will only outline. All the major IC Transit cards are compatible with each other through the Congress of Japan Railway Cybernetics (fancy name for a committee of the Japan Railway Engineers’ Association). However there are differences in the way each transit card uses the Secure Element and Application layer of the IC card FeliCa chip. These are basically the extra services offered by different transit cards. PiTaPa for example offers both pre-paid and post-pay fare transaction services the other transit cards do not.
In short PASMO would have to lose the service extras they offer customers to work on Apple Pay via JR East’s Mobile Suica backend. Any service start window depends on how much PASMO is willing to give up to get on Apple Pay. The one feature that customers really want for Mobile PASMO is commuter passes. Fortunately this appears to be the easiest feature to port.
My vote is going the SmartEX way of starting as quickly as possible with a barebones service then build up from there. Suzuki san thinks Mobile PASMO is cannot start in 2017 and 2018 is highly unlikely. I am a little more optimistic and think we could see Mobile PASMO in 2018.
Let’s face it, 2019 is cutting it awfully close if PASMO wants mobile service in place for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The Mobile PASMO trademark registration made on Apple event day is very interesting. PASMO is on record with Japanese IT journalist Junya Suzuki saying that they do not have any budget to build a service like Mobile Suica. This means that if they have a trademark registered, they also have a partner lined up to provide such a service. In Tokyo town that means JR East.
This is a long shot but I am putting it out there: we might see Mobile PASMO service debut on Apple Pay with iOS 11.1 and iPhone X.
PASMO is clearly planning something. Better sooner than later.
Update: Japanese twitter users digging into the Mobile PASMO filing uncover mention of a mobile (LTE/4G) watch. What kind of watch might that be? 😜
Update 2: IT Journalist Junya Suzuki contacted PASMO (Seibu Railway) this morning, October 4. PASMO confirmed the application but had no details for a service launch. Translation: plans are in place but they are not ready to say anything more. If it doesn’t happen with iOS 11.1, March 2018 is the next target window.
Update 3: More Mobile PASMO coverage here and here.
Now this is interesting. The PASMO operating company applied for a Mobile PASMO trademark on September 13, the Apple Event date in Japan. Coincidence?
What makes this especially interesting is that IT Journalist Junya Suzuki talked with PASMO officials this summer and they told him that PASMO was not planning to build any mobile service.
Were they lying or just buying time? I still think there was something major going on with the Apple and JR East Apple Pay Suica downtime leading up to the Apple event and it makes perfect sense for PASMO to work out a mobile hosting agreement with JR East if PASMO cannot build their own. They are kissing cousins with the same operating area and already have commuter pass sharing agreements in place.
As a rule Japanese companies like to launch new services in March/April or September/October time frames. It would be great if Mobile PASMO could launch in the spring. And as twitter user Ri-kun says in his tweet, Mobile PASMO won’t mean a thing unless it is on Apple Pay.