Who’s afraid of big bad code payments?

I have lots of respect Bloomberg reporter Gearoid Reidy, but a recent Twitter exchange he had with Craig Mod about code payment apps vs NFC reminded me that no matter how long westerners reside in Japan and appreciate the culture, our western cultural ‘winner or loser’ take on things too often gets in the way of truly understanding what’s going on. The Japanese take complexity in stride and are very adept at dealing with situations that drive us westerners crazy.

This is especially true when the debate is about that contentious intersection of contactless payments and technology: EMV is the winner FeliCa the loser, code payments are the winner NFC is the loser, and so on. As fun as that debate can be at times, the black and white distracts westerners, and even some Japanese from analyzing the gray to find out what’s driving the narratives and why.

My take has always been that Japan is the best place to observe trends first before they happen elsewhere. This is what Gearoid half jokingly calls ‘j a p a n i f i c a t i o n’. It’s real and has nothing to do with liking or disliking Japan. Either way, too many dismiss the opportunity to learn ahead of the curve. My take has also been that the crazy kaleidoscope of Japanese payment choices is coming to your country too. We got a taste of that with the announcement of the Australian national QR payments and rewards platform called eQR.

The standard Japanese market debate point of code payments vs NFC assumes the China Alipay model. China didn’t have the mobile NFC contactless payments infrastructure that Japan had, so the Alipay code payment model makes sense there. In Japan it does not, which is why Gearoid and Craig are scratching their heads in public. Code payments in Japan are all about leverage, big data, and carriers. Leverage in that carriers like NTT docomo keep the dBarai accounts in-house and use the float for their own purposes instead of letting banks and credit card companies earn interest on dCard accounts. That’s why they encourage users to use dCard to recharge the code payment dBarai account instead of using the card directly.

It’s a similar situation for SoftBank and PayPay, though I suspect it has more to do with deficit financing funnery that SoftBank Holdings is so adept at. Heaven help us, and all those Vision Fund supporters, if it comes crashing down. PayPay has been helpful though at shining a bright light on Japanese payment networks and the various service fee structures from CAFIS on down. VISA JP has suddenly seen the light and proposes to do something about it…perhaps.

Code payments are just a tool in the swiss army knife payment wallet app, like Toyota Wallet, insurance and leverage. We saw that in action when Apple Pay first launched in America and Walmart answered with CurrentC. We’re seeing again with eQR in Australia and it will keep happening when merchants or banks or payment service players need a tool to bargain a better percentage. Heck even Apple Pay is flirting with the idea of adding code payments to Wallet, though I think their hesitancy to do so means…it’s just a bargaining tool for Apple too.

So you think this is a Japanese only phenomenon? Think again.

‘Say Apple Pay’ is going away

The success of Apple Pay lies in its consistent and well integrated UI that hides complexity from users. There are limitations however, and users are bumping up against them the more they use Apple Pay and the increasingly complex Wallet. This happens with fellow gaijin in Japan unfamiliar with the JP mobile payment landscape and history. The differences are outlined in detail here but all you need to know is that at it was first conceived ‘say Apple Pay’ = the default Apple Pay card. This was short-circuited by the addition of Express Transit in 2016 for Suica, a new kind of default card that trumps the old one, that has been a problem on OMNY transit gates for manual swipe legacy MetroCard users.

The basic issue is outlined in FeliCa Dude’s tweet: when Wallet has multiple EMV cards, iPhone doesn’t know which EMV PSE (Payment System Environment) to present to the reader…the digital equivalent of card clash. The user has to manually select one. It’s one of the reasons why the Ventra system is open loop for plastic contactless plastic cards and Apple Pay without Express Transit, but not for EMV Express Transit. Instead Ventra uses closed loop EMV for Apple Pay Ventra, but EMV open loop vs EMV closed loop will always be an uneasy mix on the same system.

Officially Apple Pay only has single default payment card, the ‘say Apple Pay’ card. Unofficially you can have one payment card, one EMV Express Transit card, and multiple native Express Transit cards: one Suica, one PASMO, one Octopus, one Clipper, etc. Saying Apple Pay doesn’t work when there are multiple default cards.

This is going to get worse when Apple finally releases Apple Pay Code Payments which have been in internal testing since the first iOS 14 betas a year ago. We might see some Code Payment details during WWDC21, and I am sure that we will see more UWB Touchess action. Either way the days of saying Apple Pay are numbered. What kind of Apple Pay? NFC, QR or Touchless? And which default card? I’ve said it before and say it again:

There is one more interesting role that Apple has planned for UWB…one that promises to improve the entire Apple Pay and Wallet experience: communicating with the reader before transaction to select the right Wallet card for the job, at a distance, for a truly smart Wallet app. With national ID cards, passports and more coming to Wallet at some point, UWB could be the Wallet reboot we really need.

‘We really need a Wallet reboot’ is on full display with recently refreshed Apple Pay webpage with Wallet getting a whole separate page because Wallet holds many kinds of cards: payment, transit, reward, student ID, passes and card keys. There are some interesting branding tweaks that suggest some changes coming with iOS 15. The first one is the change from Express Transit to Express Mode. This brings it in line with Student ID which has been called Express Mode all along as it opens doors, like a transit gate, and pays for stuff, like Suica and Octopus. Express Mode/Transit debuted with the iOS 10.1 Apple Pay Suica launch in 2016, the Japanese UI uses the term Express Card which is a better fit as the Suica is more than just transit. Hopefully this is just a teaser for WWDC21 and iOS 15.

Japan mobile payment survey results

I gave the Twitter survey function a workout and asked 2 questions:

  • Which Japanese mobile payment do you use most?
  • Which Japanese reward points do you use most?

The results are not surprising but come with many caveats: the survey sampling was puny, in English and pretty much limited to a small group of Twitter followers, which means they are pretty much already invested in Mobile Suica. Also it is important to remember that mobile payment use profiles in Japan are highly regional, what’s convenient in Tokyo isn’t necessarily convenient in other areas. That said, there are some interesting and fun takeaways.

Japanese mobile payment takeaways and feedback

  • The 55% Suica/PASMO figure expresses the power of Apple Pay Express Transit (and similar for Osaifu Keitai) for store purchases in the COVID induced face mask era without the hassle of Face ID. It’s important to remember that the ballyhooed Unlock with Apple Watch Face ID feature introduced with iOS 14.5 is useless for Apple Pay authorization. Remember too that Mobile Suica has good support on wearables: Apple Watch, Garmin, fitbit, etc., the widest mobile payment platform in Japan.
  • Despite the heavy marketing VISA Touch from VISA Japan, the majority of users have been using Apple Pay and Osaifu Keitai for iD and QUICPay, etc. I suspect EMV ‘Touch’ (Visa, MC, AMEX, JCB) probably appeals more to plastic card users as VISA is pushing EMV only plastic cards vs. digital wallet dual mode Apple Pay.
  • QR Code payment apps (PayPay, dBarai, LinePay, etc.) are not as popular as you might think and are probably feeling the pain of recent bank account linking security problems, and the recent revelations of user transaction records being stored outside of Japan.

Changes quite a lot. Recently using EMV touch a lot because of SMCC 15% back campaign and Amex 20% at FamilyMart. Otherwise probably a little bit of everything just to get maximum reward. (Tokyo)

I don’t ride trains so I have no real use for Suica. Using it to pay in shops is too much of a PITA since you have to constantly recharge it. (Kagoshima, note that Suica Auto-charge only works in JR East transit region)

I do iD for the point rewards (none in JP CC recharge of Suica) otherwise Express Transit is perfect. (Tokyo)

Mostly Suica (via Garmin Pay), but I’ve been using au Pay (QR or barcode) a lot more recently. (Hiroshima)

Japanese reward point takeaway
Results are complicated. Twitter surveys are limited to 4 choices, I lumped the Japanese carrier reward point systems for docomo, au and SoftBank (dPoint, au•PONTA, T-POINT) into one category, the top choice at 43%. However if we break down the carrier number by carrier marketshare ratio we get the following:

  1. 21% JRE POINT
  2. 28% Rakuten POINT
  3. 19% dPOINT
  4. 14% au•PONTA POINT
  5. 10% T-POINT
  6. 8% V POINT

The key takeaway for reward points is the power of the Rakuten ‘Economic Zone’, i.e. where all the Rakuten pieces including shopping, banking/credit card/payments, transit (Rakuten Suica), mobile, stock trading, travel, etc., are glued together by Rakuten POINT and feed off each other. The Rakuten Economic Zone is the model that others will have to successfully emulate if they are going to be serious long term competitors. NTT docomo announced a tie-up with MUFG this month, the digital banking wars are just getting started.

QR Code user survey slight of hand

A recent customer sentiment survey regarding QR Code use and security from Ivanti is a classic case of marketing manipulation in action. Same survey, different titles:

The English title:
QRurb Your Enthusiasm 2021: Why the QR code remains a top security threat and what you can do about it

The Japanese title:
Is Japan a 3rd world country when it comes to QR Code use? Compared to 80~90% usage rates in China and the West, Japan remains stuck at 60%

The English survey summary highlights basic security problems to sell security software:

  • 47% or respondents claimed to know that a QR code can open a URL.
  • However, only 37% were aware that a QR code can download an application and only 22% were aware that a QR code can give away physical location.
  • Two thirds of respondents felt confident that they could identify a malicious URL, but only 39% stated they could identify a malicious QR code.
  • 49% stated they either do not have or don’t know if they have security installed on their mobile device.

The Japanese version highlights low Japanese QR Code payment use, and security software use compared with China to sell security software. It also heavily implies that Japan is behind China because of this.

Don’t know about you, but this kind of night and day spin is one reason I have stopped believing most market surveys. They are just too loaded. Give credit where it’s due: the Japanese Ivanti marketing department is certainly clever in spicing up a dull story. It’s their job. Download the English PDF and see for yourself.

JR East eliminating 70% of ticket offices by 2025 in ticketless push

In the run-up to the June 27 Eki-Net reboot next month JR East released a nice looking PR release with the first 2 pages promoting a ticketless future. On page 3 they dropped a bomb: JR EAST will eliminate ‘up to’ 70% of their ticket offices by 2025, just 140 stations or so on the entire JR East rail network will have the honor of having a ticket office manned by real people:

JR East has been planning this for years and report that in 2019 only 30% of JR East ticketing was purchased at a JR East Ticket Window (Midori-guchi). In 2020 that number declined to 20%. Could it be people were so tired of waiting in long slow ticket office lines they bought tickets elsewhere? Let’s be real though, the COVID pandemic has hit transit so hard all expenses that can be cut will be cut. You will going ticketless whether you like it or not.

So yes, we have Mobile Suica and Eki-Net Ticketless for regular express trains, Touch and Go Shinkansen, Mobile Suica and Shinkansen eTickets. By 2025 I suspect QR tickets will have replaced mag strip tickets. The Cloud Suica system coming in 2023 is said to power QR ticketing as well. All is good, I guess. Except for when you need help at the transit gate for some weird ticket problem, a smartphone that died before you got to the last station because you were too wrapped up playing games on it. What do you do? Press a button for an online station agent:

JR East says real station agents will be available to offer real assistance for disabled customers and such. We shall see. If JRE wants people to use Suica as much as possible they need to get Suica disability discount fares in order and working on mobile. Right now they are only working in the 2 in 1 totra Suica region. They need to work everywhere.