Suica joins Coke ON IC, is it worth it?

Coke ON is one more point gimmick app that offers a free beverage for points, bottle top ‘stamps’, earned with purchases via FeliCa/Coke ON IC (Transit IC, Rakuten, nanaco, PiTaPa, WAON), credit cards and QR (LinePay, PayPay aka Line PayPayPay) linked via Coke ON. Up until now Suica was excluded from earning stamps but will join the other Coke ON IC cards starting January 14.

The Coke ON app is not particularly user friendly. It wants your data, your location and your Bluetooth to connect to Bluetooth enabled Coke vending machines. And it seems overly aggressive, at least according to a very long Twitter thread. I’m not sure what exactly the issue is for the user but it seems related to location services and suspect card reads.

Japanese users have complained about Apple Pay Suica location based transaction notification details since the default feature appeared with the iOS 12.2 Suica make over. I have no problems using Apple Pay Suica on iPhone 11 Pro to buy drinks without Coke ON. The problem described in the tweet thread could be a Coke ON incompatibility with Mobile Suica despite Suica compatibility listed on the vending machine side. Hopefully this is fixed for the Coke ON Suica debut, however I don’t plan on giving away my iPhone data to collect Coke ON app bottle top stamps.

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2019 Tidbits

The end of the year season is down for the count. Barring any news items like Apple Pay Octopus really launching this year, this is probably my last news post for 2019. Not news really, just tidbits.

Lingnan Pass and ShenZhen transit cards coming to Apple Pay in 2020
This piece of news came from Twitter users noting that the Lingnan Pass will come to Apple Pay in 2020. The Lingnan Pass and ShenZhen Transit pages show announcements released today (December 11), a machine translation roughly says Apple Pay support is coming soon. China has had the PBOC 2.0~3.0 contactless standard and T-Union transit card architecture in place for some time, with local transit cards slowly being updated to the new format. Beijing and Shanghai transit cards arrived on Apple Pay with iOS 11.3. Additional China transit cards were tested in an early developer preview of iOS 11.4 but dropped before the developer beta. Beijing/Shanghai transit cards were labeled beta up until iOS 12.2. Apple Pay Lingnan Pass and ShenZhen Transit will likely follow the Beijing/Shanghai transit card model with bank card recharge limited to China Union Pay (Interesting side note: Octopus and Lingnan Pass have a dual mode transit card). If Tim Cook does visit Hong Kong and China on his trip, things might shape up to be an excellent Apple Pay transit card year end Asian adventure.

Tim Cook’s Excellent Asian Transit Adventure?
The Tim arrived unannounced in Tokyo a few days ago, his first public appearance here since September 2016 and the first public demo of Apple Pay Suica just before the service launch. With Tim’s arrival in Tokyo I noticed an odd uptick in views from Hong Kong. When Tim landed in Singapore, Hong Kong views ticked up again. Obviously Hong Kong iPhone users are hoping that Tim will visit Hong Kong and launch the long delayed Apple Pay Octopus. I hope so too. Update: Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit information is available to China mainland users after a long absence.

12/19 UPDATE: Apple Pay Octopus has been delayed to later in 2020.

1/8 UPDATE: Apple announces new transit cards for China but not Octopus

Apple Pay Ventra
This was promised as ‘coming later this year’ back in May. As of December 10 Ventra Twitter support is still promising users to “stay tuned.” Let’s hope Cubic is working overtime to make it happen. Update: Ventra has changed the Apple Pay Ventra blurb from ‘coming later this year’ to ‘coming soon,’ we’ll see Apple Pay Ventra in 2020.

JP POST going Cashless
This was announced some time ago but is worth repeating: Japan Post is going cashless starting February 2020 in select central post offices, rolling out to all branches by May 2020. Your favorite plastic credit cards, eMoney cards (iD, QUICPay, Suica, etc.) and QR Codes (The PayPayPay crowd) can be used to pay for postage, sending packages, stamps, postcards, catalog items, etc. It would be nice if cashless payments improve post office lines and wait times, but I guarantee that’s not going to happen.

Sony, JR East, DNP, Aquabit Spirals team up for NFC tag payments

The JR East, Sony, DNP, AquaBit Spirals tie-up for NFC Tag payments

AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomo Hagiwara took up my challenge earlier this year to raise the Japanese Softcream Cashless Index (SCI) to ‘over 5’ in time for the Tokyo Olympics. I figure if mundane softcream stalls are cashless, Japan is truly cashless. Today his company is teaming up with industry heavyweights JR East, Sony and DNP to deliver on that promise and bring inexpensive MaaS (Mobility as a Service) NFC tag payments (via AquaBits SmartPlate) to the masses, and the masses of merchants who don’t want to shell out for NFC reader checkout hardware. It’s the first real NFC challenge to inexpensive, infrastructure light QR Code payment schemes that leverage the established base of mobile networks and smartphones. Small businesses only need to sign up for an online payment service and put a NFC tag sticker on the checkout counter.

Since all NFC flavors (NFC A-B-F) are required for smartphone NFC certification, Read/Write FeliCa tags work on any smartphone with NFC-F even if FeliCa transactions keys for card emulation (Suica, iD, QUICPay, etc.) are not installed. Translation: inbound Android devices can use NFC tag FeliCa payments even if they can’t use Suica.

The one remaining question on the Apple side of the equation is what NFC tag integration Apple Pay has in store. Jennifer Bailey announced NFC tag Apple Pay testing back in May without a delivery date, and no details since. Ideally an NFC tag integrated Apple Pay would use Sign in with Apple to streamline or eliminate 3rd party payments service account signup within an app, and without an app via background NFC tag reading. The more ‘it just works’ integration, the better. Nobody wants to signup for a PayPay-like service on the spot just to buy hotdogs and beer at a stadium game, or softcream.

Update: JR East issued an English language press release

The QR Code JR Gate Equation

The new Takanawa Gateway station transit gate pictured in the JR East press release

Every year my office sponsors a company trip. This ‘company spirit’ building practice used to be standard in Japan but the custom has eroded considerably since the end of the bubble era. It’s the first ‘unnecessary expense’ item inbound hedge funds always cut when they get a say in Japanese company management: it’s much easier to let staff go when said staff hasn’t spent any time getting to know each other outside of the company setting.

The Group Ticketing Dilemma
Most of the company trips are by Shinkansen but the tickets are group tickets arranged through a travel agency who negotiate with JR East/Central/West depending on the final destination. Group tickets are paper tickets with no mag strip on the back. A group ticket or similar paper only items like special discount passes for the disabled have to handled by a station gate agent booth. The standard transit gate layout for JR East stations is a mix of Suica only ‘IC’ gates, mag strip paper ticket + Suica gates and a single gate agent booth.

Gate agent booths are choke points. Because they can only handle one special task at a time, one person with a problem holds everybody up. Our company group nearly missed a Nagoya station Shinkansen transfer connection on the return leg when a Chinese woman tied up the one and only station agent for 10 minutes with a problem that could have been taken care of at a ticket sales window, not a gate agent.

The next generation Suica architecture (aka Super Suica) in 2021 will solve many problems but it won’t solve everything. Group ticketing, special passes for disabled users, and other one-off tickets don’t fit in the Suica box, or even the regular mag strip paper ticket box. This is one problem I suspect the new Takanawa Gateway station Suica + QR Code transit gates are designed to fix.

Disposable paper tickets with a QR Code solve group ticketing very nicely: the travel agent can print them out instead of going to the JR station, they can be reprinted in case someone loses one. An app version is certainly possible but only an extra option for people with smartphones (think school children on a day trip). QR Codes might work well as a replacement for inbound paper Japan Rail Passes.

It’s not about speed, Suica or smartphones. It’s all about freeing up those increasingly rare and harried transit gate agents from the mundane task of validating one off paper tickets so they can take care of transit users who really need their help. I can’t think of a better use case for putting QR Code readers on JR East Suica transit gates.

Regular Mag Strip Ticket Costs
The only question remaining in my mind is what strategy JR East will chose to retire regular mag strip tickets and reduce costs. Those intricate, and fast, OMRON mag strip ticket machines are an engineering marvel. However, even though QR Codes and central processing are slower, the front end machine is much less expensive and easier to maintain. The magnetic strip paper itself is also expensive and less environmentally friendly than other paper. We will find out what JR East is really planning when the new Shinkansen eTicket system launches next spring, just about the time that Takanawa Gateway station goes into operation.

Omron states the speed of their mag strip gate machine is within 600 Milliseconds, but how long will they be around?

Right now JR East has 2 basic ticketing systems:

  • Suica
    Fast, less expensive fare tier for regular transit, Mobile Suica support for Apple Pay and Google Pay credit/debit card recharge, Shinkansen eTickets and discounts, Green Car upgrades, commuter passes, etc.
  • Paper Tickets
    Slow, more expensive fare tier for regular transit, cash purchase only for local travel, credit card purchase for express train and Shinkansen tickets

I think the next step of migrating mag strip paper ticketing to QR Code is pretty clear. I’m sure JR East will continue to offer the same basic choice: faster cheaper Suica fares with a wide range of attached services and discounts vs. slower more expensive paper ticket fares with fewer services and discounts. They will probably offer an app with QR Code support as but I see it as a simple extension of QR Code paper tickets, i.e. it won’t get the less expensive Suica fares or services. And don’t forget the ultimate Suica advantage: touchless walkthrough gates.

Another week, another new JR East gate design

JR East sure has a lot of irons in the fire. We have Super Suica, the new eTicket system, the Touchless walkthrough gate, and now we have yet another new gate design mentioned in yesterday’s press event release for the new JR Takanawa Gateway station due to open in spring 2020.

This 2nd design is supposed to be wheelchair friendly with the Suica reader on the right hand side rather than on top. It’s not as wheelchair friendly as the touchless walkthrough gate and downright hostile for left hand Apple Watch users which Japanese users have tweeted and complained about.

And it has a QR Code reader on the front. Don’t hold your breath because it is only for “testing and evaluation” purposes in a new station with initial low passenger traffic. There are still one-off paper ticket variations without mag stripes that don’t work on the current Suica architecture or on ticket gates and have to be collected by a station agent.

Those low volume specialty tickets would fit well with QR Code as JR East migrates away from paper ticketing all together. Osaka Metro have said they plan to test other technologies such as face recognition. I have no idea if those systems will work any better than Face ID for face mask wearing hay fever and flu suffering transit users. It doesn’t sound fun.

The vague JR East press release wording, and the wheelchair specific design suggests these gates will not be universal at Takanawa Gateway station. They will probably be installed in the manned booth areas to free up station agents to deal with more important business.