Road to Super Suica: 2 in 1 shared infrastructure and mobile transit card expansion update

The JR West Osaka Expo 2025 transit vision looks exactly like the Super Suica one

The October 21 announcement from JR East-Hachinohe City-Northern Iwate Transportation is the 3rd Super Suica local transit card and follows earlier Super Suica local transit card announcements for Utsunomiya Light Rail and Iwate Transit Co. Ltd. These fit neatly into the narrow definition of Super Suica as a local area ‘2 in 1’ transit card within the JR East region that hosts different transit company commute plans and reward points on a single card. New FeliCa chips announced in September have new features like ‘Extended Overlap Service’ to support the ‘2 in 1’ model.

The real test of Super Suica is the wider definition and how it plays with both private transit companies inside and outside of the JR East (JRE) region, JR Group companies and what infrastructure resources JRE is sharing to eliminate needless duplication and save costs for all players. In the COVID era of constrained public travel, reducing costs while maintaining good service is more important than ever.

On the mobile front I think we can safely say that Mobile PASMO is an unannounced joint effort between JR East and PASMO Association. Mobile PASMO service and software is Mobile Suica dressed up in PASMO colors, the penguin character swapped out for a robot. The JR West announcement of Mobile ICOCA one week after the Apple Pay PASMO launch is no coincidence. The Super Suica mobile template is in place and road tested, PASMO and ICOCOA are the first 2 customers.

Who’s next? Junya Suzuki pointed out that Suica and PASMO together account for 80% of Japanese transit card issue, ICOCA added in makes that 90%. The next largest market and logical choice is manaca, the Nagoya area equivalent of PASMO. Forget about the Kansai area PiTaPa, the credit card as transit card concept was a bust and will likely never go mobile unless it’s repositioned as just a credit card. JR Central’s TOICA has deep pockets, and it’s said that TOICA runs on Suica servers, but JR Central has a sibling rivalry thing with JRE that might get in the way.

I’m taking a wild guess but I think manaca will be the next mobile service announcement with the Kyushu area transit cards (SUGOCA and nimoca) following soon after. The next development to keep an eye on is the ‘2 in 1’ Super Suica local transit card model and if other major JR Group members offer a rebranded version of it in their respective transit regions.

From a western perspective people wonder ‘why not just have one national transit card and be done with all this nonsense’. A national transit card has been discussed by various Japanese governments from time to time, and gone nowhere. The shared infrastructure Super Suica model that aims to lift all boats certainly plays more to the traditional Japanese business mindset. In these challenging times that can be a good thing.

We all float

The float is essentially double-counted money: a paid sum which, due to delays in processing, appears simultaneously in the accounts of the payer and the payee.

Individuals and companies alike can use float to their advantage, gaining time or earning interest before payment clears their bank.

Investopedia

One of the great tragedies of the NYC MTA is that it’s a too-much-public-not-enough-private transit cash pipe with too much exposure to local NY politics. NYT has a wonderful video on YouTube that explains the critical MTA flaw: politicians cleverly borrow against the MTA cash pipe for pork barrel projects that have little or nothing to do with MTA, but leave it highly leveraged and helpless to fix it’s own problems or invest in infrastructure.

Think of what MTA could really do if it was effectively protected from political interference, with full control of its own money and a Suica-like transit+payment empire, free to use the float of all those MetroCards soon to be OMNY transit cards.

One of the many things never discussed about open loop is who uses the float, but banks hold the money until the user account is settled with the transit company and they take a cut of the fare. It doesn’t take much imagination to see why banks and credit card companies really like promoting open loop.

Closed loop Japanese transit companies don’t talk about the float either but Japan IC Transit cards are like micro bank accounts with unused e-money balance and plastic card deposits sitting in all those Suica, PASMO, ICOCOA, manaca, etc. Japanese transit companies love to put all those micro bank accounts to work earning interest.

Japanese transit companies and Hong Kong Octopus have built those micro bank account transit cards into a very nice transit payment platform business that combines transit, payments and other services attached to the card which means there’s a lot more stored fare floating around than plain old transit-only cards. The addition of digital wallets like Apple Pay Suica and Apple Pay Octopus means there’s ever more e-money moving through those cards with short term parking…more float for transit companies to earn interest.

It’s a wonder why more transit companies haven’t followed the transit payment platform model to capture more business in the digital wallet era, but it’s testament to how little control they have over their own business destiny. Next time when you hear the praises of open loop over closed loop, remember to think about who’s floating in that business arrangement…and who’s not.

The Ides of October

Yesterday, October 1, was the 15th day of the month by the lunar calendar. October is always a rush season of product announcements but the news cycle this year has been…well crazy doesn’t even begin to describe it. Part of the problem is COVID driven online announcement events. These were new and sorta cool 3 months ago but have degraded into slapdash scheduled info dumps.

It’s been especially brutal in Japan this week with the Docomo Account/Yucho Bank security crisis and NTT Docomo buyout stories soaking up all the media attention. On the ides of October we had Pixel 5, Wena 3 smartwatch, Apple Pay PASMO announcements, and the Tokyo Stock Exchange outage. Japanese IT journalists holed up at home or tiny APA HOTEL rooms are overwhelmed trying to keep up.

The Wena 3 announcement got a little lost in the shuffle but had some interesting e-payment developments: Suica, iD and QUICPay joined Rakuten Edy which has been on Wena for some time. It’s weird that Sony has taken this long to add, more or less, full FeliCa support in their home market.

Most of the online buzz was centered on Wena 3 Suica support which follows the Garmin Pay Suica launch in May. Wena 3 Suica shares the same Google Pay recharge backend that Garmin does, I suspect Wena 3 and Garmin both use Mobile FeliCa Cloud. The same Garmin restrictions also apply: no plastic card transfers, no Suica commuter passes, no auto-charge, no Green Seat upgrades.

That said I think many users will enjoy using Suica, iD and QUICPay wrapped in the strikingly designed Wena 3 lineup. My only regret is I don’t have one to tryout.

Dear Apple and JR East, we need Apple Pay Family Suica

watchOS 7 Family Setup is a bigger deal than many people might think at first glance. Apple Cash Family is just one part of the service with transfers from a parent’s iPhone to a child’s Apple Watch. It’s the most compelling Apple Cash use case I can think of, and Apple Watch for children without iPhone is appealing to parents in a way that iPhone by itself is not.

I’ve always said that if Apple Watch ever gained direct Suica loading with parental controls, Apple could make a killing selling it into the Japanese education market. watchOS 7 Family Setup is almost there for the JP market but needs one more thing: Family Suica.

Next generation ‘Super’ Suica is coming early 2021 and next generation FeliCa is shipping in November. We already have digital car keys in Wallet that can be shared and Mobile Suica will be doing a lot more on the cloud with Super Suica. Apple and JR East have all the necessary new features they need to create an insanely great Apple Pay Family Suica.

The service outline is simple and combines what car keys do in Wallet with digital key sharing and Apple Cash Family does with transfers and limits. A master Apple Pay Suica ID is setup on an iPhone and manages family member Apple Pay Suica on other devices. The master ‘organizer’ would transfer stored fare (SF) via Messages and set spending limits just like Apple Cash Family does. Simple intuitive convenience.

Apple Pay Family Suica also needs transferable commuter passes. That way a parent can set one up for a child, transfer it to Apple Watch and renew it remotely. Transferable commuter passes would also be handy in our COVID teleworking era as working parents might not need a pass every working day. A “hey honey can I borrow your pass today,” thing that plastic transit card users do all the time.

So far nobody has managed to to produce a smartwatch that matches the super convenience of Apple Watch and Apple Pay Suica. If JR East and Apple produce Family Suica, they would effectively future-proof both next generation Suica and Apple Watch in the Japan market.

Are Google Pixel 5 and Fitbit up to the Global NFC Challenge? (Update: Pixel 5 not)

It’s that time of year again to think about FeliCa support on the Google Pixel platform as Pixel 5 approaches. Ever since Pixel 3 things have been the stuck in a rut: the same global NFC (A-B-F) chip and Mobile FeliCa is in all Pixel models, but only Osaifu Keitai apps launch and run on Japanese SKUs. No Suica for you if you don’t have one of those.

I used to think that Google was going cheap instead of deep. Google is cheap here actually, and lazy, but there are some other reasons. It goes back to the problem many people had with Google Pay Japan FeliCa support to begin with: it’s only a UI candy coating on top of the aging Osaifu Keitai stack and apps. Instead of doing a true top to bottom Google Pay global NFC solution like Apple did, Google Pay Japan FeliCa support is just surfing on the Osaifu Keitai board. And of course the Android Pay HCE-F thing is long since dead, it’s eSE or nothing now.

One problem is this: Osaifu Keitai is a domestic platform, Osaifu Keitai apps (Suica, etc.) are domestic apps. The various Osaifu Keitai partners and developers don’t want to deal with the extra expense of multi-lingual localization and support. Neither does Google, hence the logjam.

Google’s recent purchase of Fitbit might be the agent of change that finally changes the situation. The Osaifu Keitai model doesn’t extend to wearables. Google Pay has to come up with something new to replace Fitbit Pay, something that works across paired devices seamlessly if Google Pay Suica is to exist on a Fitbit smartwatch paired with Pixel.

There is something new this time around that didn’t exist, or at least didn’t exist as a marketed developer product back in 2018: Mobile FeliCa Platform and Mobile FeliCa Cloud for supporting all kinds of Mobile FeliCa services worldwide. This arrangement got us Suica on Garmin Pay.

Taken together I think there is a better chance Google will go deep instead of cheap, hopefully sooner than later. Google Pay Suica and Google Pay PASMO on Pixel and Fitbit devices from anywhere would be a very welcome development.

Update: Not labeled on diagram

Pixel 5 was announced and FeliCa support is still limited to JP models, more cheap instead of deep. Pixel support pages (screenshots) list FeliCa support in the ‘Not labeled on diagram’ section with Osaifu Keitai links and this new bit: “To use FeliCa on Pixel 4 and later Pixel phones you’ll need 4 apps that should automatically open during setup.” This is the enablement step that Google blocks on non-JP Pixel models. The strange thing is that Mobile FeliCa is hiding in plain sight on all Pixel models, if Google wanted to they could allow enablement remotely.

This confirms the FeliCa situation won’t change for Pixel until Google builds their own Google Pay replacement for Osaifu Keitai software instead of candy wrapping it. It all comes down to what Google wants to do regarding Suica support on Fitbit. Something will have to change in Google Pay if they want to do that.