iOS 12.1.1 Suica Express Transit Performance

Apple has never issued an iOS update that specifically mentions Suica or Express Transit Card performance, so each update becomes a guessing game of what’s fixed and what’s not. iOS 12.1.1 was released December 6 in Japan and there has been very little mention of Suica performance on Twitter. Not necessarily a good thing, if performance has changed dramatically, good or bad, people tweet about it.

I reached out to a few trusty Revision B iPhone X Suica user sources. They report no change from the buggy Suica performance they’ve experienced since upgrading to iOS 12. A few iPhone 8 users have also complained about buggy Suica performance. My experience with Suica Express Transit on iPhone XS continues to be excellent though Apple Pay Suica recharge performance is poor when recharging from a Suica notification short cut.

Here’s the iOS 12.1.1 performance score as I see it:

  • Suica Express Transit performance on pre A12 Bionic iPhone: B-
    • Occasional error flicker at transit gates
    • Unresponsive Apple Pay Suica recharge, 50% failure rate when recharging via Suica notifications
  • Suica Express Transit performance on A12 Bionic iPhone: A-
    • Unresponsive Apple Pay Suica recharge, 50% failure rate when recharging via Suica notifications

As pointed out in earlier posts Suica Express Card with power reserve on A12 Bionic is a significant departure from previous devices both in operation and performance. Also the iOS 12 Suica Express Card error flicker issue is a iOS 12 software issue that is completely different from the iPhone X Suica NFC hardware problem.

The quick summary is that Suica Express Card performance has not improved from iOS 12.1. We’ll have to wait until iOS 12.1.2 and try again.

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SoftBank Outage Outs QR Code Weakness

The December 6 Ericsson induced SoftBank network outage could not have come at a worse time for SoftBank. The outage took down voice, data and SoftBank WiFi hot spots along with the just launched SoftBank/Yahoo Japan QR Code PayPay platform which was already off to a rocky start. Line Pay experienced serious problems as well.

Many SoftBank iPhone users on Twitter assumed Apple Pay Suica wouldn’t work without a network connection and they would be stranded, but this was not the case, Apple Pay works fine without a network connection. As Apple says in Using Suica on iPhone or Apple Watch in Japan:

Your iPhone or Apple Watch must be turned on, but it doesn’t have to be connected to a network. You don’t need to wake or unlock your device or open an app when you enter or exit the ticket gates. You’ll see Done and a checkmark on the display.

A network connection is necessary only when recharging Suica with Apple Pay, but not for an old fashioned cash recharge which can be done at any convenience store checkout, JR station smart charge kiosk or 7-Eleven ATM.

The network outage clearly reaffirmed the strengths of stored value cards like Suica: payment transaction processing is local and works without a network, stored value money and adding cash works anywhere, anytime. The outage also highlighted the perpetual QR Code weak point, they don’t work when networks are down.

There is also an important but overlooked advantage in this age of digital wallets, Suica is also a plastic card, the ultimate portable hardware backup in case of emergency or for elderly people who don’t like using mobile phones for anything other than, you know, talking.

The lack of a physical backup is what ultimately kills QR Codes as the front end transit payment solution. QR Codes will always work best in the role they are suited for: a backup role for adding money to smart cards or one-off ticket/coupons when neither time nor speed is a concern.

New Apple Pay Suica ads

Google Pay Suica has been getting most of the JR East Suica marketing love these past few months but Apple Pay Suica is not down and out. JR East posted some new Apple Pay Suica ads on their website refresh which hopefully means that posters and train wrappers are coming soon.

In light of the coming changes in the Japanese mobile market, Apple is smart to market strengths, like Apple Pay Suica, instead of covering weaknesses, like iPhone XR pricing, with cool. Cool works best when you can rush out and impulse buy.

Why Apple Pay Suica is a success and Apple Maps is not

Inbound Apple Pay Suica user experiences are endlessly fascinating and occasionally enlightening. This tweet video captures the usual ‘whoa, that’s fast’ first time reaction.

The responses are equally interesting with a few ‘so what? we have that in (London, Moscow, China, etc.)’ which is true but it’s not the same. Almost all of them are slower, don’t have e-money functions, don’t have nationwide coverage and are not hosted natively on pay platforms like Apple Pay or Google Pay. They rely on slow buggy EMV contactless credit card transactions on transit gates instead, in short they are not transit payment platforms.

Apple Pay Suica is clearly a great service and success that has not only changed contactless payments in Japan but changed Apple as well, with Apple incorporating global FeliCa and implementing A-12 Bionic powered Express Card with power reserve technology which matches the performance of dedicated Sony FeliCa Chips on the A-Series.

What makes Apple Pay Suica a success? It is a unique layering of hardware and software that tightly integrates into a single seamless experience. At the core is the basic Suica IC card format and the transit gate system technology created by JR East and Sony in the 1980s to solve a user experience problem with magnetic commuter pass cards. Successive layers were added over time: e-money, nationwide Transit IC card interoperability, and perhaps most important of all, Mobile Suica. The Super Suica additions will further enhance the fundamental technology in 2021.

Apple Pay support arrived in October 2016, global FeliCa was added in 2017. These were 2 layers from Apple that fit perfectly and extended the entire platform with a whole new ease of use service level. The result is a service where each layer builds on and enhances the whole. This is Steve Jobs 101: work from the user experience back to the technology so that the total experience is greater than the sum of the parts.


The Apple Maps problem
Contrast this with Apple Maps. Justin O’Beirne recently published a detailed progress report of Apple’s ‘new’ (in America only) map. There was surprisingly little discussion on tech blog sites, Nick Heer was one of the few to share a few observations. O’Beirne and Heer both focus on data collection and prioritization as the core problem for Apple to fix if Apple is ever going to close the map gap with Google. I think that is a misconception that got Apple Maps in trouble in the first place.

I’ve never seen data collection as the biggest problem that Apple needs to fix. In Japan for example the data collection problem can be solved quickly by swapping out 3rd rate data suppliers with first tier JP suppliers like Zenrin who already field large data collection and verification teams. Google and Yahoo Maps Japan both use Zenrin and build on top of that solid foundation with their own data.

Integration and coordination have been, and continue to be the biggest problem. If Apple cannot do a good job integrating and coordinating different map service layers so that they build on each other, it will continue to be what it is now: a collection of loosely connected technology services that don’t work together very well and tend to pull each other down instead of up. A few examples:

  • Transit
    Apple has a very good Japanese transit data supplier Jourdan, the same one Google uses. Unfortunately the good transit data gets wasted by the limited search and sort App Maps transit UI that is completely manual, doesn’t dynamically update travel times or arrival estimates, or even provide location-based alerts when you arrive. Those kinds of integrated transit notifications on Apple Watch alone would sell a lot more devices.
  • Siri
    Siri is one the most important service layers for integrating navigation, transit and indoor maps. Unfortunately Siri is poorly connected where it should be hooked into every nook and cranny. Japanese Siri can locate the nearest station, usually, but that’s it. Siri doesn’t do transit searches or suggestions.
  • Navigation
    Turn by turn has been offered in Japan for a few years but it still basically useless without traffic information, which is still missing. Lane Guidance was only added just recently.
  • Data Duplication
    This happens all the time as Apple fails at coordinating and verifying data sets from different JP suppliers.

And so on. I included data duplication as it illustrates my basic point that no matter how good the basic data collection is, it’s worthless without a robust integration and coordination process. A smart team of human editors with deep local knowledge understand how services should connect, what works and how it should work. A truly  great team also knows how to focus and do more, much more, with less. This is impossible to achieve with the current one size fits all mentality.

Apple Maps Japan is a classic ‘the total is less than the sum of its parts‘ product. To be sure there are some good parts, but in Japan they don’t add up. The different layers stay separate and never integrate into a seamless whole like Apple Pay Suica does. It’s great that Apple is making process with its map reboot effort in America but the real test will be how well they integrate it all. A laser focus and smart integration is the only way Apple can close the map gap with Google.

Apple Pay Suica Express Card Performance Timelines

Express Cards on iOS/watchOS have a special place on the Apple Pay platform. First of all there are only 3:

Express cards share common features:

  • they are stored value
  • they can be recharged with Apple Pay credit cards or cash
  • they don’t require Apple Pay authentication
  • they are multi-purpose and are used for purchase, transit and opening door locks

Apple Pay credit/debit cards in both EMV or FeliCa flavors use middleware to work the transaction magic but Express Cards like Suica and Student ID don’t use middleware. They are pure card emulation residing in the super exclusive PassKit-NCF Certificate Nirvana zone where they can do anything they want.

There is a weakness on pre-Bionic architecture however: iOS/watchOS has to babysit all the card emulation and is a somewhat fragile. Changes in the OS affect performance and reliability. Here is a timeline of my experiences with iOS 10 Apple Pay Suica Express cards on the iPhone 7 JP model.

iOS Suica Express Performance Timeline

Apple Pay Express Card performance on pre-Bionic hardware tends to be cyclical: each new iOS has unstable performance at first but improves with later updates. It happened with iOS 11 and the rocky Apple Pay Cash start. And it’s happening again with iOS 12 and iOS 12.1 both of which have Express Card performance issues.

iOS Suica Express Performance Timeline 2

That is why A12 Bionic and Express Cards with reserve power are a big deal. Express Cards with power reserve are the latest Apple Pay Wallet feature to arrive with A12 Bionic on iPhone XS and iPhone XR. Express Cards with reserve power operate without iOS up and running and bypass iOS for basic operations even when it is running. This removes a huge layer of potential problems. My experience with ‘bulletproof’ Apple Pay Suica Express cards on iPhone XS simply blows everything else away.

At some point this feature will be standard across iOS and watchOS. The reliability benefits are huge, as is peace of mind in a power pinch.

And finally there is iPhone X Suica Express Card performance which is in a dog league all its own. Taken together with the iOS 11~iOS 12 timeline, it illustrates how complicated and confusing the current iOS 12 situation is for iPhone X Japanese users. Until Apple comes clean and provides some guidance for iPhone X devices with defective NFC, I don’t see things improving for these users. I’m glad to be out of it but cringe reading iPhone X user experiences and feel for the users as I’ve been there myself.

Suica Express Card performance and iPhone X production timelines compared
iPhone X only had 6 months of defective free NFC production. Until Apple goes public with the iPhone X NFC problem, many users will never know they have a defective device. Taken together with the iOS 12 performance issues, it’s a perfect storm of confusion.