Location aware Apple Pay Suica fixes the region setting problem

Changing the iPhone region to add Apple Pay Suica confuses a lot of users. Many are not familiar with region settings and what they do, and it’s far too easy to think that a Japan region setting is a requirement to use Apple Pay Suica, which is not the case. When it comes to iOS 13 Apple Pay and NFC switching, the region is a simple filter so that user only sees Apple Pay card options for a given region, not the whole Apple Pay world. In this situation region setting becomes a stumbling block, most inbound iPhone users are probably not even aware that they can add and use a deeply useful Japanese contactless digital transit card with a few finger flicks.

This is a problem because the current iOS Region preference setting mixes 2 different job functions. Twitter user Zetton neatly explained the issue: the iOS Region setting defines the cultural space the user lives in and how iPhone treats some data, but Apple Pay uses regions in a different way to show available location options. It is this user cultural space vs current location option dichotomy force fitted into a single region setting, that confuses users. This is why JR East created the one time use SuicaEng app that completely dispenses with region settings for adding Suica to Apple Pay. iOS 13 rolled direct Suica card creation into Wallet, look ma no apps, but the ‘change region setting to Japan’ to add Suica downside was still there. Until now.

There are signs that Apple is working around the region problem by presenting location aware ‘add Suica’ Wallet notifications. It’s not universal and impossible to test if you already have Suica, but it seems the separate ‘add Suica’ option also appears in Wallet based on user location in Japan, regardless of region setting.

I suspect the add Apple Pay Suica location prompt is a backend feature in testing phase. It’s a smart move because Apple Pay Suica on global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch is going to be the best way for inbound visitors to get around town during the Tokyo Olympic games this summer and Google Pay Suica is still not available for inbound Android users. Ditto the recently announced Android only Mobile PASMO. Apple has a golden marketing opportunity in Japan that won’t happen again, they should make the best of it.

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The Mobile PASMO announcement

Mobile PASMO was announced for Osaifu Keitai compatible Android devices running Android 6 or later, the service due to start in late March. There was speculation the service would launch at some point when the Mobile PASMO name was registered in late 2017. Here are a few quick observations based on extremely sparse announcement details.

  • Service is limited to the Mobile PASMO Osaifu Keitai Android app with a limited credit/debit card backend. Think Suica App without Google Pay or Apple Pay integration. You can register a single card for recharge hosted by the Mobile PASMO backend but users cannot mix and match cards like you can with Apple and Google digital wallets and Mobile Suica.
  • This announcement is cutting things awfully close for a March debut of a major service with a squishy start date and no user device profile due until just before launch. Japanese companies usually announce ‘coming this spring’ services 3~4 months in advance. This suggests testing is not very far along and not all PASMO rail operators are integrated for Mobile PASMO commute passes at launch. Long story short: we won’t see Google Pay or Apple Pay integration for a while, local Japanese reports are confirming this already.
  • Suica and PASMO systems are already cross integrated for auto recharge and commute passes at the transit gate and station kiosk level, we also have the next generation Suica format coming one year from now in early 2021. Reducing support costs for commute pass purchase and renewals by moving them online are a key target for both systems, growing integration of Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO is a given.

UPDATE
Mobile PASMO is a classic Osaifu Keitai app similar to 2011 era Mobile Suica before Apple Pay and Google Pay integration. That level of integration will require more backend cloud support and qualification but this won’t come easy for PASMO by itself: unlike Suica which is run by JR East, PASMO is an association of large and small private rail operators, only a few of whom have deep pockets and IT resources. The real question is how much JR East Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO will cooperate to deploy Mobile Suica resources and deep expertise to integrate the many different PASMO players and expand services for all.

Coming later this year attractions that didn’t make it, and one that did

Now that Apple is in full holiday season vacation mode, here is one last look at some promised ‘coming later this year’ services that didn’t make it (and a last minute one that did).

Apple Maps 2.0 USA
The highly detailed Apple Maps 2.0 remake was first announced in mid 2018 with a rollout to be in place for the United States by the end of 2019. The West Coast and Upper East Coast made the cut but half of Mississippi, the rest of the Southeast and most of the Central US are still missing (look for the green). This is not a good sign that Apple can deliver on their promise of providing better map services in Japan before the Tokyo Olympics.

UPDATE: A few hours after posting, MacRumours reports Apple Maps 2.0 data rolling out to all Southeast and Central areas following reports from Justin O’Beirne of beta testing earlier this month. I do not see updated map details from Japan yet but it will take time to show up on devices worldwide. Apple cut it close but kudos for keeping their 2019 delivery promise with 4 days to spare.

Apple Pay Ventra
The native Chicago Ventra transit card on Apple Pay is a big deal that was announced back in March. It represents the first major native transit card for the USA on Apple Pay. The much smaller Portland transit system HOP card landed safely in Wallet in May, but Ventra is still listed as ‘coming soon.’ The fault is not with Apple but with Cubic Transportation Systems who operate transit fare systems for Ventra, New York OMNY, Transport for London (TfL) Oyster, Sydney Opal, Washington DC Metro, and many more. For all of their supposed system expertise, Cubic was extremely slow rolling out Apple Pay Express Transit on TfL and has yet to deliver a single native transit card on Apple Pay or Google Pay. I hope Cubic does a better job in 2020.

Apple Pay Octopus
The Apple Pay Octopus ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ saga of 2019 was strange and ultimately sad. The Apple support side was all ready to roll with iOS 13. Octopus Cards Limited announced Apple Pay support back in July with ‘coming soon’ website artwork that was pulled when the launch was officially delayed on December 19. My take is that OCL parent Hong Kong MTR made, or was forced into, a political decision to limit services, starting with the unexplained service outage of Smart Octopus during the Hong Kong Polytechnic University siege. This is not a popular opinion.

Readers have reported riot damage to MTR infrastructure and suggest this might be a reason for the Apple Pay Octopus delay. I don’t buy it. Hong Kong MTR, or someone higher up, wants to limit services and control movement, not open them up. But this introduces great risk: moving people are moving money. Limit services and the flow of people, and you limit the flow of money. In this scenario Hong Kong doesn’t have a future. More than anything, I hope Hong Kong gets it’s future back in 2020.

Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit goes live, signals Apple Pay Octopus launch

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

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

UPDATE: a new Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) support mail address for Apple Pay Octopus has come to light.

Echoing the 2016 Apple Maps Japan Transit launch just before Apple Pay Suica, users in mainland China report that Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit is now live again after a long absence. Details visible in 2015 disappeared and have gone online again. The updated Hong Kong information is not showing outside of mainland China yet, this may change as the service rolls out.

Hong Kong is rather unique in that Apple Maps uses 2 different map data sources for the same area, AutoNavi map data for mainland SIM iPhones, another one for non-mainland SIM iPhones. Apple Maps China Transit is only available when the user is on local carrier networks. This situation is exactly why a Apple Maps Transit team member once told me, “Hong Kong is complicated.”

This development, plus the just announced Lingnan Pass and ShenZhen Transit cards coming to Apple Pay in 2020 suggest that the long delayed Apple Pay Octopus launch is coming this year as promised. I think we can expect an announcement from Octopus Cards Limited shortly. For reference Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay was announced December 11, 2017 with a December 14 launch. It would be very interesting if Tim Cook, currently visiting Asia, was in Hong Kong for the announcement.

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.