Another Google Maps Moat News Cycle

Buckle up map fans, another Google Maps vs. Apple Maps news cycle just arrived. In case you forgot the cycle goes like this:

  • Justin O’Beirne posts a new analysis
  • Tech writers swoon (Gruber following Heer right on cue) but one of them says, “I don’t use Google Maps, Apple Maps works just fine for me.”
  • Overseas commentators clock in saying “that might be true in the USA but Apple Maps suck here in XXX.

OK, after a long hibernation the once and future Apple Maps cartographer head honcho Justin O’Beirne is trolling his former employer again and posted his analysis of the iOS 12 Apple Maps reboot. It is very long so here is a summary:

The Apple Maps team is collecting lots of data all by itself and processing it in India <everybody knew that already>

But

Apple Maps still relies too much on 3rd rate 3rd party data supplies like TomTom, Yelp, Foursquare, etc. <ditto>

And

Apple Maps does a poor job of coordinating, editing and vetting different sets of data. Because of this Apple Maps really sucks at labeling and placing things correctly. <duh and duh>

The most interesting bit is the footnote at the end:Apple's New Map Footnote

O’Beirne knows his tech audience well. His ‘Google is sucking up ever more information and contributors who know how to label things for AR…how will Apple ever compete?’ line of reasoning is calculated to play well with that crowd because nobody will bother asking questions like ‘how will Google vet all those local map contributions’ and assume machine AI algorithms will take care of that along with geopolitics and human mischief. Who vets the vetters and how?

AI technology has its place of course but will never replace human understanding. A small team of smart editors can tie together maps, transit and booking into a handy service. A real team of local knowledgeable talented editors doing more with less is exactly what makes Yahoo Japan Maps a much better product than Google Maps or Apple Maps for Japanese users. Unfortunately this isn’t sexy or interesting to the Western tech crowd because it isn’t technology. So O’Beirne will continue to get the clicks and the praise. To which I can only say, another hit with the tech blogger crowd for Justin O’Beirne…you go Justin O’Beirne! It’s all great fun.

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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.

Lawson launches first Apple Pay NFC contactless rewards card in Japan

Payment acceptance marks at Lawsons 2
The Lawson POS screen will add Ponta NFC contactless to their ever-growing collection of acceptance marks

Lawson Japan announced NFC contactless support for the popular Ponta rewards card operated by the Recruit Group starting nationwide on November 7. The Lawson press release explains that iOS 12/watch OS 5 users with FeliCa capable Apple devices: iPhone 7 (JP)/iPhone 8/iPhone X and later, Apple Watch 2 (JP)/Apple Watch 3 and later can add a Ponta card to Wallet and use Ponta points for NFC contactless purchases.

Purchases made with Apple Pay Suica or Apple Pay credit cards automatically earn Ponta points without having to open the Ponta App or show a bar code. This is exactly what Apple was selling to developers in the WWDC18 Apple Pay session: no more messy QR or bar codes for Wallet cards and passes. Apple has also been using contactless NFC passes at recent Apple Events.

Neither Ponta Web or Ponta App can add Wallet passes right now so this means updates are due before the November 7 launch. Ponta rewards are issued and used by a large number of stores, hopefully the Lawson announcement is the start of a larger rollout and a mention on the Apple Pay Japan site. The less rummaging around to dig out a rewards card, all the better. It means I might actually use it more.

iOS 12.1 Apple Pay Suica performance issues (U)

Apple engineering closed my January 2018 iOS 11.2.5 Suica error flicker bug report with the release of iOS 12.1 beta 1: “We believe this issue is resolved in the latest iOS 12.1 beta.” Based on this iOS 12.1 includes bug fixes and performance improvements for Apple Pay Suica Express Card issues that users have experienced on iOS 12.0:

  • Express Transit Card transit gate error flicker
  • Unresponsive Express Transit at transit gate with Apple Pay authentication request
  • Suica Notifications stop working/Suica card balance doesn’t update
  • Slow or failed Apple Pay Suica Recharge attempts

Affected devices: iPhone 7 (JP models only), iPhone 8, iPhone X. Some Apple Watch users have complained of similar Suica problems with watchOS 5.0, the watchOS 5.1 update will hopefully address those as well. iPhone XS/XR are not affected by iOS 12 Apple Pay Suica issues thanks to A12 Bionic NFC features. Be on the safe side and backup your device before updating. See updates below for the latest information.

iPhone X Suica issues on iOS 12
The iPhone X Suica performance situation remains complicated due to the long running iPhone X NFC hardware issue and Apple‘s refusal to acknowledge it publicly. As previously reported, software updates do not fix the NFC hardware issue with iPhone X problem units manufactured before April 2018, the only fix is getting an exchange from Apple Support for a Rev-B iPhone X. See the iPhone X Exchange Guide for details. Rev-B iPhone X users who never had Suica problems on iOS 11.x report regular error flicker on iOS 12.0.

iOS 12.1 beta Suica performance
Reader reports of iOS 12.1 beta Suica performance were few but mixed. One reader reported that all versions of iOS 12.1 beta did not fix Suica error flicker problems on his Rev-B iPhone X. Another user also reported Suica error flicker with the iOS 12.1 beta, device unknown.

My experience with iOS 12.1 beta on iPhone XS was a positive one but as I wrote earlier, Suica on A12 Bionic is a whole new thing. Suica on A12 does not use iOS for basic operations. One strange episode with iOS 12.1 beta 5 proved this: Suica Express Card went dead, Suica notifications went dead but Suica kept silently working on every reader anyway. The closest thing to describe it is that the Express Card power reserve feature kicked in with iOS still up and running with plenty of battery power, and completely bypassed it.

Summary
I hope that the Apple engineering resolution of my iOS 11.2.5 Suica error flicker bug report means Apple Pay Suica performance bugs are fixed for everybody in the iOS 12.1 update. I’ll be in contact with Rev-B iPhone X users who experienced daily Suica error flicker on iOS 12.0 and will report their iOS 12.1 Suica experiences ASAP.


Update
Early feedback is not good: Rev-B iPhone X users are still experiencing transit gate error flicker with no apparent change from iOS 12.0. It looks like that issue has not been fixed for iPhone X Suica users. I will post updates as reports and details come in.


Update 2
Unfortunately some Apple Pay Suica Express Card performance issues are not fixed in iOS 12.1: regular error flicker continues to be a problem especially for iPhone X users on transit gates with some users even having troubles with convenience store readers. Meanwhile iPhone X users everywhere are reporting battery issues with the iOS 12.1 update. I wouldn’t be surprised if the issues are related. Apple clearly needs to keep working on Suica Express Card and battery bug fixes.

Traveling abroad with Apple Pay NFC switching credit cards

Japanese tech journalist Satoru Nakayama who posted his experience of riding the Shanghai subway with an Apple Pay Express Transit China card loaded on his iPhone earlier, continues his Apple Pay NFC switching global travel adventures with trips to Taipei and London. His Apple Pay Rakuten Mastercard which uses the FeliCa QUICPay network in Japan, worked perfectly with Mastercard Contactless readers overseas.

He noted that Mastercard Contactless is making rapid progress in Taiwan, encountering none of the Mastercard Apple Pay refusals he experienced earlier this year. London was also easy and he rode the London Underground without an Oyster card (MIFARE), using Apple Pay instead (EMV contactless). His picture highlights one shortcoming of using ‘Open Loop’ EMV contactless credit card payment for transit: no Express Cards.

Another problem Nakayama san encountered is that many London stores only accept contactless payment for purchases over 5 GBP or restaurants that only accept contactless payment for 2 people or more. This is a problem that Japan’s Osaifu-Keitai solved long ago: the “e-money” contactless payments system that Sony and NTT Docomo pioneered in 2004 covered both credit cards and prepaid cards. It also eliminated signatures, PIN codes and ‘no contactless payments on sales less than XX’ nonsense. Sony and NTT Docomo knew that people would not use contactless payments if they were not accepted everywhere without conditions, just like cash.