AirPods Pro Tokyo Commuter Quick Review

As a rule I don’t do product reviews, especially highly personal preference items like speakers and headphones. But after a few days of using AirPods Pro on the daily commute, they worth writing about. The original AirPods worked very well for my ears and losing headphone wires was a godsend. Far too many times the EarPods wire caught on some woman’s purse getting out of a crowded train with a violent tug that yanked EarPods out of my ears and sent my iPhone flying for the car floor.

The AirPods sound was good enough for my ears in quiet environments but as every train commuter knows, a quiet train is very rare. Meandering feeder lines like Tokyu Ikegami are so noisy on underpasses and bridges that serious music listening with AirPods is impossible.

My first 2 days with AirPods Pro were so miserable I seriously thought about returning them. The sound was thin and unbalanced. I swapped out the medium silicon tips for large and carefully played with the ear position. I was used to jamming in AirPods but AirPods Pro prefer a much lighter ear canal landing. Then everything clicked and I was sucked into a private listening space I never experienced before. It was like my very first Walkman experience back in college, with way better sounding earphones. Listening to music on the daily commute is fun again.

There are lots of noise cancelling headphones out there but I am very happy with the size and performance of AirPods Pro. The noise cancellation ~ outside sound balance is just right for my ears and the daily Tokyo commuter train grind, I hear only enough to keep me aware when needed. The toggle feature between noice cancellation and transparency mode is far more convenient than I ever imagined. AirPods Pro are certainly not cheap but if you are happy with AirPods on your daily commute I recommend giving AirPods Pro a listen at the nearest Apple Store.

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CASHLESS Rebate JRE POINT Pay Day

November 5 was JRE POINT CASHLESS rebate pay day, a grand total of ¥178. Big whup. After a month of using the CASHLESS rebate program, I can say that most of my Suica CASHLESS rebates are the convenience store instant transaction variety that do not use the JRE POINT system. I have also gotten more points out of the JRE POINT yellow logo 2% rebate campaign because I frequent Becks Coffee Shop and NewDays on the daily commute. Most of my cashless rebates are via my plastic Docomo dCard/Mastercard at the local COCOS Nakamura supermarket (the bento selection is real good, as is the fish).

Still, I’m glad to report that the system works as advertised. All the rebate points for October are in. My only wish is for more eligible stores to join the program while the deal lasts.

JAPAN CASHLESS Rebate Month 1: Supermarkets

The JAPAN CASHLESS rebate program has been up and running for a month already and the first batch of Suica JRE POINT rebates should be coming this week. One of the interesting aspects of the program is how it favors smaller family owned businesses with larger 5% rebates to encourage cashless payment uptake on the cash register side. Large chains like AEON and SEIYU (Walmart) are excluded altogether.

Finding a supermarket with CASHLESS rebates isn’t easy but fortunately for Asagaya area residents there is one: CoCoS Nakamura that just opened a store last year. They offer 5% CASHLESS rebates for purchases made with Mastercard and VISA cards, JCB is ‘coming soon’ (no contactless options), there are other CoCoS Nakamura stores in the east part of Tokyo. 5% off everything, effectively the rare 3% ‘jackpot‘ consumption tax rate until June 30 which is nice and a big cashless shopping incentive, I just wish there was more of it lasting longer.

Remember QR Codes? Well they’re the future…again

Hacker News and Reddit have very different user audiences but each have their share of ‘my experience is the world’ navel gazers. This is a plus: the comments are fascinating to read. The Andreessen Horowitz site posted a piece by Avery Segal, Remember QR Codes? They’re More Powerful Than You Think. Somebody posted it to Hacker and somebody else posted a link to my Transit Gate Evolution piece in the comments. I think it’s hilarious and insightful that somebody can look at the same QR code transit video in the piece and write, “The QR code video shows a ton of people going through the turnstiles quite fast.” A ton? Fast? I guess the commentator never experienced rush hour Shinjuku station gates.

Segal’s piece is a simple Mainland China travelog highlighting all the things people can do with a WeChat/Alipay account and WeChat Pay/Alipay integrated QR Code smartphone apps there. There is very little analysis and the opening paragraph reads more like PR, which it probably is. After all, Andreessen Horowitz is a venture capital firm though I can’t figure out if Segal is trying to sell WeChat/Alipay or QR.

Companies in the US have been slow to adopt QR codes, but those who dismiss them as having “been around forever but never taken off” underestimate their wide-ranging potential. Camera-based solutions like QR codes (or facial recognition, for that matter) can make traditionally clunky user experiences seamless and intuitive. QR codes connect our online identity to the offline world, allowing users to essentially log in to physical locations—and bring their data with them. This delivers a number of benefits: brands learn user preferences, while customers gain a more tailored and social experience, as well as perks like automatic loyalty programs built into every transaction.

The Hacker News crowd discusses the pros and cons of QR vs NFC, but I think that they along with Segal completely miss the point: it’s not the technology, it’s the service layers built on top of it and how well they integrate that really matters. Actually it’s the only thing that matters.

The Suica example. FeliCa is great NFC technology but nothing great by itself: the Suica card format built with FeliCa, the nationwide Transit IC card inter-compatibility built around the Suica card format, the Transit IC eMoney standard built on top of that, Mobile Suica, Apple Pay…each new service layer builds on the previous layers and adds value to the whole. The value is the quality of integration, a sum greater than the total of parts.

There are multiple layers in Apple Pay Suica but they all work as one.

The Transport for London Oyster card by comparison is not compatible with other UK transit cards. Oyster can be used for transit in the London pay as you go area (but reaching its limit) but does not integrate with anything else. TfL has put effort into EMV contactless bank cards for transit instead of developing new services and growing Oyster, but it’s interesting to ponder what the UK could have built by following a Suica-like transit platform business model.

China is a very different country and transit infrastructure isn’t a business. I’m sure that Alipay and WeChat Pay were allowed on host their QR code services on ‘public infrastructure’ because it also benefits the Chinese Communist Party in some way and helps the CCP steer society where it thinks it should go.

There is another important aspect that Segal and the Hacker crowd fail to see or discuss: central processing vs. local processing. The whole point of Transit Gate Evolution was explaining the Apple Pay Suica secret: a great local processing front-end (FeliCa/NFC-F/Suica) integrated with a great central processing back-end (Mobile Suica + Apple Pay EMV credit/debit cards). Segal assumes that central processing is everything and that the internet, mobile networks and cloud services are always going to work everywhere 100% of the time. They don’t.

Nobody talks about the implications of NFC tag Apple Pay that Apple is already field testing either. These topics would make for a great discussion. Unfortunately nobody seems up to the challenge.

Hands Free Suica

After iOS 13.2 hit the final beta I migrated my Suica from iPhone to Apple Watch to give watchOS 6 Apple Pay Suica a proper shake down. Even after only a few days I can already say that Apple Pay Suica performance on watchOS 6 is far better than any version of watchOS 5. Not only does it feel more responsive, Suica Express Transit seems more sensitive further away from the gate reader hit area, crazy as that sounds.

Going back to Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch also brings back a great feature I missed on iPhone: hands free Suica. Incredible as it sounds, Apple Watch is still the only wearable device for Suica, the only choice for hands free Suica. Once you get used to hands free Suica Express Transit with Suica Auto Recharge, it spoils you for any other kind of cashless payment. Hands free shopping and transit is a breeze that makes everything else feel like a huge step backwards.

Apple should be marketing the hell out of it in Japan but don’t. What a waste of a huge and exclusive marketing opportunity. When Apple Pay Octopus finally, finally, finally launches, I expect Hong Kong Apple Watch users will really appreciate hands free Octopus.