BOJ PBOC Currency Swap: Saving Panasonic’s China Market Disaster

The on again off again currency swap deal between the Bank of Japan and the People’s Bank of China is on again for the tune of a curiously small sum of 3 Trillion JPY. Those in the know say that kind of sum is useless for anything more than helping out a company or two, in this case a life raft for Panasonic’s disastrous China market business.

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MIA Google Pay Suica

Google Pay Suica.png

The Android Police “Google Pay v1.57 prepares support for Suica” news didn’t generate much interest in Japan. Osaifu-Keitai e-wallet service has been around since 2004 on NTT Docomo phones. All 3 major Japanese carriers have offered Osaifu-Keitai and Mobile Suica on carrier branded Android phones since 2011.

As the Japanese Tweet points out, installing Google Pay v1.57 doesn’t enable Mobile Suica in Google Pay, just the same EDY and nanaco cards that Android Pay had.

Google Pay JP
It’s weird that Google Pay JP uses the EMV contactless acceptance mark instead of the FeliCa one. Is this stealth marketing?

Why doesn’t Google Pay v1.57 support Suica out of the box? It’s complicated because Android FeliCa support is just one part of the complex Android hardware jungle. A quick review of Mobile FeliCa support basics is helpful. Most of what follows is compiled from Reddit user FeliCa Dude’s posts, his comment posts are the best Mobile FeliCa English language information source on the web. Abide in the Dude!

Certification
NFC-A and NFC-F support is required for NFC Forum certification for a device. NFC means NFC-A + NFC-F. NFC-B is optional. Apple uses NXP chipsets that support NFC A-B-F

Three ways to do FeliCa
FeliCa Level 1: Basic read and write, no secure element support. All phones with NFC certification implement this.

FeliCa Level 2: The above, plus support for a FeliCa-enabled SIM that embeds a secure element to handle mutual authentication. This is what is used in Hong Kong for Octopus Mobile. A similar NFC-SIM approach is used by EZ-Link which used to be FeliCa but migrated to CEPAS (NFC B) technology in 2009.

FeliCa Level 3: Osaifu-Keitai/Mobile FeliCa. This requires an embedded secure element in the phone itself (Mobile FeliCa), with specific per-device keys issued by FeliCa Networks. Using the Osaifu-Keitai system also requires payments to NTT Docomo who co-developed the Mobile FeliCa software stack with Sony.

Three ways to embed a FeliCa secure element in a device are:

  • A “Mobile FeliCa” IC from FeliCa Networks.
  • A “Mobile FeliCa” SWP SIM card with applet from FeliCa Networks
  • A custom vendor-specific implementation approved by FeliCa Networks (Apple Pay, Smart Octopus for Samsung Pay)

As far as I know, Apple is the only smart device maker that has licensed the entire FeliCa technology stack and ships it on every iPhone 8/X and Apple Watch 3 sold worldwide. Any user with those devices can add Apple Pay Suica and more right out of the box, a testament to Apple owning both hardware and software. Other smartphone makers choose to ship fully enabled Mobile FeliCa carrier locked models only in specific markets like Japan or Hong Kong, similar to what Apple did with iPhone 7 and Apple Watch 2.

You would think that Google’s Pixel 2 would be Global NFC ready but Google’s FeliCa HCE-F API  for Android Pay is severely limited and does not support most FeliCa payment systems. The Pixel 2 does not have a FeliCa compatible embedded secure element and Google crippled NFC-SWP on the device for some reason ruling out a ‘FeliCa SIM’ approach. My money says Google did this to keep Japanese carriers happy selling full bore carrier locked Osaifu-Keitai e-wallet Android phones from Sony, Samsung, HTC, etc. Pure market politics.

Android Pay in Japan was basically a thin wrapper over the existing Osaifu-Keitai stack, a marketing trick that confused Android users into thinking they could install Android Pay on a ‘global’ Android device and get the full suite of FeliCa services: QUICPay, iD, Mobile Suica, and all. This was not the reality.

Android Pay in Japan was limited and so far it looks the same for Google Pay in Japan too. If and when Google Pay Suica arrives it will likely be on Osaifu-Keitai /Mobile FeliCa enabled Android devices from Japanese carriers. Global FeliCa iPhone-like out-of-the-box Mobile Suica on ‘global FeliCa’ Android devices from anywhere looks to be a long way off.

The Daily Grind

The above tweet, from an iPhone X Apple Pay Suica user I’ll bet, perfectly captures the frustration experienced by a daily commuter: “I want to quit Apple Pay Suica, it’s so slow, yesterday it didn’t work. Mobile Suica is useless if I have to worry about it every time I go through a gate.” Some users like this one encounter the iPhone X Suica problem every commute of every work day. Apple not doing anything to fix it tarnishes iPhone X at a time when sales are apparently not doing well. It kills the killer Japanese feature of Apple’s killer product.

The line between a boring daily commute and a horrible one is so thin it’s almost nothing at all. The woman passenger with long, lose not so clean hair (the longer it is the less women are inclined to wash it daily) that drapes across my face and backpack in a packed car and clings on my clothes long after the encounter. The delayed train platform crush, The rainy day stinky train car. Small things in the crush add up into a stressful commute day but there is nothing one can do about rainy days or somebody else’s dirty long hair.

iPhone X Apple Pay Suica is different. Customers buy one expecting Apple Pay Suica to work quickly and reliably just like plastic Suica does. Except that it does not. When that happens it’s not just another small thing that adds up into a bad commute day, it’s also another small thing that adds up with clueless Siri, bad Apple Maps and more, to a negative iPhone X customer experience. For a Tokyo commuter on the daily grind anything less than a flawless, reliable Suica is nothing at all.

One thing I can say about Japanese customers after living in the country for 30 years is this: Japanese customers are quiet, fair, possess a dry, critical but practical way of dealing with things and are hard-nosed, some of the most hard nosed customers in the world I think. They like what is good, dislike what is bad, and simply stop using something that doesn’t work for them. But once they feel betrayed by a product, they silently drop it and never come back.

Angela Ahrendts had said that Apple is going to reinvest in the Japanese market after coasting on it for a few years. Fixing Apple Pay Suica performance bugs in iOS 11 would be an cheap, easy and practical place to start.

And remember Angela, if iPhone sells well with Japanese it will sell well with Chinese too.