Google Maps Japan has offered crowdedness transit information since June. The latest app version is expanding this feature:
If you need to take transit, Google Maps can help you more easily social distance with live crowdedness information. On Android and iOS globally, you’ll start seeing how crowded your bus, train, or subway line is right now based on real-time feedback from Google Maps users around the world (wherever data is available).
Crowdedness is missing altogether in Apple Maps Japan transit, not surprising as Apple is very slow adding new features and transit only just got around to adding train platform numbers. Google Maps crowdedness information is a welcome feature but be wary about the ‘real-time’ label with the ‘wherever data is available’ sticker.
As the announcement explains, crowdedness data is ‘real-time feedback’. In Japan the feedback is solicited in the app: ‘how crowded is your train’. This is a completely subjective observation and depends on whatever the person making said feedback thinks and feels. Manual feedback may not the only measure, but it is time and train specific beyond the capability of GPS and carries the most weight.
JR East provides crowdedness information collected from train and station cameras that they plug into the JR East app. They also supply this to Google Maps, Yahoo Japan Maps and other map services. Detail level depends on the line: Yamanote line train cameras and sensors provide car by car crowdedness and much more while Chuo line trains sensors only summarize the entire train.
The gap between Google Map feedback and JR East crowdedness data sets can be seen in Google Maps transit directions. JR East supplied data is highlighted in red text labeled ‘live’, Google feedback data is not. In the above screenshot Google Maps feedback lists the Yamanote train as crowded, JR East data does not. The take away: use transit agency data when available, after a few months of using it I find Google Maps feedback crowdedness data is, at best, subjective.
Apple flipped the switch for Apple Maps Japan ‘improved maps’ with Look Around for Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, and new map details nationwide. Initial navigation tests indicate turn by turn incorporates the new date for better directions. Siri also seems to have gained improved guidance with finer details: turn left, walk over the bridge, etc. Taken altogether, improved maps, improved Siri guidance, the new higher quality Japanese Siri voices and other Siri improvements will make iOS 14 a nice upgrade.
Tokyo area parks like Shinjuku Gyoen and Yoyogi are packed with new Apple Maps 2.0 details. A quick examination reveals Look Around is pretty much limited to roadside views. Major pedestrian data collection efforts are still ongoing across Japan through October and will be very important in rounding out both the feature set and improving navigation in later updates.
The Tokyo Olympics Update The Apple Maps team worked to get this major update ready in time for the, now postponed, Tokyo Olympics. It’s great that Apple Maps Japan users can enjoy the benefits of the effort and the fact Japan is the first country outside of the USA to get Look Around and Apple Maps 2.0 improved map data.
Look Around Impressions and Reactions The Japanese online reaction to Look Around has been largely positive. People seem impressed with the quality, the level of detail and the ease of use compared with Google Maps Japan Street View. The biggest complaints are, ‘I want it in my area too’, a good complaint to have, and ‘this street data is already out of date’, which is not. Things move quickly in Tokyo, the Look Around imagery is from spring~summer 2019 and people already notice the age.
Tokyo in particular has a lot of rebuilding going on in residential areas. I don’t know if this is because of the Olympics or cheap interest rates, but everywhere I see yet another building with scaffolding going up around it for demolition or makeover. Keeping Look Around up to date in Tokyo will be a challenge.
While main streets are covered well, the vast maze of Tokyo side streets have yet to be mapped and pedestrian maps are missing altogether for public areas like parks, shrines and temples all of which Google Street Maps comprehensively covers. Use Look Around on iPhone for a bit and you soon feel the ‘you can’t go there’ haptic feedback bump. Look Around Tokyo is off to a good start but has a long way to go.
And I still see evidence of long standing Apple Maps Japan data problems, in particular the weak Increment P supplied data. Even with all the great new image collection, ground truth checks will be a problem: it can’t be done with AI or from a car, and Increment P simply does’t have the quality manpower to do it.
This is where Zenrin would be a huge help, as they field a ground truth human team with no equal. Having Zenrin on board instead of Increment P would really truly make Apple Maps Japan, the dope choice.
Apple Maps Japan 2.0: New Improved Maps is not new Apple Maps Japan 2.0 is a tossup. Look Around is off to a good start but limited, and people complain about mislabeled places from poor quality 3rd party data suppliers which drags down Look Around quality. The more you use it the less it looks or feels like a comprehensive update. Justin O’Beirne posted a before and after collection of Apple Maps Japan screen shots.
As I have pointed out in many posts over the years, and as an Apple Maps team member admitted to me, there were two basic long standing problems:
Despite being a subsidiary of Pioneer, the P in Increment P, IPC data has never been a strong 1st tier quality map data supplier like Zenrin. Japanese users have complained that IPC takes years to update road and train station information. The further out from metropolitan areas, the weaker IPC map data becomes. This is something Apple can only fix by using a new supplier which they have not done.
Apple only used a subset of IPC map data mixed with OpenStreet map data. For years IPC pushed Apple to integrate all available IPC supplied data more effectively, it seems they finally worked things out and did this.
Apple Maps Japan 2.0 Summary The Apple Maps Japan update consists of: (1) the Apple created Look Around and, (2) finally incorporates the full set of IPC map data that Apple should have been using all along. Even though the map data and cartography is not Apple collected, they consider this a full blown ‘Improved Map’ update:
Look Around and a map refresh add up to a big update for Apple Maps Japan but it’s really just a new starting point. Apple image collection vans and walkers can only do so much and are hamstrung by the weak points of the Apple Maps team itself, in particular the poor integration of local data suppliers.
What is Apple aiming for in the long run? To equal or better Google Maps Japan and Yahoo Maps Japan? Or just be a better me-too map? Time will tell but the seven year 2012~2019 run suggests the latter. The Apple Maps Japan makeover challenge is just beginning.
Apple Maps Japan can’t catch a break. Traffic has been available since September 2019 but only got listed on the feature availability page last week, June 2020. Handa International Airport is currently listed for indoor maps but the data isn’t there. And so it goes for the Apple Maps 2.0 reboot. Here is a quick list of missing features along with some new feature requests.
There are several iOS 13 Apple Maps features that have not made it to Japan:
More accurate detail is always welcome but I don’t think Apple can ever get the whole picture by themselves especially with the 2nd rate Japanese map data supplier they currently use. Google Maps real genius is it’s deft ability to synthesize disparate data suppliers in a seamlessly whole service. Apple Maps biggest single failure, from day one to today, is it’s utter inability to synthesize various data suppliers into a solid service.
It’s a chunky clunky Japanese product, from eternally 2nd rate map data from Increment P (IPC) on down to 3rd rate Foursquare JP. Top Japanese map data supplier Zenrin is the logical choice especially since Google dropped them, but Apple doesn’t seem inclined to switch, nor could they intelligently integrate it.
August 2020 UPDATE Apple Maps updated Japan maps with Look Around for the greater Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya areas, and a full set of IPC data which has been available all these years, but Apple didn’t, or couldn’t, integrate it for some reason until now. Whether Apple call this ‘new maps’ or not isn’t clear. And at any rate it is not Apple collected map data.
Real-time Transit Another no-brainer transit feature for Japan, but Japan is a low priority and the transit system is complex. There are plenty of transit data suppliers but given Apple Maps limited ability to integrate different transit data sets, I think it will be a long time before we see the addition of real-time transit in Japan, if ever.
There are small tweaks Apple could make to transit directions that would make them much more useful such as transfer station platform numbers and crowd conditions, features that Google and Yahoo Japan have offered for a long time.
Junction View Navigating complicated elevated expressways in urban areas isn’t just in mainland China, it’s been a fact of Japanese urban driving since the 1960s’. Junction View like navigation has been standard in Japanese navigation systems for a long time, it should be standard in Apple Maps too.
Adaptive transit times: car and walk navigation is adaptive: if you take a different road the navigation route updates automatically. Transit directions need to be adaptive too.
Crowding information: Yahoo Japan offers crowd heat maps for locations, both Yahoo Japan and Google Japan maps offer rudimentary transit crowd information. In the COVID era crowd information for transit and locations is a must have feature.
Improved Apple Watch transit integration: Apple Watch turn by turn navigation integration with iPhone is excellent but transit integration is weak and passive. The current iOS 13/watchOS 6 version ‘sits on the wrist’ without alerts, haptic feedback or much interaction, and it’s brain dead after switching to another watch app.
Indoor/Underground Station Maps: Last but not least real indoor maps for vital station hubs covering Tokyo, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Osaka, Namba, etc.
Offline navigation: Apple Maps turn by turn won’t be completely reliable unless it navigates in expressway tunnels instead of dying.
Good news for long suffering Hong Kong iPhone users: press invitations labeled ‘Redefining Mobile Payments’ that went out to local media outlets on May 28 signaled Octopus for Apple Pay would finally launch on June 2, which it did in tandem with Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit directions just before 1 am June 2 local Hong Kong time. The press event took place at 12:30 pm.
OCL teased everyone when it first announced Apple Pay Octopus as ‘coming soon’ in July 2019, then ‘as soon as possible’ in September, finally postponing it in December for ‘later in 2020’ without explanation. This despite endless beta test leaks that indicated everything was ready to roll and endless launch rumors that never panned out. A timeline:
September 2017: Apple releases global NFC iPhone 8/X and Apple Watch Series 3 setting the stage for Octopus support
December 2017: OCL launches Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay
Global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch Apple Pay Octopus is just like Apple Pay Suica with Express Transit. It can be used on iPhone 8 and later with iOS 13.5, and Apple Watch Series 3 and later with watchOS 6.2.5. Apple devices from anywhere can add and use Octopus thanks to Apple global NFC support but practical use is limited to having a Hong Kong issue Mastercard, Visa or UnionPay bank card already in Wallet.
iPhone 11 Pro/11/XR/XS have the A12/A13 Bionic exclusive Express Transit with power reserve feature that gives users an additional 5 hours of Express Transit use when iPhone is in low battery power reserve mode. A12/A13 Bionic powered transit card performance is also much improved over previous iPhone models because the Bionic Secure Element directly handles transactions that eliminate iOS overhead. If Octopus on iPhone X doesn’t work well, check this support post.
Apple Watch is the first time Octopus has landed on a smartwatch. As a long time Apple Pay Suica user I can tell you that it’s the Apple Watch killer app. Octopus users will really enjoy the experience on Apple Watch especially when hooked up with auto recharge/Automatic Add Value Service (AAVS).
Similarities with Suica Octopus is based on the same FeliCa technology that powers Suica, both cards are very similar in scope and use for fast transit and contactless payments of all kinds. According to Wikipedia over 33 million Octopus cards were in circulation as of 2018 used by 99 per cent of Hong Kong residents. The ubiquity of Octopus with Express Transit for transit and purchases will drive Apple Pay use in Hong Kong far more than regular credit/debit cards.
Apple Pay Octopus and Apple Pay Suica both have the same fast Express Transit performance that no other Express Transit cards can match with faster gate performance than the recently added Apple Pay China T-Union mainland transit cards.
New virtual Octopus cards can be created directly in Wallet just like Apple Pay Suica cards or added via the Octopus app (v6). Plastic Octopus cards can also be transferred to Wallet but cannot be used after transfer.
Some attached services are not supported. Be sure to check Important Notes to Customers before transferring a plastic Octopus. Another issue to be aware of is that the Octopus card number changes when transferred which can cause problems with some card ID# linked services.
Not Inbound Friendly OCL limits Apple Pay Octopus card creation and recharge to having Hong Kong issue Mastercard, UnionPay and Visa cards already added in Wallet. It’s clearly not geared for inbound visitors. This is a shame because Apple supports global NFC on all devices which Samsung and Android devices do not, a key difference.
In practice this means any iPhone 8 and later from anywhere can use Apple Pay Octopus but only when a Hong Kong issue bank payment card is already loaded in Wallet. Suica is very different in this regard: it can be created and recharged in Wallet with any Apple Pay loaded card no matter the brand or country of issue, all without service fees. It’s a very inbound friendly deal for Japan visitors with iPhone.
Unfortunately OCL was limited by restrictive Hong Kong bank agreements and didn’t offer any Apple Pay inbound friendly solutions at the press event. Hopefully they will expand inbound bank card support down the road as banks realize the value of enticing tourists to use Hong Kong transit (see Updates for Octopus for Tourists).
Octopus was the first real transit platform (contactless transit and eMoney) that had a tremendous impact on the development of other transit card fare systems around the world such as Transport for London Oyster. However, OCL needs to aggressively expand Octopus services on other mobile digital wallets like Google Pay especially as MTR moves to add QR Code payment Open Loop support.
Apple Maps Transit Integration Hong Kong Apple Maps Transit directions launched in tandem with Apple Pay Octopus. It makes sense for Apple to offer both services as an integrated package as they did for the Apple Pay Suica. In Japan, Google Maps transit directions offer more detail and a better UI than Apple Maps Transit even though they use the same data suppliers. Your milage may vary but Google Maps transit directions for Hong Kong has been in place for some time and offers extras like crowding info. Another limitation shared with Apple Maps in Japan: no indoor station mapping.
Greater Bay Area Apple Pay Transit Compatibility Apple Pay Octopus is the last piece of the transit puzzle that delivers Express Transit convenience to Greater Bay Area iPhone/Apple Watch users who, up until iOS 13.4.1, were limited to China Union Pay (CUP) cards without Express Transit and plastic Octopus cards.
The recently released Apple Pay China T-Union transit cards are interoperable transit cards that work across the country, some 257 mainland cities, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO. China T-Union uses the PBOC 2.0/3.0 protocol, the Chinese variant of EMV with the slowest NFC transaction speeds, they are limited to UnionPay issue credit/debit cards for recharge and cannot be used for purchases. Octopus uses the faster FeliCa protocol and offers an open Apple Pay recharge backend for Hong Kong issue cards.
The advantage for wide area travelers is that they can now add both Apple Pay Octopus and China T-Union cards in Wallet. Having 2 different Apple Pay transit cards in Wallet may not be exactly the same as the dual mode Sold Octopus•Lingnan Pass but it should be close. It will be interesting to hear what the Apple Pay Greater Bay Area transit experience is like using both services.
Why the long wait? There has been endless speculation regarding the reasons for the Apple Pay Octopus delay. Technically it could have launched on iOS 12 but was held back for an unbelievably long test period over 2 major iOS versions, running from December 2018 and iOS 12 all the way to May 2020 and iOS 13.5, the last major release before iOS 14.
Why? Personally I always felt the unexplained November 2019 Smart Octopus service outage was an ominous sign that OCL plans were under political pressure. Other possible delay reasons include Apple Pay recharge card support and fee negotiations, and lining up Apple Map transit data. There’s no question that the go-slow OCL approach was not helped by the ever-deteriorating political situation.
The Apple Pay Octopus launch story was a long winding road with many ups and letdowns in the very difficult year of 2019. 2020 is also a very difficult year in a different way, though I hope it can still turn out to be a time of recovery.
I’d like to thank all the readers who shared Octopus tips and comments that let me report a complex, ever changing situation. I learned many things, the most important of which is that Hong Kong people are very kind and very smart. Wish you all a safe, healthy and happy transit wherever you go.
July 30: OCL released the Octopus App for Tourists, this is an iOS app for inbound iPhone users to add a digital Octopus to Apple Pay and recharge it. The app requires a foreign issue Mastercard, Union Pay or Visa and the user must select a non HKD currency when adding the card. This is forced dynamic currency conversion and is a card compliance violation: card users should be able to make purchases in the local currency.
While OCL does not charge an upfront Octopus recharge fee, the forced currency exchange average adds 4% compared with direct HKD purchases. This is customer gouging. Why Apple allows this on their App Store and Apple Pay platforms is baffling. The app adds and locks an Octopus card to a non-HKD currency for recharge and cannot be changed. See the Octopus on iPhone and Apple Watch tourist page for details.
June 3 8:00 JST: Octopus issues apology, “Due to the overwhelming response to the launch of Octopus on iPhone and Apple Watch, some customers could not add their Octopus between 11:30 am and 12:19 pm on 2 June,” and compensating some Octopus users June 2 12:00 JST: Octopus Card Limited site updated for Apple Pay Octopus and a press release June 2 09:00 JST: Apple Pay Octopus page added to Hong Kong Apple site with instructions for creating, transferring and topping up Octopus cards in Apple Pay June 2 03:20 JST: Octopus App v6 update released June 2 01:50 JST: Apple Pay Octopus has launched, rollout expanding in stages June 2 00:46 JST: Apple Pay Transit directions for Hong Kong appearing in advance of the Apple Pay Octopus
I’m not exactly sure when Siri added Japan Transit directions, but it didn’t work 3 weeks ago. I had basically given up hope on this Apple Maps wish list item, but had some free time today to kill with Apple Watch and viola. Transit directions. Transit is tricky because place names, especially Japanese place names and directions, depend on the context. For example when I asked iPhone Siri for the ‘next train to Gotanda’, I got a few route options to a place in Iwate prefecture. When I asked for the ‘next train to Gotanda station‘, iPhone Siri got it right. Apple Watch Siri however got it right every time.
Based on Siri tests in JP language mode so far, it seems like a solid service addition that users will find useful. I suspect it will be a very nice fit with AirPods Pro and will give it the noisy station acid test. It will be interesting to see online reactions and analysis from Japanese users. It will also be interesting to see if or when Apple announces transit directions for Siri. Traffic has been showing for months in Apple Maps Japan with no official listing on the iOS feature availability page.