The Contactless Tipping Point, Face ID Apple Pay and iPhone SE Reviews

Back in the different era of 2019, many journalists, both Japanese and gaijin, fretted about the Japanese fondness for hard cash and how things might change with the CASHLESS Rebate government program and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. There were signs that things might be changing. But none of this matters anymore. Forget it.

Everything changed the moment the Japanese Government requested school closure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on February 27, 2020. In Japan, as in the rest of the world, social distance, face masks and rigorous hand washing are now mandatory daily routine. Anything we touch is suspect. This includes money. This is why the COVID-19 crisis will rearrange the contactless payments landscape in Japan very quickly. Nobody wants to risk becoming sick from handling money or tapping public touch screens when they can pay without touching anything.

When living condition baselines changes overnight, it takes time for our brains to adapt. For iPhone users in the new era, Apple Pay has gone from convenience to necessity. Unfortunately Face ID doesn’t work with Apple Pay in this new face mask era. Actually it sucks. Snazzy technology turned albatross, Face ID was ultimately the wrong tech bet to make.

Fortunately for Apple they made a very smart move with the new iPhone SE that incorporates the A13 Bionic with Touch ID. For customers in Japan iPhone SE with Touch ID Apple Pay is the device that perfectly fits current conditions offering the best Apple Pay and Suica experience with Express Transit power reserve plus other good features, at a budget price. For many in Japan, and likely everywhere, Apple Pay use with face masks is a very important decision factor for purchasing a new device. It will likely be a factor in Apple’s bottom line the rest of the fiscal year.

Unfortunately most tech reviewers are still living in the past era of 3 months ago. This is understandable, but good reviewers should take everything into account. That’s why we read them. That’s why I was disappointed when John Gruber, who usually writes great stuff, completely blew it for me with his iPhone SE analysis/review/think piece that does not mention the face mask Face ID vs Touch ID issue at all. That’s the baseline purchasing decision point now. If Gruber needs to think about the issue, fine, but Face ID vs Touch ID in the face mask era is a huge factor buying any iPhone now and he didn’t cover it, any iPhone SE review that doesn’t cover that is worthless.

UPDATE
Gruber’s official iPhone SE review is out. He finally addresses the Face ID with face mask problem…way down in the footnotes:

I must point out here that Touch ID works just fine while wearing a face mask, and Face ID doesn’t work at all. That’s been a consideration for medical professionals and citizens of countries with a culture of face-mask-wearing ever since Apple introduced Face ID with the iPhone X in 2017. Now it’s a consideration for literally billions of us around the world. That’s not enough to even vaguely make me, personally, consider switching to the SE as my personal phone. But your mileage may vary, especially if the nature of your work requires you to wear a face mask all day, not just while out of the house on brief excursions. (But such jobs might also require gloves.)

A culture of face mask wearing eh? While not a snub, it sure feels flippantly dismissive. The footnote escape is a classic way of avoiding serious discussion, or taking the time to investigate the issue deeply for the benefit of his readers, or how it plays out here on regarding iPhone design and technology. iPhone SE is the most important product Apple is releasing this year. The reasons behind it’s unfortunate success deserve proper review and analysis.

All the top US tech iPhone SE reviews are similar and don’t go deep on it, in other words have fun with Face ID Apple Pay with face masks folks. Meanwhile here in Tokyo, stores are refusing entry for customers without face masks.

iPhone SE: Unfortunate Success

iPhone SE is here and perfectly matches the essential points outlined in October:

  • NFC background tag reading in place for new Apple Pay features going forward.
  • Touch ID that removes the Face ID face mask problem in markets like China and Japan, this issue has been constant blind spot in the western tech press, until now.
  • A13 Bionic for superior battery performance and Express Card with power reserve
  • Cheaper battery friendly Haptic Touch instead of the more expensive battery hungry iPhone 8 3D Touch.

And the budget price. The iPhone market position in Japan stalled with iPhone XS/XR as government pressure took away carrier rebates that had driven iPhone sales. The Japan market, like markets everywhere, was ripe for an updated entry level iPhone, but the Touch ID plus A13 Bionic combination is especially potent right now because of the face mask situation in the COVID-19 crisis, and social distancing driving people away from hard cash towards contactless payment use. Touch ID is still the best and stress free experience for using Apple Pay on iPhone. The secret sauce is A13 Bionic that delivers superior Suica Express Transit performance along with power reserve, and much more.

So what kind of user is the new iPhone SE aimed at? The Apple Store trade-in page suggests a big divide at the iPhone 7 Plus point, there is more resale demand for Apple Pay Japan compatible devices.

The challenge for Apple and carriers in Japan is getting pre-Apple Pay Japan iPhone users to upgrade. Many iPhone 6/6S users took the opportunity to get a cheap battery upgrade from Apple during the iPhone performance throttling brouhaha. A big reason why these users have been hesitant to upgrade is the Face ID with face mask issue. This is the dominate issue now for Face ID iPhone users, my own observation is that many people in Japan just turn it off and use passcodes.

Now that iPhone SE solves that problem with top tier Apple Pay Japan features and performance it will be very interesting to see how it plays out. We are already seeing signs that contactless payment use is growing in Japan because of COVID-19 social distance issues. As Tomo Hagiwara of Aquabit Spirals puts it…unfortunate success, behavioral transformation in action. This could be the most important Apple product launch in 2020.

iPhone SE will be a very big unfortunate success.

Apple Wallet Docomo d POINT contactless rewards card launching February 18

Apple Japan recently tweaked the Apple Pay web page artwork. Instead of 3 iPhone Apple Pay images there are now 4, one of which features the PONTA contactless rewards card. Why would Apple feature it only now when Apple has ignored PONTA since the October 2018 launch? Now we know why: the Apple Pay version of Docomo d POINT Card is launching February 18. Twitter user Ballpen caught a few early bird launch campaign posters outside a LAWSON store showcasing Apple Pay d POINT with a NFC mark, just like PONTA. The launch campaign will run from February 18 to April 17 offering 7X bonus d POINT when using Apple Pay at LAWSON.

The LAWSON POS is built around the Panasonic JT-R600CR reader that is Apple Pay savvy and supports the VAS protocol. Apple Wallet Ponta at LAWSON uses VAS (NFC A) for reading and linking reward card information with a purchase. Docomo d POINT Apple Pay will also use VAS but there is more to it. Docomo d POINT has a far larger Godzilla sized market footprint than PONTA, and Docomo is looking to streamline its siloed payment services: d CARD (plastic), iD (NFC FeliCa), d POINT rewards card and the new d BARAI QR Code payment system into an intelligently integrated service package that can best SoftBank PayPay market performance.

Docomo announced in November that it would merge some d Barai functions into iD with an updated iOS app at some point. It looks like that app is coming February 18 that adds the user d POINT Card to Wallet. The real question is how it works on the updated LAWSON POS system and plugs into iD payments. Do we say ‘Apple Pay’ at checkout like we do for PONTA points, ‘iD’ or something else? Tune in for details in tomorrow’s press release. Now if only JRE POINT would go Apple Pay, I’d be finally free from plastic reward cards cluttering up my real wallet.

UPDATES
Apple Pay Docomo d POINT Card is live, it works just like PONTA at LAWSON, say ‘Apple Pay’ at checkout then select d POINT or PONTA on the checkout touchscreen. There is a Wallet notification UI bug that displays the PONTA icon instead of d POINT when adding points but they are added correctly.

Toyota Wallet: if there must be another Japanese Wallet app, please let it be this

As I have pointed out countless times on this blog, Apple Pay Suica is one of the best Apple Pay services that Apple has hosted on its platform so far. The first transit card on Apple Pay remains the best: it combines the speed of the Suica transit card FeliCa architecture, the convenience of the Mobile Suica cloud, and the flexibility of the Apple Pay recharge backend.

The Apple Pay Suica sandwich: an open flexible recharge backend, sandboxed stored value (i.e. not hot wired to an app account), NFC FeliCa frontend.

This last point is under appreciated. The deal Apple and JR East worked out is the secret sauce: Apple Pay cards in Wallet just work for recharge, from Japan or from abroad, with no extra fees across the board, users earn points for the card of their choice. And users still have the option to recharge with cash if they want to.

A new kind of Wallet app
Toyota Wallet for iOS unveiled on November 19 finally gets right what other QR/Bar Code apps like PayPay have not: a flexible backend matched with a flexible frontend. A version for Android is due in the spring of 2020.

Toyota Wallet is built using the PAYCIERGE platform from TIS. The user has a choice between payment with QR/Bar Code in the Toyota Wallet app with Origami Pay or Bank Pay accounts, or payment with a dual mode EMV/FeliCa iD Mastercard prepaid card in Wallet with the backend recharge hosted from Toyota Wallet.

An interesting side note here is that both PayPay and Line Pay have said that FeliCa cards are a possibility. Up until now this has just been lip service. It would be a welcome development if the Line Pay/Yahoo Japan merger produces a FeliCa/EMV dual mode payment option similar to what Toyota Wallet has done.

Toyota Wallet is still not open in the way that Apple Pay Suica is. All of the ‘recharge’ methods are in the SMBC orbit, even iD recharge credit cards have to be SMBC issue (such as Docomo dCard) Visa or Mastercard to avoid hefty recharge fees. It’s not perfect and remains chained to the SMBC financial ecosystem, but Toyota Wallet does point a way forward that I hope Toyota Finance Corp. continues to improve, and that other payment system operators follow.

Summary
The Toyota Wallet flexible backend/flexible frontend development is a step forward for digital wallet possibility. This is the first Japanese wallet app where the frontend technology is a simple user choice, not a straitjacket. It shows the innovation possible in Japanese payments market where the focus is on creative thinking. That this kind of innovation comes first on the Apple Pay platform says all you need to know about Apple Pay being open. Compare this approach to the Europe one where the focus is forcing others to solve problems that Europeans should be solving themselves. That approach is a political one, not an innovative solution, or progress.

Docomo merging QR payment app functions into iD and Apple Pay

In a classic, ‘isn’t this how it was supposed to work all along?’ fumble, Docomo is finally doing the right thing by merging the ‘rush rush we have a QR Code payment app too’ dBARAI app into a rebranded dBARAI + iD with, eventually, better Apple Pay/Google Pay iD integration. The first step today is the refreshed Android iD add that merges the Android only dMini card into dBARAI (iD). An updated iOS dBARAI app will be coming later along with other merged functions.

This announcement would have made a much bigger splash a year ago, but with the Line Pay Yahoo Japan merger taking up everybody’s attention now, it feels like Docomo is fixing a mistake in reaction to the merger, which it is not. In the current Japan cashless payments market frenzy, timing and smart execution is everything, just ask 7pay.