Siri Adds Japan Transit Directions

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.

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iOS 13.4: Apple Pay Suica making way for Mobile PASMO?

The iOS 13.4 update adds a few interesting UI tweaks to Wallet and Suica. On the performance front iOS 13.4 Apple Pay Suica is the same level of stability we’ve seen on every release since iOS 12.3. The UI for commuter plans has changed slightly with more detail in a separate window-let just below Suica balance/recharge. The commute plan renew button is gone too, but I’m pretty sure it re-appears during the 2 week renew period. I’ll update when confirmed.

I missed a change in the beta: the JP Wallet blurb has been updated slightly too. The Suica mention has been replaced with a generic ‘Transit IC card’. This change is very interesting in light of the recent Mobile PASMO Android release. It could be a sign that Mobile PASMO will be coming to Apple Pay before iOS 14….whenever that is.

Update: some readers have questioned whether this is just a change to bring different region Wallet blurbs in line with each other. Apple Pay Wallet for Hong Kong, for example, added ‘Travel Cards” in iOS 13.0 even though Apple Pay Octopus has yet to appear. But region differences are still there: transit IC cards, travel cards, transit cards. Suica has massive brand recognition in Japan. Apple has leveraged the Suica brand at every opportunity and would not swap it for generic wording lightly, not without a very good reason: more transit IC cards. There is also timing. Mobile PASMO started service March 18, just as iOS 13.4 GM was going out to developers. If it was just a text change, Apple would have done this earlier with the iOS 13.0 debut.

Special Mobile Suica Maintenance Notice

JR East issued a Mobile Suica system maintenance notice, the downtime will run longer than usual: all services will be offline from midnight to 6:30 am March 21 JST. This includes Apple Pay Suica recharge so be sure to recharge before then, or use cash recharge at the nearest convenience store.

The special maintenance is related to the recent Shinkansen eTicket service launch and preparation for an updated Eki-net App that will eventually support it.

JR East Shinkansen eTicket Service Launch

Today, March 14, marks the end of Mobile Suica Shinkansen ticketing in Suica App and the start of a new open IC transit card eTicket Shinkansen service. It doesn’t have name. It’s just one of many ticket options available in the good old JR East ‘Eki-net’ (Station-net) online ticket reservation service, well known and not loved by many. A Japanese friend said it best, “You would think that a top tier Japanese company like JR East with many smart employees would create something better than Eki-net or pay somebody to do so.”

The problem is not that Eki-net doesn’t work. It works, but throwing everything new (IC transit card eTickets) and old (email tickets and paper tickets) in same Eki-net shoebox is a cluttered unwieldy package, a confusing and messy UI not nearly as convenient as JR East wants us to believe. Instead of a sleek new Shinkansen eTicket service, we get the same stodgy paper ticket service with a new hard to find eTicket option.

JR East would have been better off making a clean break by rebranding the new eTickets as a completely different service with a new spiffy name and separate multi-lingual app, just like JR Central’s SmartEX with the addition of new eTicket options over time. The less is more SmartEX approach focuses exclusively on Shinkansen eTickets and eliminates local line travel options because those are covered by Suica/ICOCA/Toica, etc. Eki-net on the other hand makes a big deal of ‘big trip’ options covering everything from Shinkansen and regular express trains to tour packages and car rentals.

The Eki-net approach does have one advantage over the 2-tier JR Central/JR West SmartEX (free membership with small discounts) and EX-Press Reserve (annual membership fee/special IC card/bigger discounts): Eki-net is ‘flat’ with free membership, offering the same discounts to all members in one service. Shinkansen eTickets are only available at launch from the online Eki-net site. I recommend the more streamlined smartphone online browser version. JR East has announced an updated Eki-net App for App Store/Google Play with eTicket support that should be coming March 21 (now postponed to an unknown future date). The new eTicket service is also available to JR West e5489 ticket reservation service members as JR West shares Hokuriku Shinkansen operations with JR East.

The end of Mobile Suica eTickets in Suica App means a mandatory app update that strips out the retired service. Users must update to the new 2.6 version by March 18. After this date older Suica App versions stop working. The migration from the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service has good and bad points:

Good Points
JR East Shinkansen eTickets are compatible with all major transit IC cards. This finally opens JR East operated Shinkansen lines to plastic and mobile transit cards, the old system was limited to Mobile Suica. An interesting new twist is that up to 6 transit IC cards can be attached to one account for family or group travel.

Bad Points
The migration from the Mobile Suica Shinkansen/Suica App system means no more Suica App/Apple Pay in-app purchases, you must register an Eki-Net account, yes another JR East service, and a credit card. The current Eki-net system is designed around the account registered credit card for paper ticket pickup at station kiosks using the card PIN code, this effectively eliminates Apple Pay/Google Pay as an in-app purchase choice. Last but not least the new Shinkansen eTicket service is Japanese language only.

New IC/QR gates at JR Takanawa Gateway Station opening March 14

Shinkansen eTickets are only the first step in a long term migration away from mag strip paper tickets. Mag strip ticket gates are more expensive than transit gates with NFC or QR readers with higher maintenance costs, there is also the increasing cost of recycling the special mag strip paper.

Paper tickets for all transit will remain a cash purchase at station kiosks, as they must, these will be QR codes instead of mag strip. The tricky parts are: 1) how much ticketing can be ported over to the transit IC card side 2) what local transit fare tiers apply to QR. Since Shinkansen eTickets are simply one time purchase options attached to a transit IC card number in the cloud, theoretically any purchased option can be attached to a transit IC card number. Local transit has fare tier for cash tickets and a less expensive one for transit IC cards.

I see local transit cash fare tiers staying in place for station kiosk purchased QR paper tickets, but I don’t see smartphone app QR Codes for one time local transit. The cheaper fare tier incentive for reusable transit IC cards will likely remain in place. This leaves smartphone app QR Codes for express trains, limited use tourist/season/campaign passes and group travel.

Mag strip tickets have served us very well for the past 30 years. The final migration to Mobile/NFC/QR will be interesting but I’ll miss those marvelously mechanical ticket gates from Omron.

Mandatory Suica App update on March 14

As predicted, a new version of Suica App is coming in tandem with the new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service launch on March 14. Suica App users must update to v2.6 by March 18, after that date older versions can no longer login to Mobile Suica.

A new Eki-net app that supports the new eTicket service should be coming at the same time. The old Suica App Shinkansen eTicket service ends March 13.