Real life code payments

Doutor Coffee Shops added code payment options recently. The sticker next to the reader says all that you need to know: please have your payment app ready before paying. The downfall of code payments is always the network connection. Maybe network connection is weak, or tapped out, or whatever. Last week I was grocery shopping at a basement store location and noticed customers running from checkout to the bottom of the stairs, tapping their smartphone, then running back to the checkout. Bad network area.

This is all too common and a real pain now that every store chain and their dog has a rewards app. Most checkout goes like this: the customer pulls up the store app for discounts and reward points, then pulls up PayPay, dBarai, Line or any other popular code payment, and if the network gods are benevolent, finally pays. NFC was supposed to save us from slow plastic cards and paper coupon checkout, but in the digital wallet age we’re slow if not slower because the store location is in a crappy network area, inside a building with thick earthquake proofed concrete walls. Welcome to code payments in the real world 101.

SmartGo Staple: a smart Mobile Suica solution for COVID era business travel

As more companies transition work style away from daily commuting to a central office to telework with direct business trips from home, there is less need for commuter passes but that means more corporate virtual paperwork and paper trails for filing and processing transit expenses. How nice it would be if Mobile Suica had a plug-in for SF expense reporting. It does actually: SmartGo Staple a co-venture between JR East and NTT Communications.

The service is straightforward: for a ¥1,000 (w/VISA card option) or ¥600 (w/o) per Mobile ID monthly service fee, SmartGo Staple provides live Mobile Suica ID SF transaction data of registered accounts to corporate management and accounting, who then calculate and reimburse employee on the go, or teleworking at home for corporate related Mobile Suica use, reducing the paperwork at all levels. The flexibility of Mobile Suica and Suica App which discretely attaches a credit card to a Suica card, allows users to set up a Suica card just for corporate use with a corporate credit card attached. This is the idea behind the SmartGo Staple prepaid VISA card option which management can ‘recharge’ remotely.

It’s a service for the COVID era but the interesting thing is that with more people doing without commuter passes, Apple Pay Suica and Mobile Suica easily covers nationwide transit and payment use. Commuter passes are the only reason for all those Japanese Transit IC cards. One Mobile Suica does it all. There are still weak spots, i.e. non SF Suica ID # attached services like smartEX and Shinkansen eTickets. Using a transit card ID number to attach separate services is flexible but corralling all the separate transaction histories into one expense report is still a chore.

Young employees tell the department manager to get with the times

The truth is in the tap

The Nankai Visa Touch test launch launched endless Twitter discussions about slow EMV contactless tap speeds and performance issues compared with Suica and other Transit IC cards. EMV contactless transit in Japan is novel so this is expected. But suddenly people are also referencing Junya Suzuki’s 2016 pre-Apple Pay Suica launch era ‘Is Suica Over-spec?’ piece. This has long been a favorite theme in Japanese tech media: Suica is more than we need, EMV contactless is ‘good enough’ so let’s do everything with one card, life is more convenient that way. Be careful what you wish for.

The 2016 launch of Apple Pay Suica was a great success of course, that changed the Japanese payments market and opened the door for the proliferation of QR payment services you see everywhere now. The one card must do it all concept is old hat but Tokyo Olympics sponsors Visa Japan and SMBC are trying very hard to convince Japan that Visa Touch cards are the transit future.

My position was and remains that one size never fits all. It doesn’t have to be a EMV or nothing choice portrayed in tech media, nor should it. Different technologies complement each other for a better user experience. Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica combines the convenience of EMV cards on the recharge backend with the speed and reliability of FeliCa based Suica cards on the NFC front-end, for a best of breed closed loop transit user experience. One interesting thing I pointed out in my retweet of Suzuki san’s Nakai open loop launch piece was that QR Nankai Digital Ticket gate performance in the his video is faster than Visa Touch because it’s closed loop.

The comment touched off an odd but interesting set of tweets from Suzuki san and his followers about gate design, reader performance and walk flow that boils down to this: if the reader transaction speed is slow, increase the distance between the reader and gate flap to keep people walking instead of stopping.

His follow up piece deconstructs ‘FeliCa is faster’ as half misunderstanding transit gate antenna design and RF communication distance because EMVCo reader certification dictates a smaller RF distance, the result of using the EMV contactless supermarket checkout spec on transit gates it was never intended for. All I can say is the truth is in the tap. In theory all NFC flavors and protocols offer the same performance but in real transit use they don’t. Better to get next generation Ultra Wideband Touchless gates in service and dispense with the ‘redesign transit gates for slow EMV contactless/QR transit’ debate nonsense. Design things for the future not the past.

The current Transit IC local stored fare model does have weak points as suggested in FeliCa Dude’s tweet: discount ticketing, rebates and refunds. If you purchase a Mobile Suica commuter pass, you can easily get a refund back to the bank payment card used to purchase the commuter pass. This is because Suica extras like commuter passes and Green Seat upgrades are supplemental attached services that don’t use the SF purse.

Rebates and refunds via the SF (stored fare) purse are a bottleneck. Suica App has a mechanism for dealing with some of this called ‘Suica Pocket’ for JRE POINT exchanges and refunds back to the SF purse. Mobile Suica card refunds are another matter and can only be refunded to a Japanese bank account. Octopus Cards Ltd. (OCL) has a special Octopus App for Tourists that refunds a card balance back to original credit card used for the initial digital card issue. OCL also charges tourist users an arm and a leg for Octopus Wallet recharge and refunding. It would be nice if JR East could do the same…without the outrageous OCL surcharges.

For inbound discount ticketing JR East has adopted a similar approach they use for Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets: discount plans attached to plastic Suica cards. This is the whole purpose of the Welcome Suica + reference paper proving validity for inbound discount plan purchases at station kiosks. It would be great if JR East figures out a way to do the same thing on Mobile Suica.

Domestic discount ticketing and passes are still the glorious, mostly paper ticket mess that is Eki-Net and similar services. Eki-Net itself is still in a slow motion transition towards a Transit IC/Mobile Suica orbit with some things transitioning to QR paper ticketing that replaces expensive mag-strip paper. Eki-Net App is still limited to Shinkansen eTickets and ticketless express train seat purchases. The Eki-Net web site is where you access all the bells and whistles although the experience feels like navigating the Transit IC interoperability chart. Discounts are starting to change somewhat with Suica 2 in 1, totra is the first Suica for disabled users but exclusive to the totra fare region. Hopefully Extended Overlap will see wider use not only for Suica but across all Transit IC cards for more special, and interoperable, discount services.

Is Suica ‘all-in-one’ possible?

Now that Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate transit cards are out, it’s time to examine the question that Yanik Magnan posed in his limitless possibility podcast: is Suica all-in-one possible? He defines it as follows: “All-in-one in my case would mean all Transit IC and local area transit members sharing the same physical card as a common container for their data, I’m assuming (maybe incorrectly?) that Suica + PASMO on the same card would be possible through whatever totra is doing.”

In my initial Super Suica coverage I outlined all-in-one possibilities beyond the Suica 2 in 1 Region card program and called it ‘Super Suica’ to capture that idea. Unfortunately, and as Yanik points out, I forgot an important aspect: Suica and sister Transit IC cards all use the same FeliCa technology but have their own data formats. That was an oversight. Nevertheless I think we agree, so I’m retiring Super Suica in favor of Yanik’s Suica ‘all-in-one’ moniker. Here is a grab bag of various pieces that hopefully add up to an quick overview, with Suica all-in-one as a platform of technologies that others can build off of, instead of a specific transit card.

FeliCa Enhancements
Since November 2020 we’ve seen a number of FeliCa enhancements: (1) FeliCa Standard SD2, (2) Mobile FeliCa Multiple Secure Element Domains that support non-FeliCa protocols and, (3) Mobile FeliCa Ultra Wideband Touchless. The most important of these right now is SD2 because it’s a real shipping product with Extended Overlap Service and Value-Limited Purse Service. TagInfo scans of the newly released totra 2 in 1 Suica Region Affiliate transit card reveal Extended Overlap in action. The card itself shows 2 issue numbers on the back, one from JR East who own the SF (stored fare) purse and one for the region operator who own the overall card. That JR East owns the Suica 2 in 1 card SF and float is…interesting and offers a clue as to what’s going on behind the scenes.

FeliCa Standard SD2 powered totra Suica has 2 card numbers

Float Gloat
Who owns the SF purse float, how it works on the reader side and as a business model are the big issues. Here’s an example: I suspect SD2 Extended Overlap might also be used in the new Suica-TOICA-ICOCA cross region commuter passes as those cannot be issued on current plastic and require an upgrade trip to the nearest JR station. We won’t know for sure until we get a TagInfo scan of the new physical card but let’s pretend for a bit.

Say a TOICA user purchases a cross region commuter pass from Numazu (TOICA) to Odawara (Suica) for regular non-Shinkansen transit. In this case the cross region solution is easy and acceptable to all JR companies because each transit card issuer owns the SF purse, in this case JR Central. The same applies to JR East when issuing the same commute pass route for Suica. The same scenario would likely be acceptable to all Transit IC companies, sharing a common physical card as a common container for their data, but only if the SF purse ownership was clearly defined as it is in totra Suica so it works on the reader side: this is Suica SF, this is a ICOCA SF, etc., otherwise the reader doesn’t know which one to use.

In other words, let’s 2 in 1 and all-in-one for the shared resources like points, commuter passes and special discount fares for elderly and disabled users, but the SF purse is not shared for 2 in 1 or anything else. Common data format, yes. Common shared SF purse, no. At the end of the day you can’t have a Suica and a PASMO on the same card as the reader won’t know which one to use. We’ll see if Extended Overlap and Value-Limited Purse solves this wanna have cake and eat it too Transit IC dilemma. Sony is now shipping FeliCa Standard SD2 antenna module chips for the reader side of the equation so readers will be getting smarter and evolve too. That’s how I see it for Suica all-in-one, Transit IC and mobile, a gradual evolution.

Mobile hardware barriers
On the mobile front we have a smartphone hardware barrier: the Mobile PASMO Osaifu Keitai Type 1, Type 2, Type 3, mess landed on Mobile Suica with addition of multiple Mobile Suica cards on March 21. Only Osaifu Keitai Type 1 devices can handle multiple Suica and PASMO cards.

This has implications for Mobile FeliCa features such as the Japanese Government My Number Digital Card and UWB Touchless digital car keys. Mobile FeliCa 4.0 and later on Pixel devices indicate the ability to upgrade FeliCa JAVA Card applets and even Mobile FeliCa itself. Whether Android device makers will actually use this OTA ability is a mystery. To date the standard industry practice has been if you want new features, you buy a new device.

And then there is Apple. iPhone 7 JP models that support Suica do not support PASMO, UWB is only available on iPhone 11 and later, and so on. There is no guarantee that Apple will update, say iPhone 11 models, for UWB Touchless, Mobile FeliCa My Number Digital cards or even Suica 2 in 1, if and when the format comes to Mobile Suica.

We’ll see what FeliCa Dude has to say about the all-in-one subject, hopefully in a future Reddit post. It may take a while but worth the wait.

UPDATE
I’m sticking with Super Suica. Yanik’s All-in-one take is a great name focused on the 2 in 1 card architecture that fits all of Transit IC on a single card. My Super Suica take is a wider set of developing platform initiatives. Yanik’s feedback was valuable in forcing me to review my posts and define Super Suica as a platform, I thank him for it.

A great reality check

I was pleasantly surprised to find some hits coming from a website called limitless possibility, followed the link and discovered a great podcast by Luc-Olivier Dumais-Blais and Yanik Magnan on Japanese transit IC cards, Suica 2 in 1, the new features of FeliCa Standard SD2, Ultra Wideband Touchless and more…things I’ve been writing about for a while that never get any traffic.

Yanik does a much better job of summarizing the transit technology landscape than my messy collection of posts. I wholeheartedly agree that UWB Touchless is the perfect opportunity for Japanese Transit IC members to put aside political differences and merge, or at least ‘harmonize’ their data formats for a real all in one Super Suica. We shall see. There are things coming down the pike such as multi-secure element domain/multi-protocol Mobile FeliCa that might have transit implications. And I thank Yanik for his constructive criticism of my ‘Super Suica’ coverage. It’s very helpful and rare that anybody takes the time these days.

Extra bonus: their discussion of the Japan QR Code payment mess and a sendup of PayPay ‘gamification’ campaigns using the Canadian Tim Hortons roll up the rim thing is hilarious and spot on.