Dear Jennifer Bailey

Dear Jennifer,

Congratulations on the success of Apple Pay in Japan! The success is all Suica of course, but it was a very smart move and Apple Pay has transformed the Japanese payments market like the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships. The market is a hot fun mess with plenty of opportunities. Here is another one.

I love coffee. So do Japanese. In Suginami City Tokyo, coffee shops, cafes and kissaten are always packed with people spending money who don’t like Starbucks. No doubt you know that Starbucks continues to stonewall Apple Pay here, but there is a nice end-around play to win that game. Did you see today’s news announcements from Docomo and Doutor that starting June 3 Docomo d POINT rewards will be given and accepted at all Doutor Coffee shops? That looks boring but believe me, it’s huge.

It’s very simple: cut a deal with Docomo and put a contactless version of the d POINT rewards card on Apple Wallet, just like PONTA. Don’t stop there. Put the Doutor prepaid card on Wallet too. After all it’s just MIFARE like the Student ID cards, and since Doutor is putting out a Dotour App for card online recharging on April 22, the backend system is in place for a Wallet version.

With those cards in Wallet, lots people who have not used Apple Pay in Japan would start using Apple Pay. Kind of like Apple Pay Suica for coffee lovers who don’t use Suica. It would be cool and cutting edge for customers to earn d POINT rewards at Dotour Coffee Shops just by paying with Apple Pay, again just like earning PONTA rewards at Lawson. But reward points for drinking coffee is the real incentive, and the payoff. I guarantee it would strengthen your hand with Starbucks in a big way, and help Docomo sell more iPhones. That would make both Docomo and Tim very happy.

Think about it. Seriously.

Love and Kisses,
Ata Distance

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Yes, iPhone Carrier Subsidies in Japan are Officially Dead: New Docomo Data Plans

The writing has been on the wall for over a year now, and sluggish iPhone XR sales only confirmed the fact, that iPhone carrier subsidies in Japan which have defined the industry since 2008, were dying. Today’s Docomo announcement unveiled new plans that discard all the complexity of previous plans like ‘FOMA’, ‘Xi’ and ‘docomo with’ all of which disappear on May 31, with 2 simple choices:

  • Giga-Ho: ¥4,980 a month for 30GB
  • Giga-Lite: ¥1,980 a month for 1GB with other date tiers available, 3GB@3,980, 5GB@4,980, 7GB@5,980

Docomo customers can apply for the plans from the Docomo web site or a Docomo shop starting May 22, service starts June 1. There are many configurations and new options available, from home internet bundle discounts to new family data sharing. And it looks like tethering fees are gone. Depending on the configuration savings can be as large as 40% compared to previous plans.

At first glance customers will still need to do some homework via the online cost simulator (something that Japanese love to do), or visit the nearest Docomo shop to find the configuration that fits your needs while giving the best discount. This is just part 1 of the continuing saga of data plans without subsidies. At the end of the announcement Docomo said stay tuned for more. KDDI au and SoftBank should be announcing new plans soon, and we’ll get Docomo part 2 when the new iPhones come out this fall.

Unlocking JP Carrier iPhone SIM Lock

All Japanese carriers offer free SIM Lock unlocking service 100 days after purchase or 100 days after a previous SIM Lock unlock of the same contract mobile number, which ever comes first. Day 1 iPhone XS users are just past the 100 day mark, I successfully unlocked my Docomo iPhone XS SIM today. You can do this at your local carrier store for ¥3,000 but it’s free when you do it online via My docomo, My SoftBank, My au. Have your iPhone IMEI number ready: go to Settings > General > About and scroll down to the IMEI number to copy it. Be sure to remove any spaces between number groups so it is one unbroken number string.

I don’t know about SoftBank or au. Docomo is a little sneaky because they hide the SIM Lock removal option in the iOS My docomo app. You can only access it from My docomo web site. The page and procedure is Japanese only but there is an outline of the procedure and conditions in English. Here are screenshots of the process in case you get stuck.

Copy the IMEI number (no spaces) here
Confirm the SIM Lock unlock item is checked> in the lower box click the blue URL for Terms and Conditions then check the blue box item directly below.
Confirm your email to receive confirmation
Confirm the iPhone and IMEI information and email address them click/tap the final button to process the SIM Lock unlock procedure.

NTT Docomo and SMBC bury the hatchet…maybe

It’s very strange that the JCB QUICPay network has gained the most benefit from the Apple Pay makeover of the Japanese contactless payments market instead of the Docomo iD network. Docomo invented the Osaifu-Keitai standard with Sony in 2004 and was the natural favorite, but iD has only treaded water while JCB has seen steady gains in QUICPay issue cards, customers and transactions.

Docomo iD problems boil down to bad blood between Docomo and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC) who issue and manage Docomo d-CARDs and help run the iD payment network. Up until 2016 VISA d-CARD was king. Then something happened. Things got so bad between the 2 companies that Docomo removed all VISA branding from their website and Docomo stores strongly urge new customers to create a Mastercard d-CARD not a VISA d-CARD. VISA might seem like the target here but SMBC, the first Japanese bank to issue VISA back in 1968, are the real power behind the VISA throne in Japan, and the real target for Docomo ire.

VISA refusing to sign on directly with Apple Pay Japan or offer NFC switching that Mastercard, JCB and AMEX do is undoubtably a big friction point because it diminishes the iD brand and VISA d-CARD. VISA also half-heartedly pushing VISA Pay Wave again, with SMBC pulling, doesn’t help. Which makes the NTT Docomo/SMBC detente ‘let’s build a new future together’ announcement so interesting. Here are the 3 announcement points <with comments>

  • First of all Docomo and SMBC agree to start all over again to rebuild the d-CARD business and develop new services. <Nice boilerplate stuff with no promises and no deadline for delivering anything>.
  • Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group will buy back all outstanding shares of Sumitomo Mitsui Card Co. (34% of the company) from NTT Docomo by April 1, 2019. <Why does Docomo want out of the credit card business? Do they think that credit card industry pricing and fee structures are unsustainable in the face of ubiquitous contactless payments of all flavors, online banking and ever more competition? Do they think the credit card industry is going to have to live on far less and have to aggressively restructure? Or is it something else like getting out of the 2 year contract subsidizing business? Inquiring minds want to know.>
  • Docomo NTT and SMBC will work together to develop and deliver more cashless solutions and expand the iD network. <That sounds nice but what does it really mean? Is VISA finally joining the Apple Pay Japan party? Is Google Pay support coming on iD?>

Like all cold war detente agreements, the proof will be in the pudding.

iPhone XS Japan Exclusives: Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with power reserve, 4×4 MIMO LAA

Docomo 4x4 MIMO
Docomo 4×4 MIMO Premium 4G advertises top download speeds approaching 1GB

This is a quick review of 2 iPhone XS features that Apple lists for Japan: Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with power reserve and 4×4 MIMO LAA enhanced Gigabit Class LTE. iPhone XR has A12 Bionic powered Express Cards with power reserve but lacks 4×4 MIMO LAA. LAA (License Assisted Access) is a new carrier aggregation LTE Advanced Pro technology. The ‘big three’ Japanese carriers: NTT Docomo, KDDI au and SoftBank all offer fast premium 4G LTE service with 4×4 MIMO (multiple in-multiple out) but according to cellular super otaku site Gadget and Radio, LAA isn’t deployed in Japan yet.  Carrier advertised 4×4 MIMO top download speeds for iPhone range from 612Mbps (SoftBank), 818Mbps (KDDI) to 844Mbps (Docomo). iPhone network speeds have always been rated a little slower than Japanese carrier Android smartphone speeds. Let’s find out what has changed with iPhone XS.

For comparison iPhone 8/X were originally rated for download speeds of up to 500Mpbs on Docomo Premium 4G with 3CC Carrier Aggregation (CA). An interesting side note is that the Apple Japan specs page originally published the iPhone 8/X top download speed as 800Mpbs then changed it to 500Mpbs.

The current Docomo Premium 4G network speed map shows Android download speeds topping out at 988Mbps and iPhone topping out at 844Mbps. Docomo only started rolling out these 4×4 MIMO enhanced top speeds from May 2018.

For this quick review I test compared Docomo iPhone X and Docomo iPhone XS performance in the Asagaya area of Tokyo. Test points 1 and 2 are in the yellow area (700Mbps~250Mbps), test point 3 is in the red area (844Mbps~738Mbps)

Test Point 1 Home (average of 3 test speeds)
iPhone X: 73Mbps
iPhone XS: 106Mbps

Test Point 2 JR Asagaya Station 2F gate area (average of 3 test speeds)
iPhone X: 51Mbps
iPhone XS: 51Mbps

Test Point 3 Suginami City Hall  (average of 3 test speeds)
iPhone X: 134Mbps
iPhone XS: 173Mbps

Additional spot testing in other 4×4 MIMO 4G areas in Ikebukuro, Takdanobaba and Shinjuku had similar results and speeds but were inconclusive.

As you can see iPhone XS 4×4 MIMO 4G network speeds blows iPhone X away…not. In the top speed areas iPhone XS definitely feels zippy and it should get much faster over time as Docomo and the other carriers build out 4×4 MIMO 4G LTE enhanced network coverage and start to deploy LAA. As with all things connected with network speed there are just too many variables: technology deployment, cell tower placement, local conditions and crowds of people with smartphones. 4×4 MIMO LAA is great to have going forward but at this point it’s not a sales point that interests me.

Express Card Power Reserve Mode
Express Card power reserve mode on iPhone XS and iPhone XR lasts up to 5 hours. You can use it for transit, recharge and purchase.

Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with reserve power
A12 Bionic in iPhone XS and XR powers new Express Cards with power reserve NFC feature. This kind of feature has long been on Japanese Osaifu-Keitai Android smartphones which have dedicated Sony FeliCa chips. Apple has a ‘virtual FeliCa’ implemented on their A-Series but the down side was that iOS had to be up and running and could not match Osaifu-Keitai. A12 Bionic has a new low power state that now allows virtual FeliCa to work without iOS up and running, finally matching FeliCa on Android. There are some conditions:

  • Express Cards with power reserve only work when the iPhone XS/XR battery runs down and iPhone puts itself into ‘battery reserve mode’. Express Cards with power reserve doesn’t work if you turn off iPhone manually or if Face ID has been deactivated
  • Express Cards with power reserve in battery reserve mode only last up to 5 hours.  The updated Using Suica on iPhone or Apple Watch in Japan states:

On iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, Express Cards with power reserve is available for up to five hours when your iPhone needs to be charged. You can press the side button to check if Express Cards are available when your iPhone needs to be charged. Doing this often may significantly reduce the power reserve for Express Cards. If you choose to power off your iPhone, this feature will not be available.

There are some surprises: in addition to transit, you can recharge Suica with cash and you can purchase things. iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica with power reserve Express Transit behaves just like a plastic Suica card for up to 5 hours. Here is quick video of iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica Express Transit with reserve power performance in the field.

Suica purchase and recharge in addition to transit are very handy when you are in a power pinch and need to pick up something on the way home from the station. Students with the new Student ID Cards may be able to do more than just go through door locks with power reserve, at least within the 5 hour reserve battery mode.

iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance
This is subjective as I have to go by gut feeling in lieu of actual measurements. FeliCa is very fast: NFC-F response speed is about 50 milliseconds (ms), JR East transit gate transaction speed is stated as “within 200ms” but actual speed is closer to 100ms.

Apple Pay Suica works great but never seems to match the magic bulletproof performance of a plastic Suica card. Maybe it is the iOS overhead. Maybe it is the occasional iPhone screen lag showing the Suica card and ‘Done’ check mark that fools the brain into thinking iPhone transaction speed is slow when it’s not. But there are definitely times when the ‘good to go’ blue transit gate light is a little slow with iPhone 7 and iPhone X. In my experience PASMO transit gates exhibit this occasionally but not JR East transit gates.

I compared Apple Pay performance on iPhone XS and Revision B iPhone X both running iOS 12 (16A366) with plastic Suica. Bear in mind this is subjective and based on limited testing, your experience may be different:

JR East Transit Gates (Asagaya, Koenji, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro)
Plastic Suica: A+
iPhone XS: A
iPhone X (Rev-B): A-

PASMO Transit Gates (Ogikubo, Asagaya Minami, Higashi Koenji, Shinjuku)
Plastic Suica: A+
iPhone XS: A
iPhone X (Rev-B): B+

iPhone X (Rev-B) is usually snappy but occasionally feels a little slow on PASMO transit gates. A12 Bionic powered NFC definitely gives iPhone XS an edge over Apple Pay Suica on other devices. It’s very close to a plastic Suica and performed like a champ with all the different transit configurations I threw at it. Suica essentials run on A12 Bionic without iOS. This removes iOS overhead from Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XS and makes all the difference. Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XS A12 Bionic powered NFC is finally ‘bulletproof’, and the Express Card power reserve feature knocks iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance out of the park.

Summary
iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with power reserve and 4×4 MIMO enhanced Gigabit Class LTE are only small parts of a much bigger picture and only have meaning for iPhone users in Japan. 4×4 MIMO network coverage, like all network technology, is a work in progress. It’s nice to have with great potential as Japanese carriers roll out extensive 4×4 MIMO network coverage, which is happening quickly, but it’s not an upgrade must have item at this point in time. 4×4 MIMO LAA is an investment in the future.

Express Cards with power reserve is a very nice feature for the here and now and a ‘must have’ for some users. It’s a big stress relief for Suica road warriors and surprisingly flexible. iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance is bulletproof and the best I have experienced on iPhone to date, with absolutely none of the iPhone X NFC problem nonsense. Taken together, iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance with power reserve Express Cards is worth the upgrade if Apple Pay Suica is important to you.

This is a dilemma for iPhone X users in Japan who have yet to obtain a Revision B iPhone X exchange for problem iPhone X devices: to upgrade or not to upgrade. There might be some incentive to upgrade if your carrier offers a good trade-in price for your iPhone X, the iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance is a huge step up from a problem iPhone X device.

If you don’t choose the upgrade option and have a problem iPhone X, be sure to exchange it for a Rev-B iPhone X as it is easier to do in Japan than anywhere else. You can certainly live with a Rev-B iPhone X for a while. I feel sorry for university kids with FeliCa powered Student ID Cards on iPhone X in America when they start noticing how wonky iPhone X NFC performance really is: under the current Apple support internal guideline they are not eligible to exchange for a problem free Rev-B iPhone device.

By the way, does anybody want a slightly used Revision B iPhone X?

Update: sold, here are a few tips if you want to sell a used JP model iPhone X in Japan