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.
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 has 4×4 MIMO as well as Express Card with power reserve
iPhone XR lacks support for 4×4 MIMO but has Express Card with power reserve
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.
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.
Docomo Premium 4G speed map for iPhone and iPad
Docomo Premium 4G speed map for Android
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.
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
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.
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.
That didn’t take long. No sooner had Google Pay landed in Japan when Android users without JP carrier locked Osaifu-Keitai phones noticed they weren’t invited to the FeliCa party and lost their shit. Then local Japanese tech journalists filed reviews and they were not kind: “zannen” which means “too bad” as in “too bad Google Pay is a knee capped imitation of a real FeliCa Osaifu-Keitai that any user could add and use on any Android phone.” Too bad it’s not a Global FeliCa iPhone.
Android Pay in Japan was limited and so far it looks the same for Google Pay in Japan too. If and when Google Pay Suica arrives it will likely be on Osaifu-Keitai /Mobile FeliCa enabled locked Android devices from Japanese carriers. Global FeliCa iPhone-like out-of-the-box Mobile Suica on ‘global FeliCa’ Android devices from anywhere looks to be a long way off.
FeliCa Dude called it earlier: “Android Payis smoke and mirrors.”
What a difference a year of Apple Pay Japan makes.
I went to the local Docomo shop yesterday to help a friend move his au iPhone 6 to a Docomo iPhone 7. It took about an hour because he had to download au points to his au Wallet Prepaid card before switching the phone number to the Docomo SIM but all in all it was a smooth process.
The real eye-opener for me was that when he signed up for the Docomo dCard Mastercard appeared to be the only option. 2 years ago VISA and Mastercard dCards existed side by side. Not anymore. Docomo has gone all in with Mastercard branding. VISA is still available if you want it but is ‘not recommended’. The reason is Apple Pay.
It’s very simple. Docomo wants dCard to ‘just work’ on Apple Pay and on Docomo branded Android ‘Osaifu Keitai’ without limits both in Japan and abroad. VISA does not allow this. Mastercard does. I guess VISA thinks Docomo is dispensable even though Docomo pioneered feature phone contactless payments.
JCB has already seen healthy subscriber growth since Apple Pay launched in Japan simply because JCB, along with Mastercard is doing a better job taking care of Japanese customers. Instead of taking care of customers VISA seems more interested in playing market politics to sideline FeliCa payment networks in favor of EMV contactless.
As expected, Docomo raised the network download speed bar for iPhone X and iPhone 8 users with the iOS 11.3 Update / Docomo Carrier v32.1, going from 494Mbps to 544Mbps. If you use the Docomo SpeedTest App you can see that Docomo swapped out Green and Purple top speed colors. The screenshots on the top row are post iOS 11.3 update March 30, the bottom shots are from March 4.