Location aware Apple Pay Suica fixes the region setting problem

Changing the iPhone region to add Apple Pay Suica confuses a lot of users. Many are not familiar with region settings and what they do, and it’s far too easy to think that a Japan region setting is a requirement to use Apple Pay Suica, which is not the case. When it comes to iOS 13 Apple Pay and NFC switching, the region is a simple filter so that user only sees Apple Pay card options for a given region, not the whole Apple Pay world. In this situation region setting becomes a stumbling block, most inbound iPhone users are probably not even aware that they can add and use a deeply useful Japanese contactless digital transit card with a few finger flicks.

This is a problem because the current iOS Region preference setting mixes 2 different job functions. Twitter user Zetton neatly explained the issue: the iOS Region setting defines the cultural space the user lives in and how iPhone treats some data, but Apple Pay uses regions in a different way to show available location options. It is this user cultural space vs current location option dichotomy force fitted into a single region setting, that confuses users. This is why JR East created the one time use SuicaEng app that completely dispenses with region settings for adding Suica to Apple Pay. iOS 13 rolled direct Suica card creation into Wallet, look ma no apps, but the ‘change region setting to Japan’ to add Suica downside was still there. Until now.

There are signs that Apple is working around the region problem by presenting location aware ‘add Suica’ Wallet notifications. It’s not universal and impossible to test if you already have Suica, but it seems the separate ‘add Suica’ option also appears in Wallet based on user location in Japan, regardless of region setting.

I suspect the add Apple Pay Suica location prompt is a backend feature in testing phase. It’s a smart move because Apple Pay Suica on global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch is going to be the best way for inbound visitors to get around town during the Tokyo Olympic games this summer and Google Pay Suica is still not available for inbound Android users. Ditto the recently announced Android only Mobile PASMO. Apple has a golden marketing opportunity in Japan that won’t happen again, they should make the best of it. The sooner Apple completely retires the ‘device region set to Japan‘ requirement for adding Suica, the better

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The Mobile PASMO announcement

Mobile PASMO was announced for Osaifu Keitai compatible Android devices running Android 6 or later, the service due to start in late March. There was speculation the service would launch at some point when the Mobile PASMO name was registered in late 2017. Here are a few quick observations based on the sparse announcement details.

  • Service is limited to the Mobile PASMO Osaifu Keitai Android app with a limited credit/debit card backend. Think Suica App without Google Pay or Apple Pay integration. You can register a single card for recharge hosted by the Mobile PASMO backend but users cannot mix and match cards like you can with Apple and Google digital wallets and Mobile Suica.
  • This announcement is cutting things awfully close for a March debut of a major service with a squishy start date and no user device profile due until just before launch. Japanese companies usually announce ‘coming this spring’ services 3~4 months in advance. This suggests testing is not very far along and not all PASMO rail operators are integrated for Mobile PASMO commute passes at launch. Long story short: we won’t see Google Pay or Apple Pay integration for a while, local Japanese reports are confirming this already.
  • Suica and PASMO systems are already cross integrated for auto recharge and commute passes at the transit gate and station kiosk level, we also have the next generation Suica format coming one year from now in early 2021. Reducing support costs for commute pass purchase and renewals by moving them online are a key target for both systems, growing integration of Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO is a given.

Summary and Update
Mobile PASMO is a classic Osaifu Keitai app similar to 2011 era Mobile Suica before Apple Pay and Google Pay integration. That level of integration will require more backend cloud support and qualification but this won’t come easy for PASMO by itself: unlike Suica which is run by JR East, PASMO is an association of large and small private rail operators, only a few of whom have deep pockets and IT resources. The real question is how much JR East Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO will cooperate to deploy Mobile Suica resources and deep expertise to integrate the many different PASMO players and expand services for all. FeliCa Dude sums it up best in his essential Reddit post: Mobile PASMO – something we shouldn’t need.

Open loop wishful thinking trashes Apple Pay Express Transit reputation

The latest OMNY bump in the road perfectly captures the downside of making contactless credit/debit cards a one size fits all solution. As the New York Post piece (via MacRumors) points out, some Apple Pay Express Transit users are being double charged for fares. Perhaps they didn’t know that Express Transit was enabled in the first place, perhaps the iPhone passed too close to the OMNY transit gate reader. It’s a classic “you’re holding it wrong” situation that has nothing to do with Apple Pay Express Transit and everything to do with the current EMV architecture and how banks implement it.

Part of the problem is that OMNY is new, it’s not working across the entire MTA system yet, and open loop EMV bank cards will never replace all classic MetroCard fare options. That job is for the MIFARE based OMNY transit card due in late 2021. Until the system is complete Metro users will have to juggle different cards and deal with a very long transition. Transport for London (TfL) users have had MIFARE based Oyster cards since 2003, contactless credit/debit cards have been ubiquitous since the 2012 London Olympics when open loop was added to the TfL Oyster fare system.

To Biometric or not Biometric?
Open Loop credit/debit cards on transit gates instead of native transit cards always come with banking and credit industry baggage. Even in the contactless card heaven that is said to be London, there are a surprisingly number of gotchas: minimum limits for using cards, max limits that require PIN codes. It’s an endless loop of banks pushing one way and merchants pushing back.

The golden uptake for Apple Pay in Japan was Suica and is the same story everywhere: it’s all about getting rid of coins for transit, coffee, sandwiches, etc. The small stuff. This is the 20,000 JPY prepaid heavenly region where Apple Pay Suica sings and banks so desperately want to shut out all other players and keep all the marbles. But bank cards have an authorization problem: banks set spending limits not the card architecture. The line is always changing, what works today might not work tomorrow. The prepaid Suica architecture itself is the firewall that does away with user authorization because local processing transaction at the transit gate or store reader is all the authorization necessary.

Express Transit was developed for Apple Pay Suica in 2016, it remains the best matchup because the feature is a basic part of the Suica card architecture that is not a bank card. Apple Pay Express Transit for EMV payment cards that appeared with iOS 12.3 is a retrofit job that I predicted would have problems because retrofits are about dealing with baggage, not creating a better long term solution. 7 months later we are already there. This problem isn’t going away, not as long as banks and EMV keep operating the way that they do.

Suica joins Coke ON IC, is it worth it?

Coke ON is one more point gimmick app that offers a free beverage for points, bottle top ‘stamps’, earned with purchases via FeliCa/Coke ON IC (Transit IC, Rakuten, nanaco, PiTaPa, WAON), credit cards and QR (LinePay, PayPay aka Line PayPayPay) linked via Coke ON. Up until now Suica was excluded from earning stamps but will join the other Coke ON IC cards starting January 14.

The Coke ON app is not particularly user friendly. It wants your data, your location and your Bluetooth to connect to Bluetooth enabled Coke vending machines. And it seems overly aggressive, at least according to a very long Twitter thread. I’m not sure what exactly the issue is for the user but it seems related to location services and suspect card reads.

Japanese users have complained about Apple Pay Suica location based transaction notification details since the default feature appeared with the iOS 12.2 Suica make over. I have no problems using Apple Pay Suica on iPhone 11 Pro to buy drinks without Coke ON. The problem described in the tweet thread could be a Coke ON incompatibility with Mobile Suica despite Suica compatibility listed on the vending machine side. Hopefully this is fixed for the Coke ON Suica debut, however I don’t plan on giving away my iPhone data to collect Coke ON app bottle top stamps.

A consolation prize for Octopus users with iPhone

After the unfortunately delay of Apple Pay Octopus earlier this month, Octopus Card Limited released an updated version of the iOS Octopus App that offers a small consolation prize: Octopus App on iPhone 7 and later can now recharge Octopus cards. This was made possible by the enhanced iOS 13 Core NFC Read Write functions that support a wide range of NFC protocols including FeliCa.

The iPhone 7 and later device configuration specification exactly matches Apple’s Core NFC documentation but readers report that Octopus App strings reveal that Apple Pay Octopus will be limited to iPhone 8/Apple Watch Series 3 and later. This is inline with expectations and solves the iPhone 7 FeliCa support mystery: iPhone 7 only supports FeliCa Read/Write, iPhone 8 and later supports both FeliCa Read/Write and Card Emulation functions.

The Android support spec is a little fuzzy too. NFC-F is a requirement for NFC certification so many recent devices support FeliCa Read/Write but far fewer Android devices have the software support for FeliCa Card Emulation, Samsung Galaxy being one of the few in the Hong Kong market.

Oh and one last consolation prize for iPhone users until Apple Pay Octopus appears: Octopus on Apple Pay is designated as “Smart Octopus”…sounds familiar. Also it appears that Smart Octopus Apple Pay was originally due to launch with iOS 13.2, read Smart Octopus Apple Pay details while the link is valid.