Hankyu Corporation announced in January they would sell ICOCA cards for commuter pass use starting March 1. The switchover is interesting on many levels. ICOCA is the JR West transit IC card and PiTaPa is the transit IC card for Kansai area private lines (Hankyu, Keihan, Hanshin, Kintetsu, etc.). They are both FeliCa cards, offer commuter passes and are compatible for transit use under the Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association project specification.
There is one big difference: ICOCA is prepaid while PiTaPa is a postpaid credit card/transit card hybrid that can never really be mainstream because it has credit checks. ICOCA can be bought by anyone at a ticket machine. The Hankyu/Hanshin switchover to prepaid ICOCA for the masses follows the JR West arrangement that Kintetsu and Keihan already have in place. There is just one last little detail that JR West needs to work out however: get ICOCA on mobile digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay and Google Pay. Super Suica should take care of that in 2021.
Here are QR Codes in action at subway transit gates in Beijing.
And here is Suica in action.
Working Backwards from the User
The Suica development starting point was a user problem with magnetic card commuter passes. Old style paper passes were visually inspected at gates and could stay ‘in-wallet’ with a clear plastic opening. Magnetic card commuter passes had to be removed from the wallet and feed through the gate reader. Engineers wanted to recapture the simplicity of paper passes with IC cards.
The development process involved a lot or trail and error but Suica turned out not only to be convenient and fast but also user friendly in the way that people use things, in-wallet or otherwise. This is a classic Steve Jobs design principle: start with the user experience and work backwards to the technology.
Smartphones replicate the in-wallet experience as ‘Express Cards’ on digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay and Google Pay. The user pulls out the device and holds it to the reader. No unlocking or Touch ID/Face ID required.
QR Codes and EMV contactless on smartphones share the same transit problem of old magnetic card passes: they are not ‘in-wallet’. Devices have to be unlocked to open an app or perform a biometric authentication. This problem is compounded by poorly designed transit gate QR and EMV readers that end up forcing users to adapt to the technology and it slows everything way down. This is a design failure that would never meet the requirements of Tokyo stations where a gate has to clear 60 people a minute.
What’s fascinating to me is the assumption by some people in China, Hong Kong and even Japan that the QR Code success in China automatically qualifies it as a global payment standard regardless of the technology and business models already in place. This doesn’t ring true to me, there is something else going on.
China for example has put a lot effort into creating and promoting the China T-Union transit card standard which can be added to MI Pay, Apple Pay and Huawei Pay. Nevertheless there are not many people using China T-Union in the video. The Japanese tweet comments say that recharging China T-Union cards are not very convenient and do not offer the point goodies that AliPay and WeChat Pay do. Bingo. Is it really is that simple?
Technologies that have viable business models attached to them work better in the long run. FeliCa fares better than China T-Union or CEPAS (EZ-Link) because a transit platform like Suica does better job of attaching services and point goodies on the back end. Perhaps if China T-Union had a better business model that offered more recharge reward goodies and services on the backend to compete with QR ecosystems people might use it more, unfortunately business promotion is hard for government run transit authorities.
JR East announced the end of the Mobile Suica ¥1030 annual membership fee for all Android devices on February 26 2020. Mobile Suica is free for Apple Pay users. JR East also announced the end of Symbian OS feature phone support with most devices being cut off from Mobile Suica on February 25 2020, and the rest following on December 22 2020 along with some Android devices.
All of the ‘offed’ devices can still use Suica for transit and purchases but are limited to cash recharge which can be done at station kiosks and any convenience store. Users who want to keep their Mobile Suica account will have to migrate to an eligible Apple or Android device.
JR East is also terminating Mobile Suica Shinkansen e-ticket purchases this year and will replace it with a new service similar to JR Central’s Smart EX. Details should be coming soon.
Huawei released the Mate 20 Pro in Japan November 30 with a clear goal of offering a lower priced smartphone in the Japanese market where carrier subsidies are going away and iPhone XR sales rumored to be so-so. IT Media Mobile reports that Huawei’s Jeff Wang, regional president for Japan and Korea said that, “long-term the Japanese mobile market is becoming a fair and level one” competitively, with opportunities to offer users “revolutionary products.” The remark clearly alluded to the Japan Fair Trade Commission investigation of Apple iPhone sales strategy in Japan which resulted in the call to end carrier subsidies.
Wang said Huawei recognizes the need for FeliCa in the Japanese market and is working to add global FeliCa to all Huawei smartphone models. If this turns out to be true, Huawei will first smartphone manufacturer to follow Apple’s lead in adding global FeliCa. The sooner global FeliCa becomes a boring standard check box item for smartphone manufacturers everywhere the better.