Apple Pay Octopus Ides of March

Here we are again. Apple Pay Octopus has been languishing in beta test hell for over a year with no public release in sight. The last official news was the 2019 year end launch delay to ‘later in 2020’ and the Octopus App v5.6 update that added support for iPhone recharge/top up of plastic Octopus cards. Hong Kong beta testers found code references in v5.6 that clearly indicated Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) originally intended to release Apple Pay Octopus first and iPhone app plastic recharge later, but the order was flipped with the delay.

A few weeks ago a reader contacted me that OCL is updating the Schedule of Fees and Guidelines on March 1, 2020 turned out to be nothing. Then out of nowhere Twitter user Jason Tjong (account created in January 2020, the profile says IT journalist in Hong Kong but no publications are listed) put out a series of tweets in February saying everything that was supposed to be coming, first with Chinese New Year 2019, then later with iOS 13, is finally coming in March 2020 along with Octopus App v6, the whole shebang.

To which I say…hope for the best but we’ll have to see how it plays out. There have been so many delays that it’s hard to be optimistic, and Tjong has not revealed any sources or given reasons to back up his tweets. On top of everything else we now have the coronavirus crisis. If his predictions/sources turn out right, great, if not we’ll wait for the next rumor or a real announcement from OCL.

We do have a Apple Event March rumor for iPhone 9 and new iPad, but any event looks increasingly unlikely/impossible during the COVID‑19 crisis. At last year’s spring event Tim Cook mentioned Apple Pay HOP, Ventra and EMV Express Transit for MTA OMNY for 2019. Reality and results were mixed. Apple Pay HOP launched without a hitch, OMNY Express Transit launched on schedule but MTA users stuck with manual swipe MetroCard are irritated by Express Transit (Express Transit in a long term system mixed migration environment was not a good idea), and Apple Pay Ventra is stuck in coming soon hell.

Tjong says the Apple Pay Octopus delay is Apple’s fault not OCL, but again I am skeptical. From a technical side OCL already has extensive mobile experience with their Smart Octopus on Samsung service and has field tested Apple Pay Octopus since December 2018, OCL feedback to beta testers indicated everything was set to launch right up until the delay announcement. From a business side I find it hard to believe that OCL would dump resources into extensive Apple Pay beta field testing and Octopus App development without the business contract ends tied down. I think there are other reasons..reasons possibly related to the Hong Kong protests and the unexplained takedown of Smart Octopus during the Hong Kong Polytechnic University siege, but this is not a popular view.

We can put aside all doubts and pretend that March will be insanely great. Tim will announce Apple Pay for Octopus and more at the March Apple Event, Octopus Cards Limited CEO Sunny Cheung will be invited on stage to unveil the service. Joking aside, the only clarity from the murky chaos that was 2019 and is 2020 so far is this: Hong Kong is in a very different place than it was back in December 2018 and there’s less interest in Apple Pay Octopus.

2/19 UPDATE
Jason Tjong also tweeted that Apple Pay Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Foshan China T-Union transit cards announced by Apple in early January will appear with iOS 13.4 which would be March, he also suggests that China T-Union card mobile integration is less complex than Octopus, again without citing sources or offering explanation. Given the circumstances of the Octopus delay I don’t agree with his tech take, but Apple Pay Lingnan/ShenZhen/Foshan coming more or less simultaneously with Apple Pay Octopus crossed my mind back when those card were announced in December right before the OCL delay announcement.
It makes sense for Apple Pay to align transit card region support whenever possible though I do not think Apple is the reason for the last minute Octopus delay. We shall see. Long term, Greater Bay Area Transit operators are looking to create a single transit card. A multiple release that soon straddles both Hong Kong and surrounding mainland area transit cards with a single digital wallet, not dual mode exactly but close, is a win for iPhone/Apple Watch transit users.

3/15 UPDATE
New Apple Pay Octopus iOS 13.4 launch rumors along with Apple Pay China T-Union beta test screen shots are making Twitter rounds. If true, we could see wide area Apple Pay Transit releases on or shortly after the official iOS 13.4 which could drop this week March 25/26. With the coronavirus crisis in full swing in America now, expect things to be fluid.

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

iOS 13.2 Suica Express Transit Update: same great performance, same sloppy UI

iOS 13.2 is in the last beta stage, the official release is due October 30. I am happy to report that Suica Express Transit performance levels remain at the same solid benchmark set by iOS 12.4 and later. This is very good news.

Suica notifications are another matter. Notifications have not recovered from the fast sloppy iOS 12.2 Suica Wallet UI redo in preparation for iOS 13 dark mode and the transition from 3D Touch to Haptic Touch. Regular Suica notifications for transit and purchases work fine, but 3D Touch/Haptic Touch notification shortcuts and user set reminders are still broken. Here’s a quick list of the remaining problems. Let’s hope Apple recovers their attention to detail.

Missing Suica notification Haptic Touch global shortcuts: iOS 12 Suica notification 3D Touch shortcuts for recharge and commute plan renewal were global in nature and appeared on all Suica notifications and user set reminders. Recharge shortcuts have reappeared in regular Suica notifications but are still missing in user reminders. Commute plan renewal reminder shortcuts are completely missing.

Commute Plan Renewal Reminders: In iOS 13.2 no matter the what the user set reminder interval is, the renewal reminder only appears once per current commute plan period and never again, which is useless. iOS 12 Suica commute plan renewal reminders would appear after every transit until the commute plan was either renewed or expired.

Sloppy Japanese localization: Suica is a Japanese card and has specific Japanese terms for card operations: adding money is ‘Charge’= ‘チャージ’. The iOS 13.2 shortcut JP text label shows ‘Add money’ instead of ‘Charge’. This is incorrect and does not match the Suica Wallet card UI label for the same operation. iOS 13 has a sloppy reputation and Suica still has plenty of UI bugs such as the Australian/New Zealand English Suica bug.

iOS 13 Apple Pay Suica Performance

The initial releases of iOS 11 and iOS 12 were not good for Suica performance. It was 3 months of teething problems. iOS 11 didn’t settle down until iOS 11.3 and iOS 12 was a mess until Apple fixed everything spectacularly in iOS 12.3, which also saw the debut of EMV Express Transit.

iOS 13 has a reputation of being buggier than previous iOS releases. However, I am very happy to report that Apple Pay Suica performance on iOS 13 and 13.1 is far superior to iOS 11 or iOS 12. Apple did a lot of work on Wallet performance in preparation for iOS 12.4 Apple Card, and general Suica performance has held the line and even gained a little in iOS 13.1. This is great news for Apple Pay Suica users: everyone can safely upgrade and use iOS 13.1 Suica.

Two very minor UI rough edges remain:

  • Commute Plan expiration notifications don’t work at all.
  • Missing text on the Suica card UI when the iPhone Language setting is Australian English. You can work around this ‘Bad Aussie Suica’ issue by using another English language setting.

I managed to put together a quick video showing iOS 13.1 performance on iPhone 11 Pro and hope to post a higher quality version soon.

iOS 13 Wallet Suica

The arrival of the Suica transit platform on the Apple Pay platform heralded a progression of innovation.

  • October 2016 : Suica is the first transit card on Apple Pay and also the debut of Express Transit and FeliCa
  • September 2017: global NFC Apple Pay arrives with iPhone 8/X/Apple Watch Series 3
  • September 2018: A12 Bionic NFC delivers Express Cards with power reserve and Background NFC tag reading
  • September 2019: direct creation of Suica in Wallet

The last one is a small step with big implications that people are only beginning to see. Instead of a plastic card that is read into Wallet or added to Wallet with a 3rd party app, Suica creation is now a basic function of iOS 13 Wallet that works with other Apple Pay cards from anywhere to add money. Suica is part of iOS. Think about that.

All of these developments have been driven by Suica, this is why Suica is the Apple Pay bellweather. Transit card creation in Wallet and adding money with Apple Pay cards from anywhere will undoubtedly be part of Apple Pay Octopus and migrate to other Apple Pay Transit cards over time. If you want to see where the Apple Pay puck is going, keep an eye on Apple Pay Suica developments. What arrives on Suica first becomes standard later.