Eki-Net getting reboot with multilingual support

Well, finally. JR East Eki-Net is getting the makeover I complained about when Shinkansen eTicket service and the mobile app launched just a year ago. On June 27 Eki-Net gets a badly needed re-boot with multi-lingual support, JRE POINT support, more Shinkansen eTicket discounts, inbound discount ticket support, a new UI and more. Here’s a quick look.

JRE POINT Integration
There are so many goodies in the update it’s hard to find a starting place. For many people the integration of JRE POINT is big, it replaces the old separate Eki-Net point system and greatly expands the usefulness of JRE POINT with reward points with ticket purchases and point exchanges for eTickets, upgrades, etc.

Cloud attached ticketing
JR East migrated Mobile Suica Shinkansen tickets to the new eTicket service in 2020 that uses the same Transit IC card number attachment scheme of smartEX. JR East also uses it to attach inbound discount ticketing and passes to Welcome Suica. Expect more Eki-Net domestic discount ticketing and pass options for purchase and attachment to any registered Transit IC card. Drawbacks that I see: (1) yet another account and credit card registration process in a long cluttered line of separate JR East account services (Suica App, JRE POINT, Eki-Net, etc.), (2) Outside of Suica App there is no Apple Pay in-app support for ticket purchases, (3) As always, if your Apple Pay Suica ID number changes you have to re-register it.

QR Code for group ticket pickup
This is a handy feature for group or family travel. Mom can buy tickets online, mail the QR code to the kids, kids pickup the tickets at the station kiosk and travel home for college breaks, etc. At least that’s the idea when we all start traveling again, whenever that is. Seriously though I think this will be convenient and greatly appreciated.

Multilingual and JR East Train Reservation support
English, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Korean, French, German, Spanish, Thai, Indonesian are the supported languages. Inbound discount tickets and passes can already be purchased and attached to Welcome Suica and Suica and it appears that more options are on the way. The press release is short on details but it looks like most JR East Train Reservation functions will be migrating to Eki-Net (note the graphic shows making reservations via the desktop, not with an mobile app). And if Eki-Net is going multilingual, Suica App is close behind.

UI Improvements
One of my biggest grips was the funhouse horror of using Eki-Net desktop. So many options, so poorly arranged and hidden. The current mobile browser Eki-Net is already better and it’s going to get better still with improved eTicket reservations, seat maps, ticket price comparisons, etc. The Eki-Net app is getting improvements too but I suspect the app functions will remain limited to Shinkansen eTickets and Express Train ticketless seat reservations.

There is lots more to dig into when time allows. I’ll be very interested to see the online reaction to Eki-Net discounts and reward point schedules posted at the end of the press release. Japanese customers are ruthlessly efficient at mining the good values and dumping on the junk. This is just the first pass and there will be much more as June approaches. Eki-Net will be down from June 26 20:00~ June 27 5:00 for the big refresh. Expect launch day snags and delays like the recent Mobile Suica refresh. The only thing I don’t look forward to: updating JR POINT Guide for the new point exchange functions.

The Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit Card

The Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate transit card ‘totra’ launches today, the first card based on the September 2018 joint JR East/Sony Imaging Products & Solutions/JR East Mechatronics announcement. The joint roles are defined as: (1) JR East for promotion, coordinating and supporting the implementation process with local transit companies, (2) Sony for developing new FeliCa additions necessary for 2 in 1 and supporting ICT (Information Communication Technology) transit card developments, (3) JREM for issue, testing and qualification of 2 in 1 cards.

Based on information released by the totra partners, the end product closely aligns with the 2018 announcement:

  • 2 in 1 Commuter Passes: a JR East Suica commuter pass and a region affiliate commuter pass
  • 2 in 1 Points: JRE POINT and region affiliate transit points
  • Other region affiliate services: a totra card for disabled users with special discount fares/subsidies, welfare points (starting April 2021) for elder and disabled transit users

…all in one Suica card. This is more important that it seems and solves some long standing problems. Let’s look at the situation with the wonderfully useful Transit IC card chart created by Wiki user ButuCC.

Transit IC interoperability chart

The core square contains the 10 mutual use ‘Transit IC’ cards with many IC arrows pointing to region transit cards outside of the square. This means the core Transit IC cards work on those local transit systems but only one way. There are no IC arrows pointing in towards the core region because there are no regional transit cards mutually compatible with all core Transit IC cards…until now: totra Suica is the first region transit card that works nationwide.

2 in 1 Suica combines the ‘outside the square’ region card with the core Suica card. totra is a Suica card, mutually compatible with all Transit IC, but also a local transit card with new services built on Suica infrastructure. One example: the first transit IC card for disabled users that automatically gives them the local region discount fare and subsidy, but only for the totra fare region, not outside it. Disabled fares are highly regional with local prefecture and city governments providing transit services and fare discounts. It’s a trade off but it does provide a transit IC card option for disabled users instead of paper tickets with a ID card for the first time.

Super Suica or something else?
So is this Super Suica or not? The totra Suica logo explains some of what is going on inside the card. There is a ‘+’ mark which indicates ‘Suica plus affiliate’ that combines Suica with an attached financial service like credit card recharge. This is the Suica plus mark you see on all Mobile Suica cards including Mizuho Suica (iOS) and Rakuten Suica (Android).

There is also a ‘••’ mark which indicates FeliCa Pocket services, FeliCa applets on a physical card or Osaifu Keitai card that provide different services in a single card (transit, points, ID, etc.). You can see the ‘••’ Suica logo on Rinkai Suica and Monorail Suica and the both marks on the Suica/credit card combos like VIEW. The Rinkai Suica design also looks like totra which uses a similar blue left instead of right trapezoid.

FeliCa Dude points out in an interesting Twitter thread with treastrain that 2 in 1 is a new kind of Suica plus affiliate card issued outside of JR East with no financial service attached to it. As treastrain notes, it’s weird that Suica plus is being used for a rechargeable ¥500 deposit Suica with no attached credit card, but we are in uncharted territory with new features to come.

Suica 2 in 1 is the first Suica based on the new FeliCa Standard SD2 card. We can’t see exactly how FeliCa SD2 is used to deliver 2 in 1 functionality but FeliCa Dude gives us an excellent rundown of 2 important additions: Extended Overlap Service (points and passes) and Value Limited Purse Service (purse). These are tools for JR East and the other Transit IC operators to integrate services in new ways, implement their own version of 2 in 1, raise the balance limit and more. The new FeliCa SD2 features have big implications. Like all things the Super part of Super Suica depends on what JR East and the other CJRC members (Congress of Japanese Railway Cybernetics) mutually accomplish using these new FeliCa and Suica parts. The more region transit cards that migrate and merge inside the Transit IC square while addressing regional needs, the better.

totra Suica 2 in 1 has 2 issue numbers for JR East and the region transit card operator. JR East owns the SF (stored fare) purse, which means they own the float.
Suica 2 in 1 extensively uses the new FeliCa Standard SD2 Extended Overlap Service

What about mobile?
It’s important to remember that 2 in 1 Suica extends Transit IC coverage, including Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO, into new transit areas. 2 in 1 Suica is limited to plastic issue at this point so those users do not have a mobile option. 2 in 1 Mobile Suica service depends on resolving 4 things:

  • Will Mobile FeliCa be upgraded with the new FeliCa SD2 functions?
  • Will Mobile FeliCa be updated on Osaifu Keitai and Apple devices?
  • Will JR East manage Mobile Suica card issue for outside transit companies
  • Is there an (local 2 in 1 Suica transit card) app for that?

Mobile Suica already hosts Suica ‘+’ cards (Mizuho Suica and Rakuten Suica) and FeliCa Pocket services are designed for physical cards and mobile. 2 in 1 is a new card so the first hurdle is upgrading Mobile FeliCa to support SD2 card features and pushing that update to devices.

FeliCa Dude posted some tweets that suggest Mobile FeliCa 4.x on Android devices can be updated but industry practice on the Android side so far has been doing a pre-install and leaving it at that. If users want newer Mobile FeliCa features, get a new device. Apple can certainly update Mobile FeliCa on their custom embedded secure element, but will they?If nothing else I think the recent addition of Garmin Pay Suica and Fitbit Pay Suica indicates that FeliCa Networks is getting better at pushing new services from Mobile FeliCa Cloud.

The app question is another hurdle and a bit complicated. The whole 2 in 1 concept means 2 different managed services are bundled in a single card. Who manages what? While it makes sense to add 2 in 1 Suica non-JR East local commuter routes for purchase and renewal in Mobile Suica and Suica App, local area transit point account management needs to be handled in a separate app. Does each 2 in 1 Suica locale handle that? That approach makes sense but JR East could certainly help with coordinating support and leveraging common resources and infrastructure to eliminate redundancy.

Summary
2021 is only the start line for 2 in 1 Suica with totra and Iwate Green Card. 2022 will see 6 more 2 in1 Suica cards, probably more, it will be the real coming out year. By then Mobile ICOCA will be on the horizon, I think we’ll know if 2 in 1 is the start of Super Suica…or not. If the other Transit IC partners simply copy what JR East is doing with 2 in 1 region cards, that will be super enough for the people who live, work and go to school in those regions.

Public tests for new JR East Suica/QR combo transit gate (Updated)

The new JR East Suica/QR gate design was unveiled back in December along with the new Takanawa Gateway station details. Test gate installations have been in service at Takanawa Gateway and JR Shinjuku New South exit these past few months but only for Suica and the QR reader covered up. If you have your heart set on trying one out, go to Takanawa Gateway where JR East officials will take the cover off the QR reader from September 15~29 (except for 9/24~27) for public tests.

QR will eventually replace mag strip paper tickets which are increasing expensive to recycle, and the new gates will gradually replace those ingenious paper ticket/Suica combo transit gates made by Omron. I have tried the new gate in Shinjuku and all I can say is…I’m glad I wear my Apple Watch / Apple Pay Suica on the right.

No moving parts is boring…but cheaper than intricate mag strip reading mechanisms

UPDATE: Conflicted Impressions
Junya Suzuki has posted a deeper dive into the QR reader design on the new JR East gates with his usual fascinating analysis. Suzuki san is very big on the evolution of Suica away from local processing to a centrally processed unique ID model that does away with stored fare.

His IT background experience really shines through as he makes a convincing argument that a centralized unique Suica ID approach greatly simplifies the IT system by reducing hot-list/off-list refreshes that have to be coordinated between local and central systems.

We’ll have to see how things pan out with next generation FeliCa and next generation ‘Super Suica’ in 2021. There will be a definite focus on cloud + local, but I have doubts that Suzuki san’s centralized everything vision is always the best approach.

Perhaps I am missing something in his analysis, but I think there’s a happy medium that leverages the strengths of both for a robust innovative transit fare payment system as the centerpiece of the transit business platform.

Here’s a recap of his observations and reader feedback:

Separate QR reader placement
In Suzuki san’s piece JR East tech leads explain that widely separate NFC and QR readers work much better than an all-in-one approach. NFC always reacts faster than QR and this creates problems with the all-in-one reader and smartphones when fast, clean, precise read times are required. The gate QR sensor is made by DENSO. If you have ever used a poky DENSO POS QR+NFC reader at store checkout, you can relate.

Security Invisible Ink
As FeliCa Dude points out, JR East is likely using IR transparent ink to create unique ID codes for security. Apparently this is already used for Okinawa Monorail Okica QR paper tickets.

Poor Walk Flow
One of the great things about the mag strip paper ticket gates is they pull the ticket into the machine and spit it out at the other end of the gate. This is clever guided incentive to keep walking to pick up the ticket. With QR code transit gates people stop and wait for the reader to do something. Another nice thing about mag ticket machines is they eat the used tickets. The QR paper ticket downside not mentioned by JR East or the media: where do people put their used tickets for paper recycle? Who and what collects them, a bin?

Rethinking Face ID in the Face Mask Touchless Era (Updated)

When iPhone X came out in November 2017, IT journalist Tsutsumu Ishikawa named Suica the Apple Pay winner. What he really meant to say was that Suica Express Transit was the only easy way to use Face ID Apple Pay. It took me a long time to get used to Face ID Apple Pay but now with the COVDID-19 crisis and regulation face masks, the choices are back at square one: (1) yank down the face mask to Face ID anything, (2) use a passcode instead, (3) use Apple Pay Suica set with Express Transit. Yeah, the last one. More people have Express Transit now in China, TfL-land and little bits of the MTA OMNY system but nobody has it for purchases. Except Apple Pay Suica, still the only Express Transit card for contactless payments at stores.

In the sudden era of face masks and plastic curtained checkout areas, dealing with Face ID as little as possible, and using Apple Pay Suica as much as possible, makes life easier and safer: experts in Japan instruct people not to touch face mask surfaces and you don’t want to be yanking down a face mask to use Face ID Apple Pay at close proximity checkout. The interim solution is Apple Pay on Apple Watch which does not use Face/Touch ID at all. But there is that social distance problem: your arm has to reach the reader. That’s the thing about NFC, it’s close proximity technology. So are QR Codes.

The Touchless Distance
When I first saw the NTT Docomo Ultra Wideband Touchless Mobile FeliCa demo I though why would anybody want to pay a few feet away from the reader? Outside of paying while sitting in the drive thru I could not think of a reason. After living with Face ID, face masks and COVID-19 social distancing, I see the reason now at every checkout at every store. I want it. You will too (the 1:20 mark):

And for cars too, CarKey will work like this at some point (0:13 mark):

Touchless Transit Gate vs Facial Recognition
The COVID-19 crisis upends another Face ID related technology fantasy: facial recognition transit gates. NEC is working on face recognition that works with face masks. If anybody can deliver viable face recognition with face masks NEC will certainly be one of the first, but there are cost, performance and privacy issues to consider for transit gates: how fast is the transaction speed, how well does it scale for commuter rush, how do you register faces? Who controls all that transit gate face data and is it stored domestically or data farmed out internationally?

Mobile FeliCa and MIFARE Touchless is the same device level security model we have now with Apple Pay Suica and Student ID, and what we will have with CarKey and shared ‘keys’. UWB is a new hardware layer on top of what already exists, it bridges the NFC infrastructure and contactless payment methods we have now and extends it to the future instead of junking it.

Osaka Metro plans to have face recognition transit gates deployed in time for Osaka Expo 2025. It’s a risky transition plan. Touchless transit gates are the safer bet. Sony, Docomo, NXP, JR East, JREM are doing the necessary hardware and software development with the same embedded secure element security and local processing architecture we have now. Osaka Metro can buy the finished goods from them instead of reinventing the wheel.

Fixing Face ID Shortcomings
On the smartphone side Apple already has the Ultra Wideband U1 chip in iPhone 11. The next step is Apple Pay support as outlined in the iOS 14 Apple Pay post. I hope Apple uses the opportunity of adding UWB Touchless Apple Pay to enhance Face ID with improved technology and controls. Express Card/Express Transit is the Apple Pay method to bypass Face/Touch ID for transit, purchases (Suica) and ID door access (Student ID and CarKey). Extending the Express Card/Express Transit model as much as possible, while keeping the high level of security, is one practical way Apple Pay can address some of the Face ID in face mask era pain points.

Longer term, Face ID has to evolve to securely read faces with face masks reliably. If Face ID cannot be secure, intuitive and face mask user friendly, I don’t see a future for it, or being the iPhone model that customers want to buy. This is why iPhone SE is looking like Apple’s most important product launch of 2020.

Last but not least I don’t see Open Loop transit ever working with Touchless technology. Open Loop will likely remain a NFC only service because EMVCo partners are invested in lower common hardware standards like ISO14443 and plastic cards and probably loath to update them. Certainly they don’t want to lose the plastic card issue business because it’s more profitable than issuing digital ones. EMVCo certainly didn’t see the current situation coming, nor did Apple of course. But then again who did?


UPDATES

iOS 13.5 Face ID tweak
iOS 13.5 beta 3 has a Face ID tweak: when it detects a face mask it no longer delays the swipe up Passcode pop up with a 2nd read attempt, it goes straight to Passcode pop up. This small tweak remove a tiny bit of Face ID with face mask stress, but tiny things add up when unlocking iPhone many times a day. But for me Passcode pop up was only one stumbling block, a second bigger stumbling block is Passcode entry via the numeric keyboard.

There is a curious lag between what your fingers are tapping, the feedback click sound and what tap the iPhone actually registers. If you closely inspect the visual tap feedback, it flashes white then fades slowly, while the click just clicks.Taken all together, my brain wants to type fast and tells me the my 2 thumb input is going fast, but the iPhone Passcode numeric keyboard wants me to type slow with 1 thumb. Perhaps it’s just me but I only get correct passcode entry 50% of the time unless I slow way down and type with 1 thumb.

Overall the Face ID with face mask tweak seems more for iPhone unlock, it’s much less useful for Apple Pay. I hope Apple continues to tweak Face ID before iOS 13.5 ships but the reality is Apple can’t do very much in a short time.

John Gruber had an interesting observation regarding another iOS 13.5 beta 3 tweak, this one for Group FaceTime:

methinks a lot of folks at Apple (executives included) are using group FaceTime chats more than ever before lately, and have realized that in practice, especially in larger groups, it’s not a good experience.

Daring Fireball: ANOTHER IOS 13.5 BETA TWEAK: AN OPTION TO DISABLE ‘AUTOMATIC PROMINENCE’ FOR THE CURRENT SPEAKER’S TILE IN GROUP FACETIME

Unfortunately it’s the same for Face ID: Apple is only addressing it because Apple execs are wearing face masks. It’s very frustrating that Apple is only dealing with the Face ID with face mask issue now that it’s on their face. Customers in Asia have been wrestling with it since iPhone X day one November 2017. At any rate I hope Apple puts the experience to good use for a better future version of Face ID.

The return of Touch ID?
The release of iPhone SE and iPad Air with Touch ID on the power button has some tech bloggers speculating if this means a dual biometric approach for future iPhone models. I don’t think so.

JR East Shinkansen eTicket Service Launch (Updated)

March 14 marked the end of Mobile Suica Shinkansen ticketing in Suica App and the start of a new open IC transit card eTicket Shinkansen service. It doesn’t have name. It’s just one of many ticket options available in the good old JR East ‘Eki-net’ (Station-net) online ticket reservation service, well known and not loved by many. A Japanese friend said it best, “You would think that a top tier Japanese company like JR East with many smart employees would create something better than Eki-net or pay somebody to do so.”

The problem is not that Eki-net doesn’t work. It works, but throwing everything new (IC transit card eTickets) and old (email tickets and paper tickets) in same Eki-net shoebox is a cluttered unwieldy package, a confusing and messy UI not nearly as convenient as JR East wants us to believe. Instead of a sleek new Shinkansen eTicket service, we get the same stodgy paper ticket service with a new hard to find eTicket option.

JR East would have been better off making a clean break by rebranding the new eTickets as a completely different service with a new spiffy name and separate multi-lingual app, just like JR Central’s SmartEX with the addition of new eTicket options over time. The less is more SmartEX approach focuses exclusively on Shinkansen eTickets and eliminates local line travel options because those are covered by Suica/ICOCA/Toica, etc. Eki-net on the other hand makes a big deal of ‘big trip’ options covering everything from Shinkansen and regular express trains to tour packages and car rentals.

The Eki-net approach does have one advantage over the 2-tier JR Central/JR West SmartEX (free membership with small discounts) and EX-Press Reserve (annual membership fee/special IC card/bigger discounts): Eki-net is ‘flat’ with free membership, offering the same discounts to all members in one service. Shinkansen eTickets are only available at launch from the online Eki-net site. I recommend the more streamlined smartphone online browser version. JR East has announced an updated Eki-net App for App Store/Google Play with eTicket support that should be coming March 21 (now postponed to an unknown future date). The new eTicket service is also available to JR West e5489 ticket reservation service members as JR West shares Hokuriku Shinkansen operations with JR East.

The end of Mobile Suica eTickets in Suica App means a mandatory app update that strips out the retired service. Users must update to the new 2.6 version by March 18. After this date older Suica App versions stop working. The migration from the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service has good and bad points:

Good Points
JR East Shinkansen eTickets are compatible with all major transit IC cards. This finally opens JR East operated Shinkansen lines to plastic and mobile transit cards, the old system was limited to Mobile Suica. An interesting new twist is that up to 6 transit IC cards can be attached to one account for family or group travel.

Bad Points
The migration from the Mobile Suica Shinkansen/Suica App system means no more Suica App/Apple Pay in-app purchases, you must register an Eki-Net account, yes another JR East service, and a credit card. The current Eki-net system is designed around the account registered credit card for paper ticket pickup at station kiosks using the card PIN code, this effectively eliminates Apple Pay/Google Pay as an in-app purchase choice. Last but not least the new Shinkansen eTicket service is Japanese language only.

New IC/QR gates at JR Takanawa Gateway Station opening March 14

Shinkansen eTickets are only the first step in a long term migration away from mag strip paper tickets. Mag strip ticket gates are more expensive than transit gates with NFC or QR readers with higher maintenance costs, there is also the increasing cost of recycling the special mag strip paper.

Paper tickets for all transit will remain a cash purchase at station kiosks, as they must, these will be QR codes instead of mag strip. The tricky parts are: 1) how much ticketing can be ported over to the transit IC card side 2) what local transit fare tiers apply to QR. Since Shinkansen eTickets are simply one time purchase options attached to a transit IC card number in the cloud, theoretically any purchased option can be attached to a transit IC card number. Local transit has fare tier for cash tickets and a less expensive one for transit IC cards.

I see local transit cash fare tiers staying in place for station kiosk purchased QR paper tickets, but I don’t see smartphone app QR Codes for one time local transit. The cheaper fare tier incentive for reusable transit IC cards will likely remain in place. This leaves smartphone app QR Codes for express trains, limited use tourist/season/campaign passes and group travel.

Mag strip tickets have served us very well for the past 30 years. The final migration to Mobile/NFC/QR will be interesting but I’ll miss those marvelously mechanical ticket gates from Omron.


UPDATE
Eki-net app v1.2 is out and supports Shinkansen eTicket reservations. The reservations process is straight forward and similar to SmartEX: choose the Shinkansen line, set stations points+date+time, select a Shinkansen train. The next step is departs from SmartEx because the Eki-net eTicket service supports up to 6 transit IC cards (plastic, Mobile Suica, Mobile PASMO), you select the transit IC card to attach the eTicket. The final step is ticket purchase with the Eki-net account registered credit card. A big difference with the old Suica App Shinkansen service is that Apple Pay in-app purchases are no longer supported.

I hope that JR East restores Apple Pay in-app purchase at some point. Setting up a new account and registering cards for every new JR East service, (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-net, etc.) is also a huge pain and practically impossible for occasional users. Sign in with Apple ID and Apple Pay support for on the spot purchases is a much better deal for people who don’t want to juggle multiple accounts, passwords and credit cards. Last but not least Eki-net is Japanese language only, and account creation/management requires a trip to the awful Eki-net web site. Please fix this JR East, with so few people riding trains right now you have the free time to do it.