It’s that time of year again to think about FeliCa support on the Google Pixel platform as Pixel 5 approaches. Ever since Pixel 3 things have been the stuck in a rut: the same global NFC (A-B-F) chip is used in all models but only FeliCa keys for card emulation are installed on Japanese models, i.e., no Suica for you if you don’t have one of those.
I used to think that Google was going cheap instead of deep. Google is cheap here actually, and lazy, but there are some other reasons. It goes back to the problem many people had with Google Pay Japan FeliCa support to begin with: it’s only a UI candy coating on top of the aging Osaifu Keitai stack and apps. Instead of doing a true top to bottom Google Pay global NFC solution like Apple did, Google Pay Japan FeliCa support is just surfing on the Osaifu Keitai board. And of course the Android Pay HCE-F thing is long since dead, it’s eSE or nothing now.
The real problem is this: Osaifu Keitai is a domestic platform, Osaifu Keitai apps (Suica, etc.) are domestic apps. The various Osaifu Keitai partners and developers don’t want to deal with the extra expense of multi-lingual localization and support. But neither does Google, hence the logjam.
Google’s recent purchase of Fitbit might be the agent of change that finally breaks the jam. The Osaifu Keitai model doesn’t extend to wearables. Google Pay has to come up with something new to replace Fitbit Pay, something that works across paired devices seamlessly if Google Pay Suica is to exist on a Fitbit smartwatch paired with Pixel.
There is something new this time around that didn’t exist, or at least didn’t exist as a developer product back in 2018: Mobile FeliCa Platform and Mobile FeliCa Cloud for supporting all kinds of Mobile FeliCa services worldwide. I’m sure this arrangement got Suica on Garmin Pay.
Taken together I think there is a better chance Google will go deep instead of cheap, hopefully sooner than later. Google Pay Suica and Google Pay PASMO on Pixel and Fitbit devices from anywhere would be a very welcome development.
9 months is a quick turnaround for announcing and launching an entirely new mobile transit service across 2 digital wallet platforms: Android (Osaifu Keitai) and Apple Pay. It sure beats Cubic Transportation Systems who have yet to get Apple Pay Ventra out the door more than a year after it was first announced in March 2019 on the far less complex Chicago transit area.
While many Apple Pay users in Japan are happy to have PASMO, there is always that nagging question: if I already have Apple Pay Suica that works nationwide, what’s the point of Apple Pay PASMO? All the major transit cards are cross compatible, the only difference is commuter passes…and reward points. As FeliCa Dude so astutely explained in his excellent Reddit post, Mobile PASMO is a boondoggle, the result of JR East and PASMO Association failing to cooperate and mutually host commute plans…and points.
All Japanese transit cards are slightly different versions of Suica. There could easily be one national transit card and Japanese users absolutely would love having it, but ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, SUGOCA, Kitaca, nimoca and Hayaken want to hang on to commuter passes…and points. The good news is that (1) Mobile PASMO got off the ground in a very short time, (2) JR East is providing Mobile Suica cloud assets. I suspect Mobile Suica is likely hosting Mobile PASMO as well but whatever deal they cut is hush-hush.
Suica growth, the CASHLESS tax rebate effect, COVID and all that Junya Suzuki beat me to the punch today with an excellent piece that covers the Apple Pay PASMO announcement and several recent Suica trends including the recent addition of Suica to Square. The most important one to me is the July 2020 edition JR East factsheet Suica section: “Number of e-money available shops”. The number of Suica ready stores increased 50% YOY by 324,000 in the March 2019~March 2020 fiscal year with store growth outside of station areas increasing the most.
This is a direct result of the CASHLESS Tax Rebate program which provided merchant subsidies for cashless infrastructure. That program ended June 30 but there is talk in government circles of implementing a similar program to boost the economy and drive cashless use in the COVID era.
Suzuki san points out what I have said in other posts, Mobile Suica growth from the October 2016 Apple Pay Suica start point is remarkable: 9.3 million users as of March 2020. And the growth rate is accelerating. Smaller and less expensive mobile devices like Apple Watch with Apple Pay Suica and Garmin Suica make the mobile transition attractive for a wider number of users.
With restricted travel in the COVID era every single transit company in Japan is facing tremendous pressure to reduce costs. Moving away from high cost plastic transit cards with cut and past Mobile Suica IT assets and next generation Suica card architecture will be the easiest way to do that.
The rush to mobile It starts now. Apple Pay PASMO marks the start point of a transit IC card rush to mobile digital wallets. Mobile PASMO is rebranded Mobile Suica. With next generation aka Super Suica coming in 2021, at the very least I think we’ll see similar arrangements from JR West ICOCA, JR Central TOICA and other major transit IC cards. With the addition of MaaS NFC Tag Suica, we’ll see a faster, wider uptake of Mobile Suica and sister services for payments everywhere.
And for those Open Loop advocates out there Junya Suzuki has some surprising analysis regarding the Japanese transit scene: despite some limited installation such as Okinawa Monorail, he does’t see transit companies going in for Open Loop in any big way. Mag strip paper ticketing will gradually be eliminated as next generation transit gates go into service over the next few years but mobile transit cards and paper QR Codes will be the replacement, not Open Loop.
As I have said before, the whole ‘Open Loop vs Closed Loop aka EMV contactless bank cards vs Native IC transit cards’ debate is pre-mobile plastic era out of date thinking. Mobile wallets and apps have tossed that whole game out the window for good. Why do you think QR Code payments and UWB Touchless are coming to Apple Pay in iOS 14? It’s a whole new crazy game. Better get used to it.
A reader pointed out that I was wrong. iOS still uses the PassKit Suica Shinkansen call with Eki-net eTickets and Notification Center throws out the same ‘Shinkansen’ Suica Notification when the user goes through a JR East Shinkansen gate with a cloud based eTicket.
The eTicket cloud service interaction with the local Apple Pay Suica card on iPhone offers some insight into what JR East (JRE) is up to as it closes in on the next generation ‘2 in 1’ Suica architecture due for release in spring 2021. JRE has said many times and in many ways that the future of the Suica platform will combine cloud services with the fast local processing of the FeliCa powered Suica architecture. However, details are few, with different pieces dribbled out in bits.
What’s the overall vision and goal of next generation Suica, which I call Super Suica? There’s a lot of ground to cover so let’s examine things in 2 basic categories: the card architecture (offline and local) and the platform (cloud) even as those distinctions are increasingly blurred. Here is my take based on what JRE has announced so far.
Super Suica: the Transit Card
The next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Suica architecture hosts partner transit cards and services on Suica infrastructure, effectively extending the Suica system to non-JRE transit companies. 2 in 1 partner transit cards gain the benefit of Suica hardware and Mobile Suica infrastructure with considerable cost savings related to plastic card issue and management. The heart of Super Suica remains the offline stored fare. JRE hopes to grow Mobile Suica cloud services as much as possible with the lower cost next generation Super Suica architecture.
Stored Value Update, Region expansion and Commuter Pass Changes Starting with the basics, it’s a no-brainer that Super Suica will raise the current ¥20,000 stored value limit, likely doubling it to ¥40,000. This would put it in line with other eMoney prepaid cards like WAON and nanaco, also similar to the recent Hong Kong Octopus stored value update. The increase would have broad appeal to tourists, business travelers and shoppers everywhere and extend the JR East ‘Touch ‘n Go” ticketless Shinkansen service area.
A long standing hurdle for Super Suica to clear is the transit IC card region limitation. The current transit card architecture assigns cards to a unique areas and the stored value doesn’t work across regions. Transit systems within the same card region such as JR East and PASMO have their fare systems connected so that a user’s transit card can enter a JR East station then exit a PASMO member station with the fare instantly calculated and deducted from the offline card balance.
This region limitation is a real problem for transit users in fringe areas. In order to use an IC transit card they have to exit and re-enter separate transit company gates at specific transfer station points. There is a Japanese word for this: matagaru which means ‘dismounting the saddle’. The only viable options are mag strip commuter passes or paper tickets.
The ‘2 in 1’ Super Suica concept has special meaning for commuter passes. The current Suica only supports 2 basic patterns via a card id commuter pass account number: JR East only lines, and connected commuter passes covering JR East and connecting lines. 2 in 1 Super Suica will support commuter passes on non-JR East lines and bus lines.
Super Suica: the Platform
One primary aim of Super Suica is extending the platform reach with shared infrastructure to rural areas too small to establish their own local transit cards. Pay close attention to the transit cards outside the pink area, with the exception of PiTaPa. These are 2nd tier local area transit cards currently orphaned from eMoney or transit interoperability. There are also ‘off the map’ areas such as Utsunomiya Light Rail and Iwate Transit Co. Ltd. who have announced Super Suica agreements with JRE. These are the initial target areas.
Super Suica enlarges the pink area to include those 2nd tier and off the map cards. Those who sign on join the common interpretability area for transit and eMoney, and also gain access to Mobile Suica hosted Apple Pay Suica, Google Pay Suica and Osaifu Keitai. This is a real boon for smaller areas who, up to now, couldn’t afford to launch their own card operations. I suspect it will be very attractive to all transit card operators who run on shoe string budgets, they can save money by offloading card operations to JRE and get the mobile goodies.
What does Super Suica mean for the major transit cards like JR West (ICOCA), JR Central (TOICA) and others? It depends on what kind of deal JRE offers them. Even if the majors don’t sign on directly I see them getting access to the new Suica card format and Mobile Suica IT assets.
2 in 1 Reward Points and Auto-Charge In addition to the 2 in 1 commuter passes, Super Suica also supports different reward point systems. ‘2 in 1’ partner Super Suica users will be able to exchange points for a Super Suica recharge just like they do now with JRE POINT and Rakuten Pay points. Auto-Charge for 2 in 1 partner branded credit cards will certainly be supported as well. Points and Auto-Charge may seem mundane but they are very important to customers and transit companies, a vital part of luring foot traffic, new businesses and visitors to local areas in an era of shrinking passenger traffic.
Expanding and leveraging the Recharge Backend The ever expanding Mobile Suica recharge backend is a fascinating development mostly ignored by the media even though it’s where the action is. Suica and the other transit cards are a huge green pasture full of cash (less) cows waiting to be milked by card companies and payment platforms. JRE lets them milk Mobile Suica cows for a cut. Up until Apple Pay Suica came along in 2016, JRE was the only recharge backend. As of July 2020 there are 5: JRE, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Mizuho, Rakuten. 2 in 1 partners will have the ability to add their own recharge backends with apps, if they so choose.
Other points to remember: the recharge backend only works on iOS and Android platforms, point rewards can be used for Suica recharge. Currently that only works with JRE POINT and Rakuten Points but this will be extended to the ‘2 in 1’ partner point systems.
MaaS NFC Tag Suica It’s clear that the really big Super Suica changes will be on the cloud side. Transit card eMoney has been a huge success, but Suica has to evolve to remain a viable payment platform in today’s hyper competitive world of mobile payments.
That next step is Suica NFC Tag payments. Think of it as Suica transactions without a reader, where your smartphone is both Suica card and Suica reader and let’s call it MaaS Suica. JRE joined the MaaS alliance in November 2019 closely followed by an December 2019 press release announcing NFC Tag tests with 4 partners: JRE (Suica), DNP (NFC Tags), Sony (FeliCa) and AquaBit Spirals (NFC Tag SmartPlate payments software).
JRE & us (AquaBit Spirals) have announced to conduct technical verification for the use of NFC tags focusing on transportation and ‘payments’, and that the role of Sony is to investigate technical specs as part of promoting a lifestyle through ‘FeliCa’ tech. You may know what we mean😉
AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara
It’s clearly implied by the diagram and by comments from AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara that Suica powers the NFC Tag payments middle section via the cloud. This means the Suica card balance on a device works ‘over the cloud’. Suica is unchained from the NFC reader infrastructure and can be used to pay for any kind of NFC Tag linked service or item.
NFC Tags and App Clips level the playing field with QR One of the ways PayPay and other QR Code players disrupted the Japanese market so quickly was leveraging the low entry point bar of static QR codes combined with mobile smartphone apps. All stores need is an official QR Code sticker. Small merchants are freed from having to invest in POS hardware to go cashless.
The pieces appear to fit very nicely now: the NFC background tag sheet pops-up ‘while the screen is on’, the right code snippets load in for a simple focused task, the user can Sign In with Apple ID if needed, and pay with Apple Pay. Simple, uncluttered action; no apps, no Safari launch. And we have background NFC tag reading on every current iPhone model.
MaaS Suica wrapped up in new technologies like App Clips and background tag reading iPhone has the potential to take the Suica eMoney payment platform to a whole new level. Success depends on how aggressively JRE promotes the service and how they license it to sister transit card operators. It would be great if we got MasS Suica, MaaS ICOCA etc. working seamlessly as a single mobile payment just like transit cards do now.
Based on what JRE has said over the past 2 years in the press and in recent company announcements, it seems we’ll have 4 basic versions of Suica: (1) Hard-wire Suica (what we have now) for major stations and stores, (2)Wireless Suica, a simplified low cost cloud based gate terminals to cover rural stations not currently on the Suica map, (3) MaaS NFC Tag Suica without dedicated hardware for anywhere, anytime App Clips-like mobile payments, (4) Licensed Mobile Suica assets and card architecture for PASMO, ICOCA
There will be 2 kinds of Super Suica partners:
Direct 2 in 1 partners host cards on Super Suica with all the benefits of Mobile Suica.
Indirect partners get the new Suica card architecture, New FeliCa OS improvements, Mobile Suica IT assets and wireless Suica gate system technology. The arrangement will be similar Mobile PASMO who licensed Mobile Suica IT assets but run their own cloud service with their own backend mobile recharge, commuter passes and reward points.
Mobile PASMO was first announced in January 2020, launched on Android Osaifu Keitai in March and Apple Pay PASMO with arrive with the iOS 14 update this fall. 9 months is a quick turnaround for announcing and launching an entirely new mobile transit service across 2 digital wallet platforms: Android (Osaifu Keitai) and iOS/watchOS Apple Pay. This speedy rollout was possible because Mobile PASMO is rebranded Mobile Suica cloud assets.
Think of Mobile PASMO as a trial run for the major transit card players following the same strategy and launching Mobile ICOCA, Mobile TOICA, etc., starting in 2021. Next generation Super Suica won’t be a slam dunk national transit card that does it all, but it will be start line towards that goal in a race that has already started: a new foundation of shared infrastructure and services with transit companies working toward a cohesive de facto standard that has lots of mobile potential.
In these COVID challenged times all transit companies are under enormous pressure to reduce redundant infrastructure, streamline and bury old grudges. The current situation will drive Super Suica and mobile uptake as the payoff is more mobile services with reduced operating costs. Another case of COVID driven ‘unfortunate success’. I remain hopeful that, in the end, we’ll be pleasantly surprised.
As COVID restrictions are eased and the world slowly goes back to work, school and hopefully slightly more normal life, avoiding crowds will be key in keeping COVID from becoming resurgent in the months ahead.
For commuters in Japanese metro areas avoiding crowds is no easy matter. Fortunately the Japanese transit gate infrastructure is a great help. FeliCa based IC transit cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.) with fast transaction speeds combined with open gate flap design maximizes people flow: people walk through gates at normal pace. This is very important for Japanese stations that have to make do with large crowds in limited spaces and smaller gate areas.
It’s wrong however, to think that this only applies to Japan. The benefits of fast tap speed combined with intelligent transit gate design are relevant everywhere and very necessary in this day and age: fast gate tap speed is essential in keeping gate crowding at a minimum. It makes things safer not only for train operation, but also addresses crowd control health concerns in the COVID era.
A reader sent a link to a good discussion of NFC protocols and gate tap speeds that was apparently deleted when YouTube comments were turned off. I retyped the comment in the section below from a screenshot with some light editing for clarity. If I find the author I will link to the original. The videos have already appeared in other posts but it’s good have them in one place. A previous installment already covered QR transit code gate issues, this post will focus on NFC tap speeds.
While transit gates and NFC processors are found worldwide, what makes the Japanese gates different from the rest of the world is they don’t use global standard ISO 14443 (never mind Type A which uses Miller bit coding, the least efficient bit coding method) protocol which is common in many transit and bank cards issued worldwide.
The tap time with ISO 14443 Type A (née Philips) and B (née Motorola) varies greatly: from 200 to 500 milliseconds (ms) with 200 ms only achievable with Type B/Calypso. But it never reaches the short as 100 ms which is only achieved with Felica developed by Sony, also designated NFC-F and NFC Tag Type 3 by the NFC Forum and compatible with ISO 18092 which is commonly found in smartphones and NFC wearables since 2013. In this following video passengers maintain their walking pace but never overshoot and trigger a gate closure nor slow down not even a bit:
It may seem like a minor difference but due to the high volume of passengers per gate and to reduce gate maintenance requirements, tap times really matter.
Companies such as JR East have specified tap time of 200 ms but Suica is actually faster and this allows real life speed tolerances: some passengers tap faster than others due to walking pace, the higher speed tolerances are only possible with the 100 ms tap time of FeliCa. A comparison example of large crowds at gates in Malaysia and Japan below:
Open Loop NFC ticketing in its current form is based on EMVCo Contactless specifications adopted in contactless bank cards issued worldwide including China UnionPay QuickPass which is PBOC derived from the EMVCo Contactless spec. All of these use ISO 14443 Type A at 106 kbps only for 500 ms tap time, which is adopted in cities worldwide such as London, New York, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro where normal walking speed is never supported.
But as seen here, transit cards in Japan such as Suica, PASMO and ICOCA are supported for ultra hight speed and precise account verification and fare processing. Transit cards use offline Stored Fare (SF) which includes the amount of funds stored in the card’s IC smart chip data storage, NOT backend on a server like a bank card, and stored commuter passes. Here are walk flow comparisons for Tokyo and London, and MTA OMNY Open Loop performance:
EMV is payment technology created for leisurely supermarket checkout, not whizzing through transit gates at rush hour. It doesn’t address the needs of transit and never will in it’s current format because it is controlled by credit card companies. NFC Forum partners need create a single faster more reliable NFC standard encompassing NFC A-B-F and other wireless technologies, a new standard that improves and expands the NFC user experience on mobile devices for digital transit, digital keys and payments, while making it all future-proof.
The iOS 13.4 update adds a few interesting UI tweaks to Wallet and Suica. On the performance front iOS 13.4 Apple Pay Suica is the same level of stability we’ve seen on every release since iOS 12.3. The UI for Suica commuter pass has changed slightly with more detail in a separate window-let just below Suica balance/recharge. The commute pass renew button is gone too, but I’m pretty sure it re-appears during the 2 week renew period. I’ll update when confirmed.
I missed a change in the beta: the JP Wallet blurb has been updated slightly too. The Suica mention has been replaced with a generic ‘Transit IC card’. This change is very interesting in light of the recent Mobile PASMO Android release. It could be a sign that Mobile PASMO will be coming to Apple Pay before iOS 14….whenever that is.
Update: some readers have questioned whether this is just a change to bring different region Wallet blurbs in line with each other. Apple Pay Wallet for Hong Kong, for example, added ‘Travel Cards” in iOS 13.0 even though Apple Pay Octopus has yet to appear. But region differences are still there: transit IC cards, travel cards, transit cards. Suica has massive brand recognition in Japan. Apple has leveraged the Suica brand at every opportunity and would not swap it for generic wording lightly, not without a very good reason: more transit IC cards. There is also timing. Mobile PASMO started service March 18, just as iOS 13.4 GM was going out to developers. If it was just a text change, Apple would have done this earlier with the iOS 13.0 debut.