Now that Google Pixel Watch Suica is here, the obvious questions are: is it global NFC or is it limited to JP models, is Suica the only JP payment service? EMV is there of course, PASMO joined Google Pay recently with clear signs that Wear OS support is also in the works. At the very least we can expect PASMO in a future Pixel Watch update, but so far there is no mention of iD, QUICPay and other Google Pay FeliCa payment services on Wear OS.
On the global NFC side, things turned out exactly as predicted (copied below from May 2022). Pixel 7 Mobile FeliCa support is the same old ‘cheap instead of deep‘ story: all models have the same NFC hardware with Mobile FeliCa loaded, but Google only fully activates it for JP models, in other words they continue to kneecap NFC on non-JP Pixel phones.
Pixel Watch lists FeliCa on the spec page for all models and regions, it is global NFC…but is kneecapped in the initial Wear OS version. The Mobile FeliCa Cloud (aka Mobile FeliCa Lite) powered backend is the same used by Garmin and Fitbit that delivers a geolocation locked subset of Mobile Suica services; you get the stored fare balance (SF) functions and little else. All worldwide models support Suica but it can only be added on registered devices physically located in Japan, that is to say FeliCa support is limited by location not the device model. While not ideal, it does provide some highly useful digital payment functionality for inbound visitors with those devices.
Instead of limiting Suica by geolocation that Garmin and (Google owned) Fitbit do, Google kneecapped Pixel Watch Suica for some unknown reason, limiting Suica to JP models as Pixel Watch help documentation makes clear. It looks like a major fuckup for an expensive smart device from a leading tech company that can and should work the same everywhere.
Fortunately Google promises a Wear OS update that removes the NFC kneecap allowing all Pixel Watch users to add Suica when in Japan, just like Garmin and Fitbit. We shall see if Google keeps their promise. Pixel Watch Suica has other limitations similar to Garmin and Fitbit: no Suica commuter plans, no Suica plastic card transfers, no Suica Green Car Seats, no Suica Day Passes, etc, but you can register Pixel Watch Suica for extra services: JRE POINT, Eki-Net, Touch and Go Shinkansen.
In short, that state of Google Pay on Pixel 7•Pixel Watch is not the Apple Pay-like overhaul for robust native global NFC across the entire Pixel family many were hoping for. If Google delivers on their promise to remove the Pixel Watch NFC kneecap, all those users can at least use Suica. It does raise the question I asked back in May, if all Pixel Watches do Suica, why not Pixel 7? Pixel 7 is perfectly capable but Google is keeping that NFC kneecap in place. And there is the glaring Google Pay gap between Pixel 7 JP models which support all contactless JP payments from Suica to iD to Edy, while Pixel Watch only supports one: Suica.
Meanwhile Apple Watch remains the only full featured global NFC Suica wearable because Apple took the time and effort to do Apple Pay right…what else is new?
I’ll update this post with Pixel FeliCa details as they become available.
Will Pixel Watch finally deliver global NFC Google Pay? (May 2022) Ever since Apple made global NFC standard on all iPhone and Apple Watch models in 2017, global NFC has become a litmus test of ultimate Apple-like user friendliness. When inbound devices can add Suica, it’s not only cool, but also necessary to get around. Garmin and Fitbit wearables do the global NFC thing, but Android remains stubbornly ‘buy a Japanese smartphone to do the Suica FeliCa thing.’
Which brings us to Pixel Watch which got a sneak peek at Google I/O 2022. The buzz on Japanese Twitter was basically: I want one, but not if it does’t have Suica support. Fair enough, I bet a lot of people are thinking that and not only in Japan. After all, Hong Kong users would love having a Pixel Watch that supports Octopus.
The good news is that Suica appears to be coming to Google Pay for Wear OS. Various Suica string have appeared in recent Google Pay APKs. This is expected: it would certainly be very awkward if Pixel Watch doesn’t support Suica when Fitbit devices do.
JR East online services (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net), along with many other online services that have accounts with credit cards, have been inundated with phishing attacks since the Russia-Ukraine situation erupted in February. It has gotten to the point that JRE POINT announced temporary security limitations on July 6: a temporary suspension of JRE POINT service recharge for Mobile Suica (via Suica App) and a 5,000 JRE POINT app barcode use limit per transaction (plastic JRE POINT card use remains unlimited). All JRE POINT services were later restored with new security enhancements.
There is another security limitation Apple Pay Suica users need to be aware of: credit/debit card recharge security block. This does not apply to cash recharge at station kiosks, convenience stores, 7-11 ATM, etc., but it can happen with multiple credit card recharges in a short period of time, i.e. heavy users. Unfortunately JR East does not reveal what conditions trigger a recharge security block that displays an error message: チャージをご利用できない状態です/ Recharge is not available. The Mobile Suica support page specifically states that JR East “cannot inform you about the conditions and contents of restrictions.” User reports suggest a general daily recharge limit between ¥5,000~¥10,000, however I think it also depends on the credit card issuer. My JR East JCB VIEW card for example has never run into any recharge limits in 5 years of heavy recharge use.
Apple Pay Suica recharge security block appears to be somewhat rare, but it is happening more with the recent Mobile Suica phishing attacks. In general Wallet app recharge tends to be more robust than Suica app recharge but security recharge block seems to affect all credit card recharge. The only user recourse appears to be contacting the card issuer or using the Mobile Suica member online Trouble Report Form (Japanese only). No word on Apple Pay PASMO but users should expect the same situation.
Mobile Suica registered account information can only be changed in Suica (iOS) and Mobile Suica (Android) apps by applying for an account update, it cannot be directly changed in the app, it cannot be changed via a web browser. This offers a level of account security but too many people fall for phishing emails. Even my internet savvy partner fell for a Mobile Suica phishing mail and have to get his credit card reissued.
The short term solution for JR East is to implement 2FA across all of their online services with a single login ID credential instead of the multiple service ID account mess we have now…hopefully soon. The longer term solution will be eliminating ID and password login altogether using Passkeys.
It has the classic feel of ‘here’s a headline, now write the article’ hack piece passing as industry analysis we have too much of these days. The Yahoo Japan portal site picked it up and the comments section was soon full of wicked fun posts picking apart the weak arguments.
I’ve said it before and say it again: the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean shit in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market. PayPay for example, started out as a code payment app but has added FeliCA QUICPay and EMV contactless support along with their PayPay card offering. Just like I predicted, these companies don’t care about payment technology, they just want people to use their services. My partner and I actually see less PayPay use at checkout these days and more Mobile Suica. Why?
The great thing about prepaid eMoney ‘truth in the card’ Suica, PASMO, WAON, Edy, nanaco, is they are like micro bank accounts coupled with the backend recharge flexibility of mobile wallets (Apple Pay, Google Pay, Suica App, etc.). PayPay, au Pay, Line Pay and similar Toyota Wallet knock-off payment apps with Apple Pay Wallet cards, are deployed as mobile recharge conduits that smart users leverage to put money into different eMoney micro bank accounts and get the points or instant cashback rebates they want to get at any given campaign moment. This is where the action is.
And so we have recharge acrobats like Twitter user #1: step 1 recharge PayPay account from Seven Bank account, step 2 move recharge amount from PayPay Money to PayPay Bank, step 3 move recharge from PayPay Bank to Line Pay, in Wallet app recharge Suica with Line Pay card. Or like recharge acrobat Twitter user #2: Sony Bank Wallet to Kyash to Toyota Wallet to Suica.
Phew…none of this involves transfer fees so it’s up to user creativity to come up with the recharge scenario that works best for them. Does it count as PayPay use or Line Pay use or Mobile Suica use? Does it matter?
It’s not about winners or losers, it’s about moving money around. Mobile Suica is extremely useful because of it’s recharge backend flexibility, thanks to Apple Pay and Google Pay (which does not support PASMO yet). This is the case for US citizens working in Japan who get a great return of their Suica or PASMO recharge right now using US issue credit cards because of the exchange rate. This is something visitors to Hong Kong cannot do with Apple Pay Octopus as the OCL recharge backend is far more restrictive than JR East. The biggest gripe users have with Suica is ¥20,000 balance limit.
In the weeks to come we’ll be sure to see hand wringing articles debating the future of Suica, open-loop, etc.,etc., because let’s face it, IT media journalists need something to write about in these challenging times where everything has to be sold as winner/loser, black/white, 0 or 10, and nothing in-between, to get any traction at all. As for me, I think it’s far more interesting, and real, to observe how users are using all these nifty mobile payment tools.
UPDATE 2022-07-04: Thoughts on the KDDI network outage That was fast. No sooner had the “QR Codes won the mobile payments race” article appeared when major Japanese carrier KDDI experienced a nationwide mobile network meltdown on July 2 JST, lasted a full day with a very slow, still in progress, recovery affecting more than 40 million customers. Suddenly social media channels were full of people complaining that QR Code payments didn’t work, assuming that Mobile Suica and other NFC mobile payments stopped too. Which was not the case though a few fake posts claimed, or just ‘assumed’ people were stranded inside stations. Fortunately there were numerous online articles setting the record straight.
It’s a lesson that people soon forget in our attention span challenged social media era. We saw plenty of QR Code payment downsides in the 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi earthquake that knocked out power and mobile service across Hokkaido. At the time some fake Chinese social media posts claimed AliPay and WeChat pay ‘still worked’ in Hokkaido at the time, of course they did not.
Mobile payment disruptions happen with every natural disaster and war. Good and safe practices don’t come easy when smartphone apps lure us down the easy path without spelling out the risks. It’s a lesson we have to learn again and again, that while network dependent code payment apps have some benefits, they also have limits and security risks. One size does not fit all, NFC and code payments each have their place and role to play in the expanding mobile payments universe. The key is understanding their strengths and weaknesses.
Sometimes it takes Apple support pages a while to acknowledge the current reality of iOS. iOS 15 Wallet brought ‘region free’ transit cards with an improved UI so that allowed Apple Pay users from anywhere to add transit cards directly in Wallet. Apple support document HT207155 “Add a Suica or PASMO card to Apple Wallet“ removed the ‘device region set to Japan’ requirement in an April 29, 2022 update, some 6 months after the iOS 15 release.
‘Region free’ transit cards are not all equally region free however: some transit cards only accept locally issued Apple Pay cards for adding money. This is the case for Hong Kong Apple Pay Octopus and all Chinese T-Union brand transit cards (too many to list). Octopus does offer a surprisingly user unfriendly iOS Octopus for Tourist app for tourists add Octopus to Wallet, that unfortunately locks in usurious currency exchange rates.
There are also some interesting tweak updates in the companion support doc: Use Suica or PASMO cards on iPhone or Apple Watch in Japan. The first is Apple going all in with the UK English ‘top up’ as the default English word for adding money to prepaid cards. Why not stick with regional differences? Does Apple want America to become a cultural extension of Great Britain or something? Recharge was used previously in the US doc version though I suspect most Americans use reload. ‘Top up’ is too quainty UK English for my tastes, sounds like drinking. I’ll stick with recharge.
The other change is an expanded Check the balance section that now includes If your Suica or PASMO card balance doesn’t update, with a link to a fairly new support doc, “If your transit card balance doesn’t update in Apple Wallet.” If there is one common complaint from Suica and PASMO users it is that the sometimes sluggish Apple Pay recharge process, usually due to a poor internet connection, occasionally results in the balance not updating. As the Apple doc states: the truth is always in the recent transactions list.
The last new tweak is a new section: Get a refund for purchases made with your Suica or PASMO. It has good advice that should have been there from Apple Pay Suica launch day, “return the item to the same terminal where you made the purchase before you use Suica or PASMO to make another purchase using Apple Pay.”
Unfortunately Apple failed to update has the Use the Suica or PASMO app section, leaving some very outdated and incorrect information. Shinkansen eTicket service in Suica App ended back in March 2020, and Green Car tickets were never available in PASMO app.
I guess they were too busy swapping American English with British English to notice the errors.
A Japanese friend once told me that when Suica first came out, young people in Tokyo sent Suica cards to hometown families to use for coming to Tokyo. But parents and grandparents sent them back saying, “we can’t use them,” even when they could use them in their local area.
What they were really saying was, ‘Suica doesn’t get us the same transit perks we do using local paper tickets or mag stripe cards.’ There has long been a huge gap between transit services available in major cities which ‘don’t work’ in one way or another for those in outlying areas.
That’s the challenge facing the Japanese transit IC card system. Being able to use a Suica or ICOCA transit card in the sticks isn’t enough, local region services must be attached to make it worthwhile for people living outside major city areas. Transit IC has to evolve if it is going to be useful in the mobile era with proliferating smartphone payment apps vying for a piece of the national transit pie.
Now that we have a clearer vision of how Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards address this problem and how they are central to JR East’s MaaS strategy, it’s time to look at evolving JR East cloud services and how they fit into that strategy. There are a number of new cloud service parts that have come on line over the past year, or are coming soon…some visible, some not.
Taken together they comprise what I call ‘Super Suica Cloud’ following my earlier definition of Super Suica: a collection of mobile focused transit and payment infrastructure services that can be shared with or incorporate other company services, or be hosted by JR East for other companies. MaaS is an elastic term that holds a lot of flashy concepts, but I think JR East is aiming for something more low-key but practical, a Japanese Multimodal MaaS if you will.
The immediate concrete end-goals are service expansion with cost reduction; elimination of duplicate or proprietary dedicated infrastructure in favor of open internet cloud technology. With that in place the next goal is tight integration of transit payment services that work everywhere but also deliver tailored services for local regions. Let’s examine the parts.
Mobile Suica People assume that Mobile Suica does everything mobile, but basically it’s a station kiosk in the sky. Put money in for a transit card, put money in for a recharge, or a commuter pass, a day pass, and so on. Issuing, recharging and managing Suica cards on mobile devices is what Mobile Suica was built for.
As the world’s first mobile transit card service, Mobile Suica has made a lot of progress over the years expanding support to include Android, Apple Pay and wearables, but the work isn’t done until any mobile device from anywhere can add Suica. And since Mobile Suica hosts Mobile PASMO (launched in 2021) and almost certainly the forthcoming Mobile ICOCA (coming early 2023), getting those on an equally wide digital wallet footing is just as important.
As the face of all things Suica on mobile devices, the smartphone app could have many more things plugging into it, like Hong Kong’s Octopus App. So far however, JR East has chosen, wisely in my opinion, to keep it limited to basic housekeeping, breaking out ticketing and MaaS functions to separate apps.
Suica Fare Processing • JESCA Cloud This is the traditional Suica network system centerpiece that locally processes touch transit stored fare on station gates and touch e-Money payments in stores. The station gate fare side is getting a major new addition in 2023 with a simplified cloud based Suica transit fare network rolling out to 44 Tohoku area JR East stations. This new Cloud Suica area closely aligns with Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards launching this year.
The store payment side also has a simplified cloud based FeliCa payment network and a name: JESCA-Cloud. System details are vague but Cloud Suica transit fare and JESCA Cloud store payments appear to do the same thing: move transaction processing off local hardware and onto the cloud. Fast processing time is very important at transit gates, Suica tap times are the fastest out there. Those familiar with the Suica system say Cloud Suica will spilt it 50% local processing / 50% cloud processing. Dumber terminals, smarter cloud that still offers great Suica service…we hope.
One difference Cloud Suica has from a similar effort by JR West for ICOCA, is that Cloud Suica supports all the standard Suica features like commuter passes that cloud ICOCA does not. An interesting side note is that JR East hosts the processing for JR Central’s TOICA transit card network, they can certainly put the new Cloud Suica backend to good use expanding TOICA coverage in rural lines like the Minobu line.
ID Port Comb through recent JR East press releases and you’ll find 3 service announcements built around ID PORT, a “cloud based ID verification solution” from JREM (JR EAST MECHATRONICS CO., LTD), the company that builds Suica infrastructure.
Maebashi City TOPIC MaaS service (November 2020): Local MaaS discount services provided by TOPIC that use Suica with My Number card address and age to verify eligibility:
Suica Smart-Lock (December 2021): registered Suica card access a variety of access services provided by ALLIGATE:
All of the announcements have 3 components: JR East (Suica), JREM (ID-PORT), 3rd party services attached to Suica using ID-PORT as the system glue. Most of these are either in testing or ‘coming soon’. What is ID-PORT?
ID-PORT is explained on the JREM site, but the first public mention in an NTT Data PDF document from November 2020 is more revealing: “The Open MaaS Platform and supporting Multimodal MaaS”. The JR East Suica MaaS strategy is outlined with various scenarios that indicate ID-PORT is the JREM side with MaaS services on the NTT Data side. In other words a co-venture.
The job of ID-PORT is that it acts as the middle man ID verification glue linking a registered Suica (or similar Transit IC card) with various 3rd party services such as special ticketing, access and discounts.
The interesting thing about the ID-PORT and NTT Data MaaS platform reveal is that the timing exactly coincides with Sony’s release of FeliCa Standard SD2, the next generation FeliCa architecture used for Suica 2 in 1 cards. One of the little discussed new SD2 features is ‘FeliCa Secure ID’. Here is Sony’s diagram of how it works.
Look familiar? Yep, ID-PORT sure looks like FeliCa Secure ID in action. The JREM ID-PORT page is more rounded out, incorporating non-FeliCa ID verification methods like QR and bio-authentication and many different services. ID-PORT has already been added to JESCA-Cloud and CardNet so that linked services are widely available on store payment terminals, not just Suica transit gates. In sum it represents MaaS and Account Based Ticketing in action with ID-PORT at the center.
MaaS and Account Based Ticketing in action MaaS and Account Based Ticketing are the new hotness now that people realize open-loop doesn’t solve everything as banks and card companies want us to believe. Fare Payments Platform provider Masabi explains it this way:
Account Based Ticketing (ABT) shifts the fare collection system from being ‘card centric’, meaning the ticket holds the journey information and right to travel, and moves this to the back office. Moving the ticket information to the back office holds a number of benefits. It means passengers no longer need to buy a ticket or understand fares to travel and instead they use a secure token, typically either a contactless bank card, mobile phone or smartcard.
In this scenario FeliCa Secure ID is a secure token, ID-PORT is the secure token platform using the secure token to link ticketing and services together. That sounds nice but when will we see it in action? I think we already are.
Eki-Net 2 Account Based Ticketing As explained above, ABT attaches tickets from the cloud to a secure token, in this case Suica. By this definition Eki-Net 2 Shinkansen eTickets represent JR East’s first step into ABT ticketing. Eki-Net uses registered accounts and credit cards purchase and attach eTickets to Suica. These eTickets do not use Suica prepaid stored fare nor is any eTicket information written to the Suica card, the eTicket system uses Suica as a secure token. JR Central smart EX is a similar ABT service and let’s not forget the web-only multi-lingual JR-East Train Reservation service that provides some ABT ticketing for inbound visitors.
Will JR East ABT implement the ‘no longer need to buy a ticket’ part of the Masabi ABT vision? I doubt it. Shinkansen eTickets are much lower ABT hurdle: lower passenger volume on far fewer transit gates than regular Suica gates. The complexity of interlocking non-Shinkansen Japanese transit systems and the vast array of fare schedules, such as higher paper fares vs cheaper IC fares, don’t easily straitjacket into an open-loop or ABT fare box, and it doesn’t fit the JR East business model.
Suica 2 in 1 region extras There are services besides ticketing attached to a ‘secure token’ Suica. One of the important things easy to miss in the Suica 2 in 1 rollout are extra region features not available in regular Suica. Disability Suica cards for example. These are finally due to launch on Suica and PASMO cards in October 2022, but disability Suica 2 in 1 cards are already available in region affiliates.
There are also region affiliate transit points, one of the services that ID-PORT is advertising for JR East MaaS. Transit points all ‘just work’ automatically the same way. Points are earned from recharge and transit use and automatically used as transit fare. The user doesn’t do anything except tap the bus card reader. No registration, no setup. I wish JRE POINT had an option to work this way.
Transit points mimic the scheme of old regional transit mag strip card like Nishitetsu that gave ¥1,100 with a ¥1,000 recharge. Those features were popular (automatic simplicity in action again). PayPay used a similar strategy to quickly build a large customer base but pissed everybody off later as they got big and started changing bonus rate returns like used underwear. That won’t happen with Suica 2 in 1 cards as region transit points are locked in by local government subsidies to the region affiliates.
Streamlined simplicity, integration, regionality Despite the la-la-land promise of MaaS and Account Based Ticketing, the ‘just works’ angle is crucial for people to actually use it. One of the current problems with Mobile Suica, Eki-Net, JRE POINT and the MaaS services JR East advertises is that is each service is a separate app + registration + attach cards process. This needs to be streamlined into a single simple JR East sign-on service option like Sign in with Apple that works across multiple services. I suspect ID-PORT is the glue between Mobile Suica and JRE POINT that keeps those registered services automatically linked even if the Suica ID number changes. A good sign because the JR East cloud needs a lot dynamic linking.
There is also the larger problem of integration outside of JR East, such as the current state of multiple online ticketing services; Eki-Net for JR East, EX for JR Central, Odekake-net for JR West, and so on. It would bet great to have a common app that plugs into every online ticketing service. At the very least JR Group companies need to integrate eTicketing the same way they have always integrated paper ticketing for one stop service in their own apps.
The bigger question is do Super Suica Cloud parts (ID-PORT / Mobile Suica / Cloud Suica) scale beyond JR East to include other JR Group companies (JR West, JR Central, etc.) and potential region affiliates nationwide? If increased services with reduced costs is their MaaS goal, JR East needs to step up to the plate and share. Infrastructure sharing with backend integration is the only way forward for all. Japanese transit has always excelled at physical interconnection, the cloud service side needs the same level of interconnectedness.
There are cultural angles too. Japanese have a passion for hunting down local perks, bargains and discounts. People complain about Eki-Net (deservedly) but they sure scramble and swamp the system getting those time limited discount eTickets like crazy pre-COVID era Black Friday midnight Christmas shopper crowds rushing into the store.
There is also the traditional cultural value of promoting local economies. As the saying goes, cities are only healthy in the long term when local economies are healthy too. If JR East is really serious about promoting regional MaaS, they’ve got to aggressively offer linked services that clearly promote regions. There are many region programs that visitors are simply not aware of. JR East can do a lot simply linking them to discount coupons, limited offer eTickets and such that appeal to the bargain hunter Japanese mind. The key is being creative and nimble like QR payment players.
The JR East MaaS region affiliate strategy was conceived long before the COVID crisis, yet COVID also presents a golden opportunity to invest in regions and promote working remotely. The world has changed and transit has to change too, the biggest risk is doing nothing, staying with the status quo. The emerging Japanese MaaS vision is unique in that Japan has a golden opportunity of leveraging the national Transit IC card standard into something new, taking it into the next era…if old rivalries and sectarian interests don’t get in the way and blow it, that is. Either way the next few years will be a very interesting time for Japanese transit.