Road to Super Suica: mobile expansion

The JR West Osaka Expo 2025 transit vision incorporates Mobile ICOCA and MaaS services

The October 21 announcement from JR East-Hachinohe City-Northern Iwate Transportation is the 3rd Super Suica local transit card and follows earlier Super Suica local transit card announcements for Utsunomiya Light Rail and Iwate Transit Co. Ltd. These fit neatly into the narrow definition of Super Suica as a local area ‘2 in 1’ transit card within the JR East region that hosts different transit company commute plans and reward points on a single card. New FeliCa chips announced in September have new features like ‘Extended Overlap Service’ to support the ‘2 in 1’ model.

The real test of Super Suica is the wider definition beyond the 2 in 1 Suica Region Affiliate Transit Card program and how it plays out both JR Group companies and non-JR transit companies outside of the JR East (JRE) region. The more JR East shares Mobile Suica cloud assets, the more all transit companies can eliminate duplication and save costs. In the COVID era of constrained public travel, reducing costs while maintaining good service is more important than ever.

On the mobile front it’s clear that Mobile PASMO was an unannounced joint effort between JR East and PASMO Association. Mobile PASMO service and software is Mobile Suica dressed up in PASMO colors, the penguin character swapped out for a robot. The JR West announcement of Mobile ICOCA one week after the Apple Pay PASMO launch is no coincidence. The Super Suica mobile template is in place and road tested, PASMO and ICOCOA are the first 2 customers.

Who’s next? Junya Suzuki pointed out that Suica and PASMO together account for 80% of Japanese transit card issue, ICOCA added in makes that 90%. The next largest market and logical choice is manaca, the Nagoya area equivalent of PASMO. Forget about the Kansai area PiTaPa, the credit card as transit card concept was a bust and will likely never go mobile unless it’s repositioned as just a credit card. JR Central’s TOICA has deep pockets, and it’s said that TOICA runs on Suica servers, but JR Central has a sibling rivalry thing with JRE that might get in the way.

From a market share perspective manaca be the next logical mobile service candidate with the Kyushu area transit cards (SUGOCA and nimoca) following soon after. The next development to keep an eye on is the ‘2 in 1’ Super Suica local transit card model and if other major JR Group members offer a rebranded version of it in their respective transit regions.

From a western perspective people wonder ‘why not just have one national transit card and be done with all this nonsense’. A national transit card has been discussed by various Japanese governments from time to time, and gone nowhere. The shared infrastructure Super Suica model that aims to lift all boats certainly plays more to the traditional Japanese business mindset. In these challenging times that can be a good thing.

Apple Pay PASMO launch day behind the scenes

「モバイルPASMO」の実現までに13年もの歳月がかかった裏事情, CNET

The every reliable Junya Suzuki has posted exactly what I hoped he would: nitty gritty launch day event details. A quick rundown with commentary if you can’t read his original Japanese post.

Big Apple Presence
A large number of Apple Japan folks were on hand at the October 6 Apple Pay PASMO press event with media invited from America. Apple Pay VP Jennifer Bailey also checked in with a message via video link. Highly unusual given that a single person is what Apple usually fields for recent Suica announcements like the Apple Pay MIZUHO Suica. This is big in itself but it’s helpful to know some basic Transit IC card market share numbers. Suica and PASMO are #1 and #2, combined they represent 80% of all transit IC card issue. ICOCA is #3, manaca is #4.

The addition of Apple Pay PASMO is why Suzuki san now refers to Tokyo as a “キャッシュレス経済圏 “Cashless Economy Zone”. The Suica and PASMO zones blur and become one thing in a digital wallet. Mobile Suica membership passed 10 million users last month, total Suica issue (plastic and mobile) is about 85 million.

Out of the Suica issue numbers Suzuki san pulls an important growth figure: the 2020 Suica mobile to plastic ratio is 12%, at the 2016 Apple Pay Suica launch the ratio was 7%. That growth is the power of Apple Pay in action, and also Google Pay. The mobile growth curve will accelerate with the addition of Garmin Pay Suica and wena 3 Suica. That’s why Apple Pay PASMO is a big deal, not only for Tokyo, but for PASMO and Apple too. It is this shift that Suzuki san says finally drove PASMO to commit to delivering a mobile service after years of dithering.

But what about the other transit card economic zones and how will they be integrated into the mobile mix? For ICOCA the only question remaining is ‘when’ Mobile ICOCA arrives, ‘if’ is no longer an option. ICOCA is the Suica of the Kansai area, manaca is the Suica of Aichi. Osaka and Nagoya don’t want to be left behind the Tokyo cashless economy zone.

My own take outlined in Hello Apple Pay PASMO and Road to Super Suica is that PASMO is a dry run for other mobile cards. The template is ready to roll, right down to the recycled but sleeker modernized Suica App stuff in PASMO App.

HELLO Apple Pay PASMO

UPDATE: Apple Pay PASMO launched October 6, download PASMO App for extra features.

The cute pink PASMO robot joined the cute Suica penguin in Wallet today, October 6. It’s the end of a journey that started in October 2017 with registration of the Mobile PASMO name just one year after Apple Pay Suica stomped into the Japanese market like Godzilla, changing everything.

The Mobile PASMO for Android announcement in January was unexpected and caught many by surprise. The service launched in March 2020 and it was soon clear that Mobile PASMO was JR East Mobile Suica IT code dressed up in pink. Meanwhile Apple dropped hints that PASMO was on the way, Apple Pay PASMO was finally announced August 6th.

Apple Pay PASMO Express Transit and differences with Suica
Apple Pay PASMO is just like Suica with similar device profiles: iPhone 8 • Apple Watch Series 3 and later with iOS 14 • watchOS 7 or later. The advantages of Apple Pay Suica also apply to PASMO: Apple Pay credit/debit cards work for recharge, and thanks to global NFC any iPhone 8/Apple Watch 3 from anywhere can add PASMO. An English language PASMO page covers the basics for adding and using cards.

You can have both PASMO and Suica in Wallet but only one card can be set for Express Transit at a time though it is easy to change Express Transit cards. The PASMO App can be downloaded for additional features like commuter passes. You can also setup auto-charge if you have the right PASMO related credit card.

PASMO App

Suica and PASMO are the French vanilla and vanilla ice cream flavors of IC transit cards that do the same thing, does using Apple Pay PASMO have any advantage over Apple Pay Suica? It comes down to one thing: PASMO train commuter passes, and especially bus commuter passes which JR East or Suica App do not offer.

PASMO can be added and used in Wallet without PASMO App, but the app offers deeply useful commuter pass options if you download and register a Mobile PASMO account. Successful registration unlocks all menu options, basically it’s a slightly streamlined Suica App without the Green Seat and and EX Reserve options. The commuter pass purchase screen offers a huge variety of PASMO rail and bus line choices and your PASMO can hold a rail + bus combo commuter pass, a feature that Suica does not have.

Transit companies only cooperate for commuter passes that transverse both company rail networks. A Suica commuter pass has to have a JR East line, PASMO has to have a PASMO Rail or bus line. From a card architecture point Suica could do it all, but as FeliCa Dude points out, Mobile PASMO is the result of JR East and PASMO Association failing to cooperate and mutually host commuter passes.

Behind the scenes
What took PASMO so long to go mobile? Part of the delay was that many members of the PASMO association don’t have deep pockets and couldn’t agree to mutually fund Mobile PASMO infrastructure. According to IT journalist Junya Suzuki, one rich member took the initiative to fund the entire effort. The PASMO member who runs the mobile operation has not been publicly announced but evidence points to Odakyu.

Another part of the delay was JR East laying a mobile service foundation for the major Japanese IC transit cards in connection with next generation ‘Super’ Suica. JR East bought a piece of FeliCa Networks stock from NTT Docomo effectively changing it from a Sony + NTT Docomo company to a Sony (FeliCa) + NTT Docomo (Mobile FeliCa) + JR East (Suica/Mobile Suica) company. The result of this is the Mobile FeliCa Platform for supporting all kinds of Mobile FeliCa services worldwide. One fruit of this effort is Garmin Pay Suica, Apple Pay PASMO is another.

I suspect JR East Mobile Suica IT assets are part of the Mobile FeliCa Platform and one reason why so much Mobile Suica code was found in every corner of Mobile PASMO. When Super Suica arrives in early 2021, Mobile FeliCa Cloud is sure play a big role, both for Super Suica partners and for getting the remaining major Transit IC cards on mobile: ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, SUGOCA, Kitaca, Hayaken, nimoca.

Other tidbits

  • Apple Pay PASMO does not support iPhone 7 and Apple Watch 2 Japanese models which Suica does. This suggests only iPhone 8/Apple Watch 3 and later embedded secure element (eSE) devices can up upgraded to support multiple IC card configurations like PASMO/Suica/ICOCA etc.
  • To add a PASMO card in the Wallet app, you need to set up two-factor authentication for your Apple ID.
  • Apple Pay PASMO is a plus for China Union Pay card holders over Suica: PASMO can be recharged with Apple Pay in Wallet, a game changer for those card holders.
  • Apple Pay Wallet has a ‘experiencing heavy load please try later’ notification setting that alerts the user, via banner and email, when the card can be added. This ‘virtual queuing’ helped avoid a repeat of the Apple Pay Suica launch meltdown situation for the PASMO launch
  • Apple Pay PASMO cards can be created in PASMO App without a balance or using a credit card. Handy for inbound visitors from countries without Apple Pay support who want to use PASMO.
  • Apple Pay PASMO launch day behind the scenes

Are Google Pixel 5 and Fitbit up to the Global NFC Challenge? (Update: Pixel 5 not)

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 and Mobile FeliCa is in all Pixel models, but only Osaifu Keitai apps launch and run on Japanese SKUs. 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.

One 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. Neither does Google, hence the logjam.

Google’s recent purchase of Fitbit might be the agent of change that finally changes the situation. 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 marketed developer product back in 2018: Mobile FeliCa Platform and Mobile FeliCa Cloud for supporting all kinds of Mobile FeliCa services worldwide. This arrangement got us 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.

Update: Not labeled on diagram

Pixel 5 was announced and FeliCa support is still limited to JP models, more cheap instead of deep. Pixel support pages (screenshots) list FeliCa support in the ‘Not labeled on diagram’ section with Osaifu Keitai links and this new bit: “To use FeliCa on Pixel 4 and later Pixel phones you’ll need 4 apps that should automatically open during setup.” This is the enablement step that Google blocks on non-JP Pixel models. The strange thing is that Mobile FeliCa is hiding in plain sight on all Pixel models, if Google wanted to they could allow enablement remotely.

This confirms the FeliCa situation won’t change for Pixel until Google builds their own Google Pay replacement for Osaifu Keitai software instead of candy wrapping it. It all comes down to what Google wants to do regarding Suica support on Fitbit. Something will have to change in Google Pay if they want to do that.

Special warning to Hong Kong Octopus users: don’t buy a Pixel device for using the Octopus Mobile SIM. FeliCa Dude reported that Google purposely crippled Pixel 4 SWP support for products like Octopus Mobile SIM and this is the case for Pixel 5 as well. Only use officially supported devices for Octopus Mobile SIM.

Apple Pay PASMO and the coming transit IC card rush to mobile

Mobile PASMO was announced in January 2020, launched on Android Osaifu Keitai in March and will land on Apple Pay with the iOS 14 update this fall. As early as April Apple was already dropping hints that Apple Pay PASMO was on the way.

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.

JR East factsheet Suica Section

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.

JR East factsheet Suica Section

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.