Google Pixel Watch Suica…with limits

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.’

In the global NFC sweepstakes then, every Google Pixel release cycle is a game of ‘will they or won’t they’ finally deliver global NFC. Actually Pixel is already global NFC with Mobile FeliCa ready to go, but Google disables it on all non-Japanese Pixel models.

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.

But this begs a bigger question. Wouldn’t it be extremely awkward if Pixel 7 doesn’t support Suica out of the box when Pixel Watch does? I would say so. But then again one hopes The Android Ready SE Alliance is working to fix all that, and do away with the limitations of Android HCE nonsense once and for all.

The open loop mobile connectivity challenge

The recent additions of stera transit (Visa-SMBC-Nippon Signal-QUADRAC) open loop test systems in Kyushu covering Fukuoka metro, Kuamamoto city transit and JR Kyushu expand the VISA Touch transit boutique deeper into western Japan territory. Open loop based cloud processing advocates like to portray these developments as proof that local processing based FeliCa systems like Suica et al. are expensive bygones due for replacement.

There’s just one little problem that open loop advocates fail to mention: mobile connectivity, aka the Suica app problem, the QR Code payment problem, the Smart Navigo HCE problem, etc. Wide LTE and 5G deployment doesn’t mean reliable mobile and internet connectivity that mobile payment apps depend on, and carrier outages quickly bring down the cloud transaction processing side of the equation. This was proven, yet again, on July 2 when major carrier KDDI suffered a massive nationwide outage that lasted for 80 hours. Let’s make a quick reference graph for examining local processing vs cloud processing in the mobile era.

Stera is a mobile based payments platform from the SMBC group (basically the VISA JP group) that does away with the NTT Data Cafis dedicated backbone and replaces it with the internet based GMO Payment Gateway. This is the same stera that powers the open loop stera transit initiative.

The weak point of course is that since mobile powers the gate reader side, when mobile service goes down, stera gate readers stop working. As everybody found out during the KDDI network meltdown, Mobile Suica kept right on working on the transit gate and the store checkout reader, while mobile app based code payments and point systems all stopped. Some vital services that depended on KDDI connectivity like ATM networks also stopped working.

Cloud based Suica will face some of these challenges when it goes online in March 2023. The only difference being how much local processing stays intact and how much system buffering there is (how much it needs to talk with the cloud server to do the job), we shall see. Which brings me to the point I want to make. The media almost always portrays the open loop/cloud vs closed loop/local match as a winner takes all, one size fits all proposition. As the KDDI meltdown proves, this is stupid, and dangerous. Never put all the eggs in one technology basket. I don’t think the risk will go away, not as long as telecommunication company corporate structures don’t foster and promote their engineering talent (the people who actually make things work) deep into the executive decision making forums.

Open loop in Japan is geared for inbound tourists the supplements, but does not replace, the old reliable Transit IC infrastructure which is evolving and reducing costs too. They compliment each other, address different needs and uses. One size doesn’t fit all. If it did, Oyster card would have died years ago.

Apple Pay Suica recharge security block

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.

Recharge your recharge, the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean jack in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market

I love articles like this one. It’s fun examining how the writer, freelancer Meiko Homma, takes old news bits, worn-out arguments and weaves them into a ‘new’ narrative with a titillatingly hot title: “QR Code payments won the cashless race, Suica utterly defeated.”

Her article trots out some QR Code payment usage data from somewhere, the PASPY transit card death saga that illustrates the increasingly difficult challenge of keeping region limited transit IC cards going, the fact that Suica only covers 840 stations out of a total of 1630, all while conveniently ignoring recent important developments like the Suica 2 in 1 Regional Affiliate program, and big updates coming in early 2023: Cloud Suica extensions and the Mobile ICOCA launch.

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.

State of Suica 2022

Now that the 1st wave of Suica 2 in 1 card launches is complete, it’s a good time to review the ‘State of Suica’. And it’s always interesting to examine the cultural differences too, when it comes to labeling trends as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Westerners for example invariably say, what’s the point of having so many Suica card flavors? It’s a waste, better to have just one. It’s a classic double standard professing to want but insisting that life should revolve around single kind of credit card. Japanese don’t seem to care much as the culture is adept at ‘振り分け’: this thing for doing this, that thing for doing that. And the region affiliate users getting Suica for the first time seem pretty excited and all Suica varieties work the same for transit and e-Money purchases.

As of now we have the following plastic Suica card flavors beside the regular Suica available at station kiosks: Rinkai Suica, Monorail Suica, Welcome Suica and Suica Light. On the Mobile Suica side we have: Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Fitbit Pay and Garmin Pay, along with branded Mobile Suica for Rakuten Suica and au Suica on Osaifu Keitai and Mizuho Suica on iOS. Last but not least we have 11 new Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit cards that are the keystone of JR East’s MaaS strategy.

What exactly are the differences? It comes down to commuter passes or points. For Suica 2 in 1 cards specifically, it is both. This is a small but very important difference. All the other non-regular Suica outside 2 in 1, come with specific features and limitations. Rakuten and KDDI au users can recharge those Suica with those outside point systems but they can’t add commute plans. Welcome Suica expires in 28 days, Rinkai and Monorail Suica exist for commuter passes and nothing else, and so on.

Suica 2 in 1 doesn’t have limitations and does more than any other Suica: it can hold 2 different commuter passes (one from JR East, one from the region affiliate) and it supports 2 different point systems: messy JRE POINT which is an optional account setup manually linked to the Suica card number, and local government subsidized region affiliate transit points which are automatic and stored on the card itself. The only thing the user needs to do is use the appropriate card for transit to earn and use transit point discounts.

In a mobile payment era where everybody is distinguishing themselves with increasingly complex reward point schemes, the simplicity and flexibility of Suica 2 in 1 transit points, think of it as locally processed transit point stored fare, can go places that old Suica cannot. Imagine how many more people would use Suica transit in Tokyo if it came with transit point discounts. There are other 2 in 1 features not yet supported by regular Suica: disabled and elderly transit user discounts. These are coming to Tokyo area plastic issue Suica, and PASMO too, this October though I suspect those won’t come to Mobile Suica until it gets an upgrade.

Mobile FeliCa hasn’t been updated to the next generation ‘Super Suica’ FeliCa SD2 architecture yet, but once updated we should see Suica 2 in 1 on mobile and new Suica features, along with more Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards. All in all the new Suica 2 in 1 card format tells us where JR East wants to go.

There are some interesting numbers from the JR East FY results. All things transit took a huge hit in FY 2021 from the COVID pandemic, Suica included, but are now recovering though still below pre-covid transaction levels. Another surprise is the popularity of Eki-Net eTickets, a 39% usage rate is not bad for a service that only started in March 2020. One of the smarter things JR East did with Eki-Net eTicket discounts is making them simple and available to all Eki-Net users and credit cards. The JR Central EX system has 2 different Shinkansen eTicket tiers (EX-Press and smartEX) with larger EX discounts limited to select credit cards.

There are lots of things that JR East needs to do longterm, more Suica day passes, Mobile Suica recharge that is available 24/7, phasing out legacy mag strip ticketing and UWB touchless transit gates. In the short term we have Cloud Suica and Mobile ICOCA coming online in March 2023, the end of the current fiscal year. At the very least it should be an interesting time for JR West ICOCA users, and one more nail in the PiTaPa coffin.