Real life code payments

Doutor Coffee Shops added code payment options recently. The sticker next to the reader says all that you need to know: please have your payment app ready before paying. The downfall of code payments is always the network connection. Maybe network connection is weak, or tapped out, or whatever. Last week I was grocery shopping at a basement store location and noticed customers running from checkout to the bottom of the stairs, tapping their smartphone, then running back to the checkout. Bad network area.

This is all too common and a real pain now that every store chain and their dog has a rewards app. Most checkout goes like this: the customer pulls up the store app for discounts and reward points, then pulls up PayPay, dBarai, Line or any other popular code payment, and if the network gods are benevolent, finally pays. NFC was supposed to save us from slow plastic cards and paper coupon checkout, but in the digital wallet age we’re slow if not slower because the store location is in a crappy network area, inside a building with thick earthquake proofed concrete walls. Welcome to code payments in the real world 101.

What’s next for PiTaPa?

Now that Nankai Railway Visa Touch and QR Code transit tests have started (April 2), it’s helpful to take a look at Surutto Kansai, the association of Kansai area non-JR transit companies that issue and operate PiTaPa. I covered PiTaPa problems previously but in addition to the Nakai Visa Touch and QR tests, there have been a few other developments among PiTaPa group members:

  • Nankai Visa Touch and QR Code Transit: the Nakai, VISA Japan, SMBC and QUADRAC Co., Ltd venture started in April for Visa Touch and Nankai Digital Touch QR, QR tickets are purchased and used via the Nakai App and can only be purchased with Visa brand credit cards.
  • Osaka Metro ICOCA: Osaka Metro started selling ICOCA commuter passes and regular cards from November available at all station kiosks. They are the last major PiTaPa member to add ICOCA commuter passes, other major members (Keihan, Hankyu, Hanshin, etc.) added them years ago and have finally retired mag-strip commuter passes. One clarification regarding TOICA: it’s sold at Shin-Osaka station by JR West not Osaka Metro. An interesting aside is that when you use TOICA on Osaka Metro the system recognizes it as ICOCA. In a separate development Osaka Metro wants to implement face recognition transit gates for the 2025 Osaka Expo that dump cards altogether.
  • Keihan ICOCA: Started offering ICOCA Points at the end of 2020 (discount fares for repeat transits in the same month).

In the Transit IC card 2020 ranking by issue/holder numbers PiTaPa was 6th at 3.3 million cards with the slowest growth. It will likely drop to 7th place in 2021.

Suica, PASMO and ICOCA represent 90% of transit IC card issue

Nankai Open Loop Tests
As expected the Visa Touch and QR gates are limited to certain stations and exits. From the on-site media presentation pictures it’s clear that Nanaki is doing open loop transit gates the right way by keeping EMV/ QR only gates separate and off to the side wherever possible (bolt-on jobs are used in narrow areas). If there is one thing we have seen these past few years it’s that all-in-one gates with multi-protocol readers are slow and error prone. They just doesn’t work well for transit.

Target users are inbound travelers from Kansai International airport and plastic contactless Visa brand cards as it does not support Apple Pay Express Transit or similar services on Google Pay, Samsung Pay, etc. The inbound angle is a tough sell in the travel restricted COVID era now that Kansai area hotels are closing and laying off staff. A few interesting inbound points: Mainland China visitors use Union Pay not Visa, QR tickets have to be bought with a Visa card, and Nankai Digital Touch QR tickets are faster at the gate than Visa Touch because they are closed loop.

Fellow transit otaku in Osaka run loops around the Visa Touch open loop gate at Nankai Namba station
Nankai Digital Touch QR tickets are faster at the gate than Visa Touch because they are closed loop

Taken altogether it’s mayhem. As FeliCa Dude says in his tweet, Surutto Kansai is done for. The interesting thing is that PiTaPa is a very similar to the digital Opal Mastercard debit with specific merchants allowed scheme: a closed loop credit card account instead of the closed loop digital Opal Mastercard debit account. Where PiTaPa failed was that Surutto never provided a plain old prepaid transit card option so that users could buy a commuter or regular one for cash and recharge it at any station kiosk. Opal of course still sells the good old Opal MIFARE prepaid card and they would be smart to keep it around. There will always be a need for cash based transit cards.

Why can’t Surutto Kansai to come up with this simple solution for PiTaPa? In a word, SMBC bank group. They are behind the PiTaPa card creation, and now they are pushing Visa Touch transit. It’s an unfortunate and awkward situation: transit companies forced to issue and use an ‘outside’ transit card like ICOCA instead of their ‘in-house’ PiTaPa brand. I suspect the impasse will continue until SMBC gives in and let Surutto create a prepaid card and own the float, or the major Surutto Kansai members stage a real revolt. Until something gives Mobile PiTaPa will be impossible. The pressure to do something will only grow as the Mobile ICOCA 2023 launch approaches.

A great reality check

I was pleasantly surprised to find some hits coming from a website called limitless possibility, followed the link and discovered a great podcast by Luc-Olivier Dumais-Blais and Yanik Magnan on Japanese transit IC cards, Suica 2 in 1, the new features of FeliCa Standard SD2, Ultra Wideband Touchless and more…things I’ve been writing about for a while that never get any traffic.

Yanik does a much better job of summarizing the transit technology landscape than my messy collection of posts. I wholeheartedly agree that UWB Touchless is the perfect opportunity for Japanese Transit IC members to put aside political differences and merge, or at least ‘harmonize’ their data formats for a real all in one Super Suica. We shall see. There are things coming down the pike such as multi-secure element domain/multi-protocol Mobile FeliCa that might have transit implications. And I thank Yanik for his constructive criticism of my ‘Super Suica’ coverage. It’s very helpful and rare that anybody takes the time these days.

Extra bonus: their discussion of the Japan QR Code payment mess and a sendup of PayPay ‘gamification’ campaigns using the Canadian Tim Hortons roll up the rim thing is hilarious and spot on.

QR Code Transit on Hong Kong MTR starts January 23 (Updated)

After a very long preparation period QR Code transit on Hong Kong MTR finally starts on Saturday, January 23. The MTR Fan FaceBook page:

Only TWO WEEKS left before the launch of QR code payment on 23 January! For this new service, we have installed about 1,000 QR code scanners at stations and conducted a series of system and on-site tests. Prominent purple signage will also be on display to help passengers identify the gates providing the new service.

This is the debut of MTR ‘open-loop’ ticketing. Up until now MTR used the ubiquitous Octopus card, the trail blazing transit card that showed the world what smartcard ticketing can do when extended beyond transit to include eMoney payments, transforming a transit card into a transit payment platform. Unlike Japan however Octopus Card Limited (OCL) was late bringing Octopus to mobile. Part of the problem was that Hong Kong mobile carriers never had an Osaifu Keitai-like standard that bridged the Symbian and Android hardware eras. OCL also wasted time with SIM card mobile support before finally launching the mobile Smart Octopus service first on Samsung Pay in late 2018, followed by Apple Pay Octopus in June 2020 and Huawei Pay Octopus in December 2020.

But MTR still faces a problem that most Android devices don’t support FeliCa even though NFC-F is supported across all NFC capable devices. It’s the global NFC dilemma best illustrated in the Google Pay on Google Pixel situation: Mobile FeliCa is installed on all Pixel devices but Google only turns it on for Pixel models sold in Japan. There are many takes on the reasons why. My take is that Google doesn’t want to do the all the global NFC OS level support work that benefits all Android manufacturers. Google’s stance is, ‘don’t ask us, roll your own embedded Secure Element (eSE) solution.’ And so it’s a race of how many ‘Octopus on XX Pay’ digital wallet platforms OCL can line up for Android and wearables.

For MTR, QR Code open loop transit sidesteps this Android hardware mess, but will it be a success when users have to open a smartphone app with a face mask on at every gate? Apple Pay Octopus on Apple Watch sure beats that problem and then some. Long term I think NFC wearables and UWB Touchless will be the QR killer. Time will tell.

AliPay HK is the first payment provider, others QR players will be added as they are qualified. The transit gate layout is interesting, QR is limited to purple colored gate lanes shown in a nifty MTR video. This is similar to what JR East will do when they phase out mag strip paper ticketing and replace it QR Code paper tickets. It’s also the layout that Nankai will do when they implement VISA Touch after testing it this year.

The next MTR open loop addition is expected to be EMV+PBOC China T-Union compatibility though MTR has not announced when that will happen. OCL already committed to a new Octopus card that will be compatible with China T-Union.

UPDATE

AliPay mainland accounts can also be used for Hong Kong MTR QR transit.

2021 Outlook: Apple Pay Code Payments and Multi-Payment Wallet Cards

A happy new year to everybody. When reading Junya Suzuki’s year end Apple Pay and contactless history in Japan article, I was irritated by its ‘rah rah for open loop’ ending that seemed to conclude EMV isn’t very slow and tap speed differences don’t really matter. After reading followup tweets with other IT journalists I realized that wasn’t his point at all. What Suzuki san was really saying was the total transit gate experience counts more than any particular technology package (MIFARE, FeliCa, EMV Open Loop, etc.).

Steve Jobs said the same thing about technology and products in the famous, “you have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology,” 1997 WWDC video. In other words, the whole (the product) has to be larger than sum of the parts (the technology pieces that make up the product) to be a success. It’s all about how they integrate as a product into the larger whole ‘vision’ thing. JR East transit gates are great because the total experience is greater than sum of FeliCa, Suica, JREM reader and gate design technology parts added together.

When it comes to payments however it’s not just about technology, it’s also the raw power plays going on behind the scenes. In the same article Suzuki san nonchalantly mentions that NTT Docomo dCard, which SMBC has issued and operated since the very beginning but in open warfare with Docomo these past few years, is dumping SMBC for UC Card group (Mizuho) this year.

There is also constant pressure to eliminate Japanese FeliCa contactless payment networks in favor EMV using the old bait and switch tactic of promoting a proprietary industry standard when the real end game is eliminating local competitors. These are issues that few journalists bother to analyze deeply and also what got Jack Ma in trouble when he blasted the Basel Accords, the traditional banking system, as an exclusive old men’s club that stifles innovation.

Power games in the world’s greatest free-for-all payments market
I’ve said this many times but one of the great things about Japan many western journalists completely miss, is that Japan is the world best guinea pig test market. Especially useful for observing new payment trends at work. The market is a perfect not too big not too small size, super cohesive, and it has a long history of Osaifu Keitai mobile payments with a wide foundation of payment technologies encompassing FeliCa, EMV and QR. And there is lots of money sitting in bank accounts. This unique mix affords the careful observer a virtual front seat on the power games playing out right now after the introduction of QR based payment services like Line Pay, PayPay and dBarai (dPay).

When Docomo unveiled their dBarai app service it confused many users. What was the point of using code payments when Docomo already had dCard and the whole Mobile FeliCa iD network in place for promoting contactless payments? But it wasn’t long before Docomo linked the 2 payment services together. dBarai users can pay using 3 different backend payment choices: direct dCard billing, monthly Docomo billing, a rechargeable stored value dBarai account with cash recharge options via ATM or linked bank account.

From the user point of view it doesn’t matter when they pay with a Docomo code payment app tied and charged to their dCard on the backend, it’s the same monthly bill. But to Docomo it is very different: instead of using the iD or SMBC VISA/MC payment network on the front end, it’s the Docomo dBarai payment network. I suspect Docomo pays less of a transaction cut to the bank because they have the cash flow to assume some of the risk that banks usually assume in establied credit card network transactions. Docomo likely also leverages the daily transaction float. In short the AliPay model. The next logical step for Docomo dBarai will be P2P payments that leverage Docomo’s Mercari connection.

The value of code payments in dBarai isn’t the technology, it’s a expedient tool that Docomo leverages to circumvent the limitations and fee structure of banks and card networks to create their own flexible payment network. This wiggle room is the essential margin that drives QR Code payment empire cashbacks, point giveaways and new services. This is the epicenter of the cashless payment turf wars that pits new mobile payment players against established card and bank networks. And Apple is about to dump delicious chunk bait into this shark tank.

The Toyota Wallet multi-payment model
In the Apple Pay 2020 wrap-up I mentioned Toyota Wallet as the most important trend: a Wallet app that lets users pay with a QR code or with NFC via an instant issue prepaid Apple Pay Wallet card. The Toyota Wallet iD/Mastercard has 2 Apple Pay device account numbers, one for the iD payment network and one for the Mastercard payment network. This is common for most Japanese issue payment cards on Apple Pay but it is less about NFC protocols (FeliCa, EMV) and all about dual payment network support in a single payment card. And it is not limited to Japan. In Australia there are dual payment Apple Pay cards that support both Mastercard and EFTPOS payment networks in a single card.

With Apple Pay Code Payments on the way, possibly with iOS 14.4, we have another option for multi-payment network cards: code payment and NFC payment. Apple Pay Code Payments are thought of as being only for AliPay and WeChat Pay support in China, but they are much more than that.

Apple Pay Code Payments gives mobile payment players the ability to move QR/barcode payments from an outside app and integrate them directly into an Apple Pay Wallet card. In the Toyota Wallet example below, Toyota could simply add another device account number for the QR Code payment network:

This might seem trivial but it’s important to remember some key differences of Wallet payment cards:

  • Direct side button Wallet activation with automatic Face/Touch ID authentication and payment at the reader.
  • Device payment transactions handled by the eSE without a network connection.
  • Ability to set a default main card for Apple Pay use.

If Apple Pay Code Payments are equal with Apple Pay NFC payments, and by all indications from beta screen shots they are and use the same ‘card’ UI metaphor, I think we are in for another wave of Apple Pay market disruption. Instead of NFC vs QR Codes, or Apple Pay/Google Pay vs apps, all of it just red herring fake debate, we can focus on what’s real: the payment network turf wars.

In the Japan market Line Pay, PayPay, dBarai, Rakuten and all other new players will have the tools to create better services tightly integrated in a Apple Pay Wallet card. Docomo for example could incorporate dBarai into dCard with an additional device account number. Mix and match payment networking in one card.

In the payment network world where market share is all, card networks have held too much power for too long, exactly what Jack Ma was complaining about. I see competition as a good thing that encourages innovation and choice, mobile payments are doing that.

Looping back to the open loop beginning of this piece I think it makes sense now to realign the debate points away from focusing on technology (EMV vs FeliCa, NFC vs QR, etc.), i.e. things that can change and evolve, and focus on payment network turf wars, i.e. things that are hard to change until you see the battles lines clearly enough to create a better strategy and get where you want to go.

In the public transit arena it always comes down to this. Moving people quickly and safely by transit, managed wisely, is licensed cash flow from the fare gates. A transit company can keep control of that license to build something of greater long term value for the users and businesses of the transit card region, which can cover the nation. A transit company can give control away to someone else and let them take their cut, but just like Jack Ma pointed out before he disappeared, will there be innovation when going all in with traditional card and bank payment networks?

I still say a transit platform, especially in the mobile era of chaotic opportunity, is the best approach if a company wants to achieve the former: a system where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Start with the best customer experience you want to deliver and work backwards to the technology.