Why Apple Pay Suica is a success and Apple Maps is not

Inbound Apple Pay Suica user experiences are endlessly fascinating and occasionally enlightening. This tweet video captures the usual ‘whoa, that’s fast’ first time reaction.

The responses are equally interesting with a few ‘so what? we have that in (London, Moscow, China, etc.)’ which is true but it’s not the same. Almost all of them are slower, don’t have e-money functions, don’t have nationwide coverage and are not hosted natively on pay platforms like Apple Pay or Google Pay. They rely on slow buggy EMV contactless credit card transactions on transit gates instead, in short they are not transit payment platforms.

Apple Pay Suica is clearly a great service and success that has not only changed contactless payments in Japan but changed Apple as well, with Apple incorporating global FeliCa and implementing A-12 Bionic powered Express Card with power reserve technology which matches the performance of dedicated Sony FeliCa Chips on the A-Series.

What makes Apple Pay Suica a success? It is a unique layering of hardware and software that tightly integrates into a single seamless experience. At the core is the basic Suica IC card format and the transit gate system technology was created by JR East and Sony in the 1980s to solve a user experience problem with magnetic commuter pass cards. Successive layers were added over time: e-money, nationwide Transit IC card interoperability, and perhaps most important of all, Mobile Suica. The Super Suica additions will further enhance the fundamental technology in 2021.

Apple Pay support arrived in October 2016, global FeliCa was added in 2017. These were 2 layers from Apple that fit perfectly and extended the entire platform with a whole new ease of use service level. The result is a service where each layer builds on and enhances the whole. This is Steve Jobs 101: work from the user experience back to the technology so that the total experience is greater than the sum of the parts.

The Apple Maps problem
Contrast this with Apple Maps. Justin O’Beirne recently published a detailed progress report of Apple’s ‘new’ (in America only) map. There was surprisingly little discussion on tech blog sites, Nick Heer was one of the few to share a few observations. O’Beirne and Heer both focus on data collection and prioritization as the core problem for Apple to fix if Apple is ever going to close the map gap with Google. I think that is a misconception that got Apple Maps in trouble in the first place.

I’ve never seen data collection as the biggest problem that Apple needs to fix. In Japan for example the data collection problem can be solved quickly by swapping out 3rd rate data suppliers with first tier JP suppliers like Zenrin who already field large data collection and verification teams. Google and Yahoo Maps Japan both use Zenrin and build on top of that solid foundation with their own data.

Integration and coordination have been, and continue to be the biggest problem. If Apple cannot do a good job integrating and coordinating different map service layers so that they build on each other, it will continue to be what it is now: a collection of loosely connected technology services that don’t work together very well and tend to pull each other down instead of up. A few examples:

  • Transit
    Apple has a very good Japanese transit data supplier Jourdan, the same one Google uses. Unfortunately the good transit data gets wasted by the limited search and sort App Maps transit UI that is completely manual, doesn’t dynamically update travel times or arrival estimates, or even provide location-based alerts when you arrive. Those kinds of integrated transit notifications on Apple Watch alone would sell a lot more devices.
  • Siri
    Siri is one the most important service layers for integrating navigation, transit and indoor maps. Unfortunately Siri is poorly connected where it should be hooked into every nook and cranny. Japanese Siri can locate the nearest station, usually, but that’s it. Siri doesn’t do transit searches or suggestions.
  • Navigation
    Turn by turn has been offered in Japan for a few years but it still basically useless without traffic information, which is still missing. Lane Guidance was only added just recently.
  • Data Duplication
    This happens all the time as Apple fails at coordinating and verifying data sets from different JP suppliers.

And so on. I included data duplication as it illustrates my basic point that no matter how good the basic data collection is, it’s worthless without a robust integration and coordination process. A smart team of human editors with deep local knowledge understand how services should connect, what works and how it should work. A truly  great team also knows how to focus and do more, much more, with less. This is impossible to achieve with the current one size fits all mentality.

Apple Maps Japan is a classic ‘the total is less than the sum of its parts‘ product. To be sure there are some good parts, but in Japan they don’t add up. The different layers stay separate and never integrate into a seamless whole like Apple Pay Suica does. It’s great that Apple is making process with its map reboot effort in America but the real test will be how well they integrate it all. A laser focus and smart integration is the only way Apple can close the map gap with Google.

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Siri’s Strange Japanese

Siri’s Japanese is very strange and could definitely use some tutoring. Siri’s pronunciation of Asagaya has never been right and can never find Asagaya station when you ask for it. And for some reason today Siri forgot how to pronounce Japanese numbers. Instead of the correct Japanese for 22˚ C “Nijyū-ni do” Siri keeps pronouncing it “Twenty-Two do” like a Japanese first grader learning English the first time. Take a listen.

Something Went Wrong in Siri’s and Apple Maps Development, Again

Tech writers keep coming back to Siri again and again. The latest being The Information’s scoop on, yet again, what went wrong with Siri’s development.

John Gruber on Siri September 2017:

Siri, as it stands today, is at best a halfway product. Again, I’m pro-Siri in the voice assistant debate, but even so I think it’s generous to describe it as “halfway”. The whole category is garbage, Siri included. And frankly, it just doesn’t feel like Apple has made as much progress in six years as they should have.

Something went wrong in Siri’s development, and it wasn’t the voice quality.

John Gruber on Siri March 2018:

The gist of The Information’s story is that Siri has existed for seven years without cohesive leadership or product vision, and the underlying technology is a mishmash of various systems that don’t work well together.

I wrote back in September that Siri’s and Apple Maps problems are one and the same. Gruber didn’t agree. That’s OK but the approaches and resulting organizational problems, where to focus and execute, really are one and the same DNA.

twitter maps 2

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, yet again, mistakes and problems are not a problem if Apple can find ’em and fix ’em. There is an important point in The Information’s story that Gruber mentions but fails to recognize:

Several former employees said Mr. Williamson made a number of decisions that the rest of the team disagreed with, including a plan to improve Siri’s capabilities only once a year….Team members said they argued in vain that that model was wrong for Siri, which they believed needed to be an online service that continuously improved, not updated annually.

Siri and Apple Maps never learned to walk and chew gum at the same time. Improvements are kept for the annual WWDC rollout, a strategic mistake that only adds to the public perception that Siri and Apple Maps never improve, which is not true.

If Apple simply ditched the annual improvement cycle for Siri and Apple Maps public perception would change for the better. The real work is long term but fixable. Mobile Me was a disaster and iCloud had a difficult birth, but iCloud did eventually learn how to walk and chew gum. Siri and Apple Maps can too.

Siri Clueless with Apple Maps Japan Garbage Data

I use Apple Maps in the field occasionally but warily, like a dog that isn’t house broken despite 5 years of training,  Apple Maps sometimes obeys, sometimes it pees on my leg. In a perfect world Siri would also obey but like one bad dog following another, when Apple Maps goes wrong, Siri goes very wrong.

I was in Nagoya recently to attend a friend’s wedding banquet at Castle Plaza Hotel. Nagoya, aka Toyota Town, is a big city that feels like a country town, everybody grew up there and love it. Landmark places like Castle Plaza are institutions (grandpa got married there) that everybody knows. Except Siri.

At Nagoya station I asked Siri in Japanese for “ Castle Plaza near Nagoya station.” Siri showed me some other places called Castle, none of them in Nagoya. Google Maps got Castle Plaza right away, so did Yahoo Japan Map.

The Apple Maps place card shows the place-name in English: “Castle Plaza.” Apple Maps Japan data supplier, Booking.com in this case, has not followed Japanese place name protocol. Google and Yahoo correctly list the Japanese name as “キャッスルプラザ,” which matches local signage.

Japanese Siri needs Japanese names to find things and it seems to be lurking somewhere out of sight in Apple Maps metadata. A dictation keyword search for “キャッスルプラザ” directly in Apple Maps finds the place, but the same keyword search in Siri does not.

Keyword searches are the trained seals of talking assistants, nothing is more basic: throw it a fish, it honks a horn. Even with an iPhone in Tokyo, keyword search finds the right Nagoya Castle Plaza in Google Maps, Yahoo Japan Maps and Apple Maps, but Siri honks the wrong horn every time.

This means 1 of 5 things:

1) Booking.com is not taking care of their Japanese metadata
2) Apple Maps is not taking care of their Japanese metadata
3) Siri is not taking care of their Japanese metadata
4) Nobody cares
5) All of the above

Take your pick. This is exactly the dysfunction described in Something Went Wrong in Siri’s and Apple Maps Development: One Last Time. Is Eddie Cue OK with a lousy Siri/Apple Maps experience in Japan? Is Tim Cook?

After 5 years they must have some idea of the problem. The only conclusion is  that they are OK with it, Team Apple priorities are somewhere else.

Something Went Wrong in Siri’s and Apple Maps Development

John Gruber made a great post today:

Siri, as it stands today, is at best a halfway product. Again, I’m pro-Siri in the voice assistant debate, but even so I think it’s generous to describe it as “halfway”. The whole category is garbage, Siri included. And frankly, it just doesn’t feel like Apple has made as much progress in six years as they should have.

Something went wrong in Siri’s development, and it wasn’t the voice quality.

I don’t think it is entirely coincidence that two of Apple’s most troubled products, Siri and Apple Maps both appeared during the troubled time of Steve Jobs passing and the departure of Scott Forstall who headed both. They are very different products but the lack of progress in Siri and Apple Maps development after six years, is very troubling indeed.