A Japanese friend asked me about Apple Watch hand washing notifications that goes off every time he washes vegetables, “Is this how stupid Apple’s AI is?” Unfortunately yes, this is how stupid Apple AI technology is. Siri has made some progress in English but Japanese Siri still lags far behind Amazon’s Japanese Alexa which has made Siri-ous bilingual progress.
The Apple Watch hand washing notification is one of those ‘this is neat’ features that Steve Jobs would have nixed in development because it doesn’t fit the bigger vision of what a good product should do. All hand washing notifications do is make Apple Watch look like a dumb, incompetently designed product, which it is not. This kind of lapse, adding a feature or service when it clearly isn’t ready, or doesn’t fit the bigger vision, is becoming all too common in this ‘forever beta’ era we live in.
Apple Music and HomePod mini are in a similar Siri situation. Japanese Siri does not yet have multiple user support. This is annoying enough using the current HomePod mini since different requests from different family members get tossed together, but the lack of multiuser Siri support will be a downright embarrassment if Apple releases the new Apple Music Voice only tier in Japan without it. Let’s hope the dwindling reserves of Steve Jobs focus potion hold out at Apple HQ for a little longer to nix the Apple Music Voice plan rollout in markets without multiuser Siri.
It took me a while to fully appreciate the issue that Twitter user Yoshimasa Niwa was describing. At first glance I and many others assumed that setting Japanese over English would solve his app library sorting issue.
Then I realized that wasn’t his point at all. The software app in the screenshot is the Yahoo Japan ‘Norikae Annai’ transit app, one of the most popular free stand alone transit apps in Japan. I use it all the time. It’s a Japanese app with a Japanese name but the basic iOS English sorting algorithm ignores this and assumes all Chinese characters used everywhere must follow modern mainland China’s Simplified Chinese rules for reading and sorting.
This is ridiculous as assuming that all Roman based character sets everywhere must follow modern Italian reading and sorting rules. I always find that westerners assume the Kanji culture flow was always one way from China which it is not, with different and unique readings, usages, and Japanese Kanji like shitsuke 躾 traveling the other way over the centuries. The same is true for other cultures that adapted the Chinese writing system for their languages.
It amounts to cultural destruction by neglect and ignorance by large western based technology companies who think things are ‘good enough’. Or are just bugs to fix in a later software update that usually never appears. Modern computer software has pretty much destroyed traditional kanji culture publishing this way, with many countries abandoning mainstream traditional vertical text layout for western style layout because ‘it’s easier’, i.e. western tech companies couldn’t be bothered getting Asian language typography right. All these years later web browsers still can’t do vertical text worth a damn.
A veteran Japanese font engineer whose entire career was devoted to preserving high end Japanese typography in the digital age recently told me, “I don’t think anybody cares anymore.” In the end it all too often comes down to this: I don’t care cultural death by I don’t care companies who have the money and power to care.
That’s bitter irony in our age that purports to champion cultural diversity.
I’m not exactly sure when Siri added Japan Transit directions, but it didn’t work 3 weeks ago. I had basically given up hope on this Apple Maps wish list item, but had some free time today to kill with Apple Watch and viola. Transit directions. Transit is tricky because place names, especially Japanese place names and directions, depend on the context. For example when I asked iPhone Siri for the ‘next train to Gotanda’, I got a few route options to a place in Iwate prefecture. When I asked for the ‘next train to Gotanda station‘, iPhone Siri got it right. Apple Watch Siri however got it right every time.
Based on Siri tests in JP language mode so far, it seems like a solid service addition that users will find useful. I suspect it will be a very nice fit with AirPods Pro and will give it the noisy station acid test. It will be interesting to see online reactions and analysis from Japanese users. It will also be interesting to see if or when Apple announces transit directions for Siri. Traffic has been showing for months in Apple Maps Japan with no official listing on the iOS feature availability page.
Tokyo Cashless 2020 is a series covering all things cashless as Japan gears up for the big event. If there is a topic that you’d like covered tweet me @Kanjo
iOS 13 is not a software release. It’s a mission statement of what Apple hopes to achieve by the end of the iOS 13 life cycle. iOS 13 will be peaking out just as the Tokyo Olympics take place between 24 July – 9 August 2020. There will be a huge influx of inbound smartphones using all kinds of apps for transit, navigation and payments. Apple has told Japanese journalists that Apple services will be ready. How will peak iOS 13 Apple Pay, Apple Maps and Siri stack up with the competition? How useful will they really be? Let’s find out, starting with the strongest contender.
Apple Pay Apple has put a tremendous effort into creating a global NFC platform that incorporates all the key NFC technologies (EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, etc.) into one seamless package sold worldwide. This is still unique and unmatched. Inbound visitors with iPhone have the option of adding Suica to Wallet and instantly gaining all the benefits of using Japan’s famous tap and go transit and making contactless payments nationwide.
Apple Pay with Suica makes iPhone a great transit and payment solution for the Tokyo Olympics and Apple Pay Suica will be the inbound star player for all things transit and payments. iPhone and Apple Watch are so perfectly matched for using contactless payments in Japan during the Olympics that I can only wonder if Apple has been planning for this opportunity all along. Make no mistake, Apple Pay is going for the gold.
The biggest use case for Apple Maps during the Olympics is transit directions and local walking area navigation in station areas. Apple Maps is still a very ‘America centric’ app in that default map views and the UI are geared for driving, not transit and walking. iOS Google Maps has a more intelligent approach that layers transit over the current map view that eliminates the transit view/map view UI toggling of the chunky Apple Maps UI. Google Maps is a much more smoothly integrated collection of services.
Even with the addition of better map detail of Apple Maps 2.0 and Look Around however, Apple Maps must absolutely clean up and completely revamp its cluttered cartography and Point of Interest (POI) layers and remove the bolted on transit functions with improved integration to be a serious contender in the Tokyo Olympics Navigation contest. I don’t see that happening: there’s no way 7 years of bad habits and ‘Where’s Wally’ can be magically fixed in the 10 month run up to the Olympics.
Siri Bringing up the rear, Siri is the ‘Cool Runnings’ contender in the wrong Olympics. With Google Maps you can ask Google Assistant “when’s the next train to Shinjuku” and Google Maps will give you a list of transit options. Google Maps Transit also gives you platform guidance, optimum car positions for the destination station, and ground truth yellow exit numbers:
Siri and Apple Maps offer none of this. In fact Siri is not even programmed at this point to provide transit information and politely declines all such requests (and when did Japanese Siri’s speaking rate speed become so SLOOOOOW?). Even a manual Apple Maps Transit search does not provide the same level of Google Transit information: no platform guidance, no car positions, no crowd conditions, etc. Meanwhile JR East just announced an agreement with Google to offer Google Assistant Shinkansen transit information. This isn’t even a contest.
Quick Summary and Tokyo Olympics iPhone Guidance Given the current state of Apple Pay, Apple Maps and Siri, I offer the following suggestions.
For iPhone 8/Apple Watch Series 3 and later inbound visitors from countries with Apple Pay availability:
Use Google Maps and Google Assistant for navigation and transit
For iPhone 8/Apple Watch Series 3 and later inbound visitors from countries without Apple Pay availability:
Purchase a regular plastic Suica card from a JR East station kiosk and transfer it to your iPhone (Welcome Suica cards cannot be transferred), you cannot recharge it with a credit card but Apple Pay Suica can recharged with cash at any convenience store checkout register, any 7 Eleven ATM, or JR station smart kiosk. The advantage of Apple Pay Suica over plastic Suica is that you always know what the balance is and when it needs recharging. You can avoid long queues at station recharge kiosks.
Use Google Maps and Google Assistant for navigation and transit.
August 2020 UPDATE Apple Maps updated Japan maps with Look Around for the greater Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya areas, and a full set of IPC data which has been available all these years, but Apple didn’t, or couldn’t, integrate it for some reason until now. Whether Apple call this ‘new maps’ or not isn’t clear. And at any rate it is not Apple collected map data.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.