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.


The Weekly

2022-05-14 Early Rainy Season

Will Pixel Watch finally deliver global NFC Google Pay?
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 Android HCE nonsense once and for all.


Digital My Number on track for Android 2022 launch, Apple Wallet due in 2023
The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) digital version of My Number Card (Individual Number Card) is on track to launch in 2022 (October-ish?). The latest MIC Work Group PDF document has a full outline of the digital My Number system and the various services the Japanese government plans to link with it. In late 2020 MIC said they were ‘in discussions’ with Apple to bring digital My Number to Wallet and this has not changed. Nikkei reporter Mayumi Hirosawa saw a chance to grab some eyeballs and published, The My Number iPhone Wall, a typical Nikkei ‘article’ of lazy, subjective, puerile observations angled as big bad Apple, but nothing new.

Meanwhile Yasuhiro Koyama’s online article on Keitai Watch is far more interesting and informative. MIC official Takashi Uekariya, the goto My Number digital guy, says the MIC and Apple are ‘working hard’ to bring digital My Number to Apple Pay Wallet, and that because Apple locks down new iOS features far in advance, timing wise it looks like iOS 17 in fall 2023 is the likely target for My Number on Apple Wallet. It would be nice though if Apple could surprise us later on in the iOS 16 release cycle, always good to raise the bar and deliver above expectations.

Looking at the larger picture, MIC documentation clearly states that My Number digital card requires a GlobalPlatform embedded Secure Element (GPSE) device, and that except for a small amount of SIM Free Android junk, most smartphones sold in Japan (both Apple and Android) are GPSE certified. An interesting sidelight is that ‘FeliCa chip’ Osaifu Keitai Android devices will support My Number NFC-B transactions. Going forward that means nobody in Japan will buy a device without a GPSE that doesn’t support My Number digital card and the associated banking services that will link to it. Kiss HCE goodbye.


The JR East paper ticket booklet replacement problem has a solution: Suica 2 in 1 transit points
It might seem like a great idea for JR East to migrate the legacy paper ticket bundle (the good old buy 10 and get one free) to Suica…but there’s this little problem of JRE POINT. Repeat Point Service has the same basic concept, 10 trips on the same route in the same month earn you a free trip in JRE POINT. Unfortunately, setting up a JRE POINT account is a pain in the ass, and getting the points back into Suica balance is a huge pain in the ass. For Mobile Suica there’s JRE POINT app + Suica app + Suica Pocket. For plastic Suica there’s JRE POINT app + a visit to the local station kiosk. It’s way beyond the ability of elderly transit users who just want to save on expenses.

Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards are a much better deal because they have transit points built in. No registration, no setup, just use the transit card and the system does everything for you. Automatically earned points are turned around and automatically used for paying fare. Simple, useful incentive: all one does is use the card for transit and receives a discount in return. This is the way it should be. JR East would be smart if they implemented a similar automatic transit point feature for Tokyo region Suica. JRE POINT is fine for larger more complex integration such shopping and Eki-Net ticket purchase, but integrated, invisible transit points for discounted regular transit would fill a big post-Covid need. I guarantee people would start riding the rails again after the long pandemic pause.

Super Suica Cloud

A Japanese friend once told me that when Suica first came out, young people in Tokyo sent Suica cards to hometown families to use for coming to Tokyo. But parents and grandparents sent them back saying, “we can’t use them,” even when they could use them in their local area.

What they were really saying was, ‘Suica doesn’t get us the same transit perks we do using local paper tickets or mag stripe cards.’ There has long been a huge gap between transit services available in major cities which ‘don’t work’ in one way or another for those in outlying areas.

That’s the challenge facing the Japanese transit IC card system. Being able to use a Suica or ICOCA transit card in the sticks isn’t enough, local region services must be attached to make it worthwhile for people living outside major city areas. Transit IC has to evolve if it is going to be useful in the mobile era with proliferating smartphone payment apps vying for a piece of the national transit pie.

Now that we have a clearer vision of how Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards address this problem and how they are central to JR East’s MaaS strategy, it’s time to look at evolving JR East cloud services and how they fit into that strategy. There are a number of new cloud service parts that have come on line over the past year, or are coming soon…some visible, some not.

Taken together they comprise what I call ‘Super Suica Cloud’ following my earlier definition of Super Suica: a collection of mobile focused transit and payment infrastructure services that can be shared with or incorporate other company services, or be hosted by JR East for other companies. MaaS is an elastic term that holds a lot of flashy concepts, but I think JR East is aiming for something more low-key but practical, a Japanese Multimodal MaaS if you will.

The immediate concrete end-goals are service expansion with cost reduction; elimination of duplicate or proprietary dedicated infrastructure in favor of open internet cloud technology. With that in place the next goal is tight integration of transit payment services that work everywhere but also deliver tailored services for local regions. Let’s examine the parts.

Mobile Suica
People assume that Mobile Suica does everything mobile, but basically it’s a station kiosk in the sky. Put money in for a transit card, put money in for a recharge, or a commuter pass, a day pass, and so on. Issuing, recharging and managing Suica cards on mobile devices is what Mobile Suica was built for.

As the world’s first mobile transit card service, Mobile Suica has made a lot of progress over the years expanding support to include Android, Apple Pay and wearables, but the work isn’t done until any mobile device from anywhere can add Suica. And since Mobile Suica hosts Mobile PASMO (launched in 2021) and almost certainly the forthcoming Mobile ICOCA (coming early 2023), getting those on an equally wide digital wallet footing is just as important.

As the face of all things Suica on mobile devices, the smartphone app could have many more things plugging into it, like Hong Kong’s Octopus App. So far however, JR East has chosen, wisely in my opinion, to keep it limited to basic housekeeping, breaking out ticketing and MaaS functions to separate apps.

Suica Fare Processing • JESCA Cloud
This is the traditional Suica network system centerpiece that locally processes touch transit stored fare on station gates and touch e-Money payments in stores. The station gate fare side is getting a major new addition in 2023 with a simplified cloud based Suica transit fare network rolling out to 44 Tohoku area JR East stations. This new Cloud Suica area closely aligns with Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards launching this year.

Cloud Suica 2023 additions (Orange) and Suica 2 in 1 cards below

The store payment side also has a simplified cloud based FeliCa payment network and a name: JESCA-Cloud. System details are vague but Cloud Suica transit fare and JESCA Cloud store payments appear to do the same thing: move transaction processing off local hardware and onto the cloud. Fast processing time is very important at transit gates, Suica tap times are the fastest out there. Those familiar with the Suica system say Cloud Suica will spilt it 50% local processing / 50% cloud processing. Dumber terminals, smarter cloud that still offers great Suica service…we hope.

One difference Cloud Suica has from a similar effort by JR West for ICOCA, is that Cloud Suica supports all the standard Suica features like commuter passes that cloud ICOCA does not. An interesting side note is that JR East hosts the processing for JR Central’s TOICA transit card network, they can certainly put the new Cloud Suica backend to good use expanding TOICA coverage in rural lines like the Minobu line.

ID Port
Comb through recent JR East press releases and you’ll find 3 service announcements built around ID PORT, a “cloud based ID verification solution” from JREM (JR EAST MECHATRONICS CO., LTD), the company that builds Suica infrastructure.

  • Maebashi City TOPIC MaaS service (November 2020): Local MaaS discount services provided by TOPIC that use Suica with My Number card address and age to verify eligibility:
Maebashi City TOPIC MaaS service links Suica and My Number Card to unlock services
(Japanese Railway Engineering January 2022, No.215)
  • Suica Smart-Lock (December 2021): registered Suica card access a variety of access services provided by ALLIGATE:
CyclunePedia bike parking

All of the announcements have 3 components: JR East (Suica), JREM (ID-PORT), 3rd party services attached to Suica using ID-PORT as the system glue. Most of these are either in testing or ‘coming soon’. What is ID-PORT?

ID-PORT is explained on the JREM site, but the first public mention in an NTT Data PDF document from November 2020 is more revealing: “The Open MaaS Platform and supporting Multimodal MaaS”. The JR East Suica MaaS strategy is outlined with various scenarios that indicate ID-PORT is the JREM side with MaaS services on the NTT Data side. In other words a co-venture.

NTT Data Journal: A multi-model open MaaS platform

The job of ID-PORT is that it acts as the middle man ID verification glue linking a registered Suica (or similar Transit IC card) with various 3rd party services such as special ticketing, access and discounts.

The interesting thing about the ID-PORT and NTT Data MaaS platform reveal is that the timing exactly coincides with Sony’s release of FeliCa Standard SD2, the next generation FeliCa architecture used for Suica 2 in 1 cards. One of the little discussed new SD2 features is ‘FeliCa Secure ID’. Here is Sony’s diagram of how it works.

Sony FeliCa Standard SD2 FeliCa Secure ID

Look familiar? Yep, ID-PORT sure looks like FeliCa Secure ID in action. The JREM ID-PORT page is more rounded out, incorporating non-FeliCa ID verification methods like QR and bio-authentication and many different services. ID-PORT has already been added to JESCA-Cloud and CardNet so that linked services are widely available on store payment terminals, not just Suica transit gates. In sum it represents MaaS and Account Based Ticketing in action with ID-PORT at the center.

JREM ID-PORT

MaaS and Account Based Ticketing in action
MaaS and Account Based Ticketing are the new hotness now that people realize open-loop doesn’t solve everything as banks and card companies want us to believe. Fare Payments Platform provider Masabi explains it this way:

Account Based Ticketing (ABT) shifts the fare collection system from being ‘card centric’, meaning the ticket holds the journey information and right to travel, and moves this to the back office. Moving the ticket information to the back office holds a number of benefits. It means passengers no longer need to buy a ticket or understand fares to travel and instead they use a secure token, typically either a contactless bank card, mobile phone or smartcard.

In this scenario FeliCa Secure ID is a secure token, ID-PORT is the secure token platform using the secure token to link ticketing and services together. That sounds nice but when will we see it in action? I think we already are.

Eki-Net 2 Account Based Ticketing
As explained above, ABT attaches tickets from the cloud to a secure token, in this case Suica. By this definition Eki-Net 2 Shinkansen eTickets represent JR East’s first step into ABT ticketing. Eki-Net uses registered accounts and credit cards purchase and attach eTickets to Suica. These eTickets do not use Suica prepaid stored fare nor is any eTicket information written to the Suica card, the eTicket system uses Suica as a secure token. JR Central smart EX is a similar ABT service and let’s not forget the web-only multi-lingual JR-East Train Reservation service that provides some ABT ticketing for inbound visitors.

Will JR East ABT implement the ‘no longer need to buy a ticket’ part of the Masabi ABT vision? I doubt it. Shinkansen eTickets are much lower ABT hurdle: lower passenger volume on far fewer transit gates than regular Suica gates. The complexity of interlocking non-Shinkansen Japanese transit systems and the vast array of fare schedules, such as higher paper fares vs cheaper IC fares, don’t easily straitjacket into an open-loop or ABT fare box, and it doesn’t fit the JR East business model.

Suica 2 in 1 region extras
There are services besides ticketing attached to a ‘secure token’ Suica. One of the important things easy to miss in the Suica 2 in 1 rollout are extra region features not available in regular Suica. Disability Suica cards for example. These are finally due to launch on Suica and PASMO cards in October 2022, but disability Suica 2 in 1 cards are already available in region affiliates.

There are also region affiliate transit points, one of the services that ID-PORT is advertising for JR East MaaS. Transit points all ‘just work’ automatically the same way. Points are earned from recharge and transit use and automatically used as transit fare. The user doesn’t do anything except tap the bus card reader. No registration, no setup. I wish JRE POINT had an option to work this way.

Transit points mimic the scheme of old regional transit mag strip card like Nishitetsu that gave ¥1,100 with a ¥1,000 recharge. Those features were popular (automatic simplicity in action again). PayPay used a similar strategy to quickly build a large customer base but pissed everybody off later as they got big and started changing bonus rate returns like used underwear. That won’t happen with Suica 2 in 1 cards as region transit points are locked in by local government subsidies to the region affiliates.

Streamlined simplicity, integration, regionality
Despite the la-la-land promise of MaaS and Account Based Ticketing, the ‘just works’ angle is crucial for people to actually use it. One of the current problems with Mobile Suica, Eki-Net, JRE POINT and the MaaS services JR East advertises is that is each service is a separate app + registration + attach cards process. This needs to be streamlined into a single simple JR East sign-on service option like Sign in with Apple that works across multiple services. I suspect ID-PORT is the glue between Mobile Suica and JRE POINT that keeps those registered services automatically linked even if the Suica ID number changes. A good sign because the JR East cloud needs a lot dynamic linking.

There is also the larger problem of integration outside of JR East, such as the current state of multiple online ticketing services; Eki-Net for JR East, EX for JR Central, Odekake-net for JR West, and so on. It would bet great to have a common app that plugs into every online ticketing service. At the very least JR Group companies need to integrate eTicketing the same way they have always integrated paper ticketing for one stop service in their own apps.

The bigger question is do Super Suica Cloud parts (ID-PORT / Mobile Suica / Cloud Suica) scale beyond JR East to include other JR Group companies (JR West, JR Central, etc.) and potential region affiliates nationwide? If increased services with reduced costs is their MaaS goal, JR East needs to step up to the plate and share. Infrastructure sharing with backend integration is the only way forward for all. Japanese transit has always excelled at physical interconnection, the cloud service side needs the same level of interconnectedness.

There are cultural angles too. Japanese have a passion for hunting down local perks, bargains and discounts. People complain about Eki-Net (deservedly) but they sure scramble and swamp the system getting those time limited discount eTickets like crazy pre-COVID era Black Friday midnight Christmas shopper crowds rushing into the store.

There is also the traditional cultural value of promoting local economies. As the saying goes, cities are only healthy in the long term when local economies are healthy too. If JR East is really serious about promoting regional MaaS, they’ve got to aggressively offer linked services that clearly promote regions. There are many region programs that visitors are simply not aware of. JR East can do a lot simply linking them to discount coupons, limited offer eTickets and such that appeal to the bargain hunter Japanese mind. The key is being creative and nimble like QR payment players.

The JR East MaaS region affiliate strategy was conceived long before the COVID crisis, yet COVID also presents a golden opportunity to invest in regions and promote working remotely. The world has changed and transit has to change too, the biggest risk is doing nothing, staying with the status quo. The emerging Japanese MaaS vision is unique in that Japan has a golden opportunity of leveraging the national Transit IC card standard into something new, taking it into the next era…if old rivalries and sectarian interests don’t get in the way and blow it, that is. Either way the next few years will be a very interesting time for Japanese transit.


Some related posts
Super Suica Reference
Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate List
Suica 2 in 1 mobile challenge

The Suica 2 in 1 mobile dilemma: promoting targeted region services on a wide mobile platform

Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit Cards have a problem: it would be great to have these cards available on mobile wallet platforms (Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay, etc.) however, the whole point of region cards is to promote region affiliate transit companies and service benefits for the people who live there. There are region affiliate transit points and services for everybody, discounts and point rebates for elderly and disabled users, commute plans and so on, subsidized by prefectural and local city governments.

Hence despite the Suica logo on them, region affiliate cards are not available from JR East. They are only available from region affiliate bus offices. But it’s a pain getting them, commute plan renewal requires another trip to the bus office and cash recharge is the only option. Suica 2 in 1 would be infinitely more useful and user friendly on mobile. Region affiliate users are certainly happy to have a card that covers all of their transit needs but it doesn’t bring them into the Mobile Suica era.

But mobile is a two edged sword. On one hand you want the convenience of Mobile Suica, on the other hand region cards need to promote subsidized services for a particular location, keeping them local on a wide mobile platform and restricting access for special services with certain eligibility requirements (local disabled and elderly residents) is a challenge. How does one promote targeted regional services on widely available mobile platforms like Mobile Suica on Apple Pay?

The Suica App mobile fix
Hmmm, this sounds like a similar problem with student commuter passes. JR East and customers want to do away with the drudgery of going to the local JR East station ticket window to confirm student ID validity, nevertheless, student ID validity must be confirmed before a student commuter pass can be purchased. Mobile Suica has supported student commuter passes but students have to go to a local JR East office to validate and activate it.

Mobile Suica will address this problem on February 13 with a system update and new version of Suica App (v3.1.0) that adds support for in-app purchasing and renewing student commute plans. Another Mobile Suica update on March 12 will add Tokyo region day pass purchase support. Think of these as selective local services on a widely available mobile platform. Let’s see how this approach can be applied to Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards.

1) Region affiliate mobile issue
When I made my Apple Wallet transit card wish list mockup, I thought it might be nice to have all the new Suica 2 in 1 cards available directly in Wallet app along with Mobile ICOCA (coming in 2023).

In reality, it’s not a good idea to make region affiliate transit cards available to every Wallet app user. Transit cards are easier to add in iOS 15 Wallet app than ever before, but not delete and get a refund. Too many choices confuse users who may be new to Apple Pay. What if a user wanted to add a regular Suica but added totra Suica or nolbé Suica by mistake?

Apple Pay WAON deals with this problem in a smart way: regular WAON can be added directly in Wallet app, regional WAON cards are added to Wallet with WAON app. The beauty of issuing specialty WAON cards in the app is they have region specific goodies attached: a portion of the region WAON card transaction goes to a local government development fund.

This approach is a perfect fit for region affiliate Suica cards on mobile with local perks, bonus local transit points and so on when issuing cards on mobile.

2) Suica 2 in 1 commuter pass purchases and limited eligibility card issue
There are a few more hurdles to clear before Suica 2 in 1 can join the mobile era: region affiliate commute plan purchase and renewal, limited eligibility card issue (for elder and disabled users).

Let’s say you are a totra commuter who rides a region affiliate bus and a JR East train. In this case you need 2 separate commute plans on your Suica 2 in 1 totra card, one for the region affiliate bus, one for JR East. The commuters plans must be purchased separately: the region affliliate commuter pass is bought at the bus office, the JR East section is then purchased added at a JR East station ticket office. It’s a complex hassle. JR East stations are all cashless but only a few region affiliate bus offices take credit cards…and so it goes. How nice it would be to do this with an app and pay with Apple Pay.

Mobile Suica already hosts this kind of complex commute plan configuration but not in Suica App. Mobile PASMO and PASMO App are hosted on the JR East system, basically rebranded Mobile Suica, and easily configure complex bus + train commute plans from multiple transit operators for mobile purchase.

This leaves limited eligibility card issue. The February 13 Mobile Suica update adds student commuter pass pre-registration and ID verification uploading via the Mobile Suica member website. The student reservers a pass entering school information, commute route and uploads a picture of their school ID. Approved student commuter pass reservations are then purchased in Suica App. This ID verification method can be used for issuing elder and disabled Suica 2 in 1 cards. It’s still a manual authentication process that digital My Number cards will, hopefully, transform into a simple automatic one with instant verification of necessary personal information.

One of the really interesting things about Suica 2 in 1 is that the next generation format is the very first Suica card that supports disability fares. Up until now disability fare users have been limited to paper passes inspected at manned transit gates.

JR East plans to drastically reduce the number of manned transit gate areas. Before this happens, mobile support for all Suica cards of every kind, especially the new Suica 2 in 1 features, must be in place. The pieces of the solution are there, it only a matter of JR East integrating them into a Mobile Suica system and Suica App update.

One Suica App to rule them all
If we are promoting region affiliate Suica cards does it make sense to do it all in Suica App or have individually branded local apps for totra, nolbé, cherica, et al? One main goal of Suica 2 in 1 is cost reduction and infrastructure sharing. Despite all the different names and card artwork these are Suica cards with all the Suica benefits and JR East managing the Suica infrastructure for region affiliates.

I’d argue it doesn’t make sense nor does it fit with cost reduction goals to do a bunch of re-skinned local Suica Apps when JR East is making a bunch of replicas. Better to focus efforts on making Suica App a streamlined easy to use app with all the necessary tools for managing mobile region affiliate cards. And because physical cards remain an important part of the Suica platform strategy, Suica App must also add a physical card iPhone recharge feature similar to what Octopus App and Navigo App offer.

All in all I expect that 2023, which will see the launch of the highly anticipated JR West Mobile ICOCA service, will be a big year for Mobile Suica and Suica App too.

Suica Light, the Welcome Suica for locals

JR East announced, yet another, Suica card: Suica Light. In terms of functionality it has no card deposit, a 6 month transit validity, card issue is not direct from JR East and limited to local governments, schools and corporations. In other words it’s not for individual purchase and use. The concept is somewhat similar to Welcome Suica: a Suica for specific kind of user with a limited transit use validity, no card deposit, no refunds. A time limited, throw away Suica. What’s the point?

On one level JR East wants to offer a new option that simply replaces some paper ticketing for group travel and also leverages current Suica platform (transit and eMoney) infrastructure. The logical and easy step might be using QR to handle special ticketing that doesn’t fit with regular Suica. JR East has tested QR Code capable gates but there is no rollout map or announced strategy. The problem with QR for JR East is that it doesn’t grow their Suica platform.

2022 is a big year for JR East’s MaaS strategy centered on the Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate program with 8 new cards launching in the Tohoku region. The key new feature is that different special services can be attached to differently branded Suica cards. Local users get the benefit of special local services linked with the wide national Suica footprint. This is also what Suica Light is aiming for in a different way: special services and/or tour packages attached to a differently branded, limited validity Suica.

We’ll see how it goes but there are sticky points for Suica Light and Suica 2 in 1:

  • Recycling: the short validity means these Suica Light cards have a very short life. JR East should provide a recycling program so that users can safely dispose of them.
  • Anywhere/Anytime recharge: hard money recharge is the old standby but many users would greatly appreciate the ability to check the card balance and recharge it with a smartphone app when on the go. It’s high time that JR East provide a recharge app for all plastic Suica cards.
  • Management: with the proliferation of Suica 2 in 1 and Suica Light that are not issued directly by JR East, users need a mobile app to manage the card (confirm or add services) without a trip to the local card issuer office.
  • Mobile Support: Suica Light mobile issue has some challenges at JR East is not directly involved and the user needs to verify their ID, but Suica 2 in 1 needs mobile support, sooner the better.

The challenge facing JR East is building a flexible, feature rich, future proof Suica cloud backend that extends the fast local processing Suica frontend, while reducing costs. Not an easy task.