Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch: First Impressions

Now that iOS 12.3 is out with great Apple Pay Suica performance and no more bugs, I have a new side project: Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch. I moved my daily Commuter Suica to Apple Watch and it’s an interesting experience. Some first impressions.

  • Apple Pay Suica performance on watchOS 5.2.1 on Apple Watch Series 4 is great, but not as great as iOS 12.3 on iPhone XS. Because A12 Bionic removes the iOS overhead for Express Cards with power reserve, Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XS/XR feels light and snappy like a plastic Suica card. I can’t wait for Express Cards with power reserve on Apple Watch.
  • Suica Recharge on Apple Watch sucks and I have discovered how wonderfully useful Suica App really is. I have a Commuter Suica on Apple Watch and a My Suica on iPhone. Both of these can be recharged and managed (with different credit cards attached to each Suica!) in Suica App. It’s super convenient and has opened my eyes to a major Apple Pay Wallet design weakness: iPhone Wallet and Watch App Wallet should just be one thing that manages all of my Wallets cards on both devices in one place. Apple Watch Wallet is great, in a pinch, but it’s a lousy UI experience for managing transit card options and Suica Recharge. Apple Pay transit prepaid card users access those card options far more than credit cards. I added a unified Wallet request for iOS 13 to the Apple Pay WWDC19 wish list.
  • Suica Reminders for low balance and commuter plan renewals are another Apple Watch weak point. They don’t exist. Suica App to the rescue again with Notification Sounds. The 3 beep Suica low balance reminder (¥1,000 or less) works everywhere and is a life saver. It’s far more attention grabbing than Apple Pay Suica Notification Center reminders on iPhone.

A true story: I was buying lunch at a family owned Daily Yamazaki convenience store. You might know the kind, a Showa style convenience store stocked with Yamazaki breads, homemade sandwiches and bento, usually run by an older couple, a store from a different era that will unfortunately disappear.

I bought a bento and paid with Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch. The Suica 3 beep low balance reminder sound from the reader caught the attention of the owner who looked to be in his late 70s. “Suica works on that? It’s so small.” I assured him Suica worked on Apple Watch.

He smiled and said, “That’s really convenient. You’ll never lose it or have to find it when it’s on your wrist.”

It is indeed.

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SuicaEng vs Suica App Reviews and UI Design

App Store user reviews are not always about the app. They also reveal problems users are dealing with that might not have anything to do with the app itself. The differences between the SuicaEng and Suica app reviews on the US App store are interesting.

The reviews are less about the apps and more about using Apple Pay Suica, and for some any issues they have with it. In retrospect it would have been better if JR East had released SuicaEng app first on App stores outside of Japan for people who just wanted to add Suica to Apple Pay. Why didn’t Apple and JR East just put a Suica add button in Wallet and be done with it?

As the negative Suica App reviews make clear, more choices and functionality confuses users. Good UI design should only show what the user needs to see at any given moment. It’s a design issue covered extensively by Ken Kocienda in his excellent book Creative Selection when he was creating the iPad software keyboard.

In this case it comes back to Apple Pay Region settings, filtering out unnecessary choices and eliminating potential problems. If you live in America and want to add a Hop card on Apple Pay after it becomes available this summer, which Add > Card Type screen is less confusing? A bunch of choices that have nothing to do with the country a user lives in might look cool but are an invitation to trouble, like the negative Suica App reviewer who deleted $150 worth of prepaid balance but doesn’t know how to retrieve it. Clutter means user confusion and potential problems.

China transit cards can created in Wallet without using an app, so why does Suica require one? JR East played it safe by keeping virtual card creation on a separate app the user has to download, even though the feature could have implemented in Wallet. Doing it in an app also has the bonus of less complication by doing away with Region settings. Until Apple Pay Wallet comes up with a better way to add virtual cards from different regions without a Region setting, I think one time use apps like SuicaEng make sense, and keep support issues at a minimum.

I also like weird ‘SuicaEng’ app name. Most people assume that it’s just Japanese using weird English, but it’s a very conscious choice that has nothing to do with English ability. Japanese language loves to condense things and Suica + English = SuicaEng immediately sets the app apart from the full featured Suica app, while playing on the odd similarity: you can guess what the app is about without knowing anything about it. Most of all the strange name keeps it memorable.

Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket Service Ends March 2020

When you purchase Shinkansen eTickets in Suica App, you’ll see a small notice at the bottom of the menu screen: Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket Service ends March 2020. Does this mean we’ll have to go back to paper tickets? Not at all.

JR East has been coy about the new cloud based eTicket service they are working on to replace the current Mobile Suica one. Originally the plan was to release a product similar to JR Central’s smartEX in April 2019.

Oops, that didn’t happen and I think we are better off for it. smartEx for all of it’s backend system hocus-pocus, isn’t that smart. The basic system is designed with manually input Transit IC card numbers (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, and all) as the center. The result is a fragile and static system that doesn’t port well. Sign up for the Express Reserve (EX Reserve) service option in Suica App and you too can experience JR Central’s oh so fugly EX system.

I don’t think JR East wants that kind of system. There are probably 2 aims: replacing the old but reliable iMode backend with a modern dynamic one that can comfortably process the full variety of regular train and Shinkansen eTickets while plugging into many different UI front-ends: Suica App, web, other transit company apps, etc. It will be properly internationalized too. The iMode backend has served us very well since 2006 but needs to go, take a look at the eTicket purchase screenshots on the Suica App page and you’ll see.

We’ll get a new eTicket service with a new name in a new version of Suica App, in English and Japanese probably, and lots more. I look forward to seeing what JR East comes up with for the big Tokyo Olympic 2020 rollout.


Maintenance and Localization

Online guides are like underwear, if not changed regularly, they get stinky and nasty. There were a number of changes last month from JR East: multilingual help support and SuicaEng. This has greatly simplified Apple Pay Suica setup for virtual cards but has required updates to my Apple Pay Suica Guide and Suica App guide. Specifically I am updating instructions and screenshots that follow JR East’s recommendation of using SuicaEng to add Suica to Apple Pay, leaving Suica App for advanced users who need the extra functions and have the necessary Japanese language skill. It’s a work in progress that I hope to finish this week. It will have to do until JR East completely internationalizes Suica App.

Lots of people complain that JR East is incompetent because after 2 years Suica App is still only in Japanese. After all ‘it’s only an app localization job’. Right?

Wrong, very wrong.

This is exactly the trap that Apple fell into with Apple Maps. The original Apple Maps team and management made the huge mistake of approaching the task as ‘creating a map app’. Only after the disastrous launch of Apple Maps in 2012 did it become clear that the job was not about creating a map app at all. The real job was creating and deftly managing an entire digital map ecosystem. It’s a job that Apple is still learning

Suica App is really just an interface shell for all the gargantuan database systems piped into it from Mobile Suica Cloud. JR East will get the ecosystem internationalization job done eventually, but it must be a huge and expensive task with little hope of directly recuperating the costs. If JR East is taking their time to do system internationalization the right way, I have no problem waiting some more. It’s an investment in the future that hopefully leads to new business opportunities for the Suica platform and an easier to use system for everybody.

Apple Pay Suica Refund

A reader asked if I could write a post about Suica card refunds. First of all there are different kinds of refunds. Refunds for Shinkansen e-tickets, Green Seat Reservations, Commute Plans are handled in Suica App. A refund of the Apple Pay Suica card SF (Stored Fare) balance is covered here, but beware as there are major hurdles. JR East recommends using up the balance instead of refunding because the Suica card cannot be used again after a refund. You have to delete the dead Suica card from Wallet, if you ever want to use Suica again you have to create a new one.

A nearly depleted Suica can be safely deleted from Wallet and added again only when needed. I think the JR East recommendation is the best choice especially if you plan to use Suica again.

The Suica refund requirements are:

  • A Mobile Suica account: this is free but registration can only be done via the Japanese only Suica App
  • Suica App (not SuicaEng)
  • A Japanese bank account
  • ¥220 refund processing fee for each Suica card refund
  • Once you refund a Suica card it cannot be used again and has to be deleted from Wallet, your Mobile Suica account is also automatically deleted

If you have a Mobile Suica account and a Japanese bank the process is straight forward. Open Suica App, if you have multiple Suica cards choose the one you want the refund, tap on Ticket Purchase•Manage Suica, scroll to the bottom of the list and tap Suica Refund.

Scroll to the bottom of Terms and Conditions and tap Agree. In the next screen confirm the SF refund amount of the Suica card then tap next.

In the next few screens you enter your bank account information so have the information ready. In the first screen enter the first 3 katakana of the bank name and tap search, select bank name, enter the first katakana of the bank branch name and tap search, select the bank branch name, enter the bank account type, account number and account name and tap next. In the final screen confirm your information then tap Suica Refund.

Once completed Mobile Suica sends an email to your registered address, the bank transfer from JR East takes 2~4 weeks to process.