SmartGo Staple: a smart Mobile Suica solution for COVID era business travel

As more companies transition work style away from daily commuting to a central office to telework with direct business trips from home, there is less need for commuter passes but that means more corporate virtual paperwork and paper trails for filing and processing transit expenses. How nice it would be if Mobile Suica had a plug-in for SF expense reporting. It does actually: SmartGo Staple a co-venture between JR East and NTT Communications.

The service is straightforward: for a ¥1,000 (w/VISA card option) or ¥600 (w/o) per Mobile ID monthly service fee, SmartGo Staple provides live Mobile Suica ID SF transaction data of registered accounts to corporate management and accounting, who then calculate and reimburse employee on the go, or teleworking at home for corporate related Mobile Suica use, reducing the paperwork at all levels. The flexibility of Mobile Suica and Suica App which discretely attaches a credit card to a Suica card, allows users to set up a Suica card just for corporate use with a corporate credit card attached. This is the idea behind the SmartGo Staple prepaid VISA card option which management can ‘recharge’ remotely.

It’s a service for the COVID era but the interesting thing is that with more people doing without commuter passes, Apple Pay Suica and Mobile Suica easily covers nationwide transit and payment use. Commuter passes are the only reason for all those Japanese Transit IC cards. One Mobile Suica does it all. There are still weak spots, i.e. non SF Suica ID # attached services like smartEX and Shinkansen eTickets. Using a transit card ID number to attach separate services is flexible but corralling all the separate transaction histories into one expense report is still a chore.

Young employees tell the department manager to get with the times

The truth is in the tap

The Nankai Visa Touch test launch launched endless Twitter discussions about slow EMV contactless tap speeds and performance issues compared with Suica and other Transit IC cards. EMV contactless transit in Japan is novel so this is expected. But suddenly people are also referencing Junya Suzuki’s 2016 pre-Apple Pay Suica launch era ‘Is Suica Over-spec?’ piece. This has long been a favorite theme in Japanese tech media: Suica is more than we need, EMV contactless is ‘good enough’ so let’s do everything with one card, life is more convenient that way. Be careful what you wish for.

The 2016 launch of Apple Pay Suica was a great success of course, that changed the Japanese payments market and opened the door for the proliferation of QR payment services you see everywhere now. The one card must do it all concept is old hat but Tokyo Olympics sponsors Visa Japan and SMBC are trying very hard to convince Japan that Visa Touch cards are the transit future.

My position was and remains that one size never fits all. It doesn’t have to be a EMV or nothing choice portrayed in tech media, nor should it. Different technologies complement each other for a better user experience. Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica combines the convenience of EMV cards on the recharge backend with the speed and reliability of FeliCa based Suica cards on the NFC front-end, for a best of breed closed loop transit user experience. One interesting thing I pointed out in my retweet of Suzuki san’s Nakai open loop launch piece was that QR Nankai Digital Ticket gate performance in the his video is faster than Visa Touch because it’s closed loop.

The comment touched off an odd but interesting set of tweets from Suzuki san and his followers about gate design, reader performance and walk flow that boils down to this: if the reader transaction speed is slow, increase the distance between the reader and gate flap to keep people walking instead of stopping.

His follow up piece deconstructs ‘FeliCa is faster’ as half misunderstanding transit gate antenna design and RF communication distance because EMVCo reader certification dictates a smaller RF distance, the result of using the EMV contactless supermarket checkout spec on transit gates it was never intended for. All I can say is the truth is in the tap. In theory all NFC flavors and protocols offer the same performance but in real transit use they don’t. Better to get next generation Ultra Wideband Touchless gates in service and dispense with the ‘redesign transit gates for slow EMV contactless/QR transit’ debate nonsense. Design things for the future not the past.

The current Transit IC local stored fare model does have weak points as suggested in FeliCa Dude’s tweet: discount ticketing, rebates and refunds. If you purchase a Mobile Suica commuter pass, you can easily get a refund back to the bank payment card used to purchase the commuter pass. This is because Suica extras like commuter passes and Green Seat upgrades are supplemental attached services that don’t use the SF purse.

Rebates and refunds via the SF (stored fare) purse are a bottleneck. Suica App has a mechanism for dealing with some of this called ‘Suica Pocket’ for JRE POINT exchanges and refunds back to the SF purse. Mobile Suica card refunds are another matter and can only be refunded to a Japanese bank account. Octopus Cards Ltd. (OCL) has a special Octopus App for Tourists that refunds a card balance back to original credit card used for the initial digital card issue. OCL also charges tourist users an arm and a leg for Octopus Wallet recharge and refunding. It would be nice if JR East could do the same…without the outrageous OCL surcharges.

For inbound discount ticketing JR East has adopted a similar approach they use for Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets: discount plans attached to plastic Suica cards. This is the whole purpose of the Welcome Suica + reference paper proving validity for inbound discount plan purchases at station kiosks. It would be great if JR East figures out a way to do the same thing on Mobile Suica.

Domestic discount ticketing and passes are still the glorious, mostly paper ticket mess that is Eki-Net and similar services. Eki-Net itself is still in a slow motion transition towards a Transit IC/Mobile Suica orbit with some things transitioning to QR paper ticketing that replaces expensive mag-strip paper. Eki-Net App is still limited to Shinkansen eTickets and ticketless express train seat purchases. The Eki-Net web site is where you access all the bells and whistles although the experience feels like navigating the Transit IC interoperability chart. Discounts are starting to change somewhat with Suica 2 in 1, totra is the first Suica for disabled users but exclusive to the totra fare region. Hopefully Extended Overlap will see wider use not only for Suica but across all Transit IC cards for more special, and interoperable, discount services.

JR Transit Ides of March 2021

March is the traditional month for transit companies to rollout new schedules and services. March 2021 is an exceptionally busy one with many updates, here are the important ones.

March 1
JR East Suica Repeat Transit Point Service (Suica/Mobile Suica): make the same trip 10 times a month earn a free trip in JRE POINT.

March 4
Mobile Suica for Fitbit Charge 4 launch.

March 6
JR Central EX-Press Reserve and SmartEX Shinkansen eTickets reservation system updates: EX-Press Reserve gains Transit IC (Suica, PASMO, TOICA, ICOCA, etc.) support and both EX systems gain group ticket purchases for Transit IC and QR Code paper ticket pickup.

March 13
New Cross Region Commuter Passes (plastic Suica/TOICA/ICOCA only): JR Group companies extend transit region commute pass region boundaries inside their respective regions for easier cross region Shinkansen commuting.

JR East Suica station admission fee (aka platform tickets) for Suica, Mobile Suica•PASMO and Transit IC cards.

ICOCA transit area expansion: JR West expands ICOCA coverage with Fukuchiyama, Kisei and Kansai line additions going online March 13, 2021. The Kisei and Kansai line additions incorporate on-board readers for tap-in and tap out.

New schedules with reduced operating hours, with fewer early and late trains go into effect.

March 15
JR East Commuter Suica Off Peak Point Service (Suica/Mobile Suica): JRE POINT rewards for off peak commuting.

March 20~21
Special Mobile Suica service maintenance and update: Mobile Suica gets an upgrade on the backend to support new versions of Android Mobile Suica/iOS Suica. Most of the new features are for Android but iOS Suica App will get improvements too. Mobile Suica users will be required to enter account ID and password with the app update. Make sure you have that information ready or update/reset passwords before the Mobile Suica 20 hour service maintenance downtime 11 am March 20 to 7 am March 21.

March 21
Almost last but not least we have the first ‘Super’ Suica 2 in 1 region transit card launch: totra for Tochigi prefecture.

March 27
The last item is Suica 2 in 1 region transit card launch #2:  Iwate Green Pass that covers Iwate Kotsu bus lines.

JR Central EX-Press Reserve eTicket upgrade ditches Shinkansen IC cards for Transit IC cards (Updated)

EX-Press Reserve service upgrade, no more double card tap

EX-Press Reserve (also called EX-Press Ride) is the sister service of smartEX that uses the same EX app and system with deeper discounts aimed at Japanese business travelers. It also comes with a special EX Transit IC card just for Shinkansen gates with a unique ‘double card’ tap (EX IC card + regular Transit IC card). Mobile Suica and Apple Pay Suica users with a View card also have the unique and slightly different Express View service by registering for EX-Press Reserve in Suica App for JR Central Shinkansen eTicket travel EX Transit IC.

Fortunately JR Central is streamlining the complex service to bring it in line with the simple smartEX approach: instead of the special IC card for Shinkansen gates, members register a plain old Transit IC card (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, Toica, etc.) and use that. Shinkansen IC cards can still be used of course but most people will probably just use Transit IC cards, including Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO.

For Apple Pay Suica users this means Suica App Ex-Press Reserve service ends March 6, which also means a Suica App update that removes the menu item should be landing soon. From that date Apple Pay PASMO users can register their card number for EX-Press Reserve use. Keep in mind that EX-Press Reserve membership costs ¥1,100 a year and is limited to JR Central/JR West issue Express Card, JR East View Card, and certain Japanese issue credit cards.

Other EX-Press Reserve system improvements on March 6 include group ticket purchases for Transit IC card use instead of paper, and the ability to change reservations via the EX App or web site in case of Shinkansen delays.


UPDATE
EX App v6 was released March 6 with Transit IC card support and QR options. EX-Press Reserve members have the option of setting a EX-IC or Transit IC card for Shinkansen boarding and can add up to 5 Transit IC cards to the account for group ticket use. Both EX-Press Reserve and SmartEX JP members have a QR Pick-up code option for paper ticket pickup at ticket vending machines. Inbound SmartEx account holders have the extra QR Code boarding option at QR marked Shinkansen gates, though JR Central recommends printing it out as one-time passcode entry is required to display it on the smartphone screen. For inbound transit users Apple Pay Suica • PASMO is the easiest single card option for Tokkaido Shinkansen + regular transit.

Reader Question: what’s the point of Apple Pay My Suica?

A reader asked a very good question: what’s the point of an Apple Pay My Suica? Can’t you already migrate a normal ‘unregistered’ Suica to another device if you loose your device?

There are 3 basic Suica plastic card categories: unregistered, registered (My Suica) and commuter. PASMO and all other major Transit IC card are the same. An unregistered Suica card just spits out of the station kiosk after putting money in and you are on your way, but it cannot be replaced or re-issued if lost. Buy a new one, end of story.

With a registered My Suica card, the customer registers a name and other information on the kiosk touchscreen and if the card is lost it can be re-issued for a fee with the original stored balance intact. It’s Suica insurance. Same deal for Commuter Suica which is registered Suica with a commute plan attached.

Mobile Suica uses the same 3 category card model but Apple Pay Suica changed the game considerably. When a user transfers any flavor of plastic Suica to Apple Pay, the card is permanently linked to the user Apple ID. When a user creates a Suica card in Wallet it creates a My Suica card also attached to Apple ID. Apple Pay Suica cards also seem to be ‘ghost’ registered to Mobile Suica even when the user does not have a Mobile Suica account. Only the Apple Pay and Mobile Suica system elves really know what is going on.

The upside for Apple Pay users is that Apple Pay and Mobile Suica preserve Suica card information so the user can safely remove Suica from Wallet, re-add it, or transfer it to another device at any time. It’s free insurance without the hassle of registering a Mobile Suica account. All Suica card types are treated the same. The downside is that if you want to migrate to Android you have to delete your Mobile Suica account and refund the card, then create a new card and Mobile Suica account for Google Pay Suica. It’s the same deal going migrating the other way.

To answer the reader question regarding the point of Apple Pay My Suica, the point is this: commute plans, auto-charge, Green Car seat purchase. The point of Apple Pay Registered PASMO is similar: commute plans and auto-charge. All this is done via Suica App or PASMO App. If you don’t want those extra services, a plain unregistered Suica or PASMO is all you need.