Rakuten Pay Super Suica Connection

IT journalist Junya Suzuki wrote an interesting piece for Impress Watch detailing the recent Rakuten Pay Suica announcement. Unfortunately there was a major missing piece of analysis: Super Suica. I asked him about it.

I look forward to reading Suzuki san’s take, meanwhile here is mine. It has everything to do with the Japan Transit IC card standard and the common eMoney purse that I wrote about in the Apple Card piece.

(The) Japan Transit IC card standard occupies a very special category, 255 transit companies form a common interoperability standard which started from Suica. There are more issued Transit IC cards than people in Japan, everybody has one.

The core group of 9 major cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, TOICA, Kitaka, manaca, SUGOCA, nimoca, HAYAKEN) also share a common prepaid purse: Transit IC eMoney. The national coverage and scale of the major cards transforms Transit IC eMoney into something special found nowhere else: a de facto national prepaid card standard.

File:ICCard Connection en.svg
Japan Transit IC Map, a very cool animated timeline is also available

Pay close attention to the transit cards that encircle the pink area, with the exception of PiTaPa. These are local rural area transit cards that are currently orphaned from both the common eMoney purse, and transit interoperability.

In April 2021 Super Suica will enlarge the pink area to include these orphaned cards. They will join the common eMoney purse and be compatible with all the pink area cards for transit and purchases. These will also be on Apple Pay Suica, Google Pay Suica and Osaifu Keitai.

That is a huge change in and of itself, but there is another very important aspect. All of these orphaned rural area transit cards are basically cash recharge only. Rural area transit companies operate on shoe string budgets and cannot afford the infrastructure cost to host credit card recharging on the back end even for kiosks.

Super Suica will solve this problem and what better solution than Rakuten Pay Super Suica for all rural Rakuten Pay users, and there are lots of them. This is the major sweet spot that Rakuten and JR East are aiming for. It merges the Rakuten Pay backend with the Super Suica frontend into one convenient service for transit and eMoney purchases while leveraging lucrative Rakuten loyalty points. Rakuten has the best integrated point system in Japan and JR East wants to use it to extend the Suica Platform nationwide. Rakuten Pay and Super Suica belong together, like peanut butter and jelly.

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Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Apple Card and the Prepaid Innovation of Apple Pay Suica

The Apple Card tag line says it all, “A new kind of credit card. Created by Apple, not a bank.” This is a bank card that’s not a bank card, except that it is a bank card with basic limitations that can never be changed: a bank card is postpay and this chains it to the creaky banking industry that everybody knows and loathes, with predatory fees, credit checks and service nonsense.

To overcome this limitation, and the slow uptake of EMV Apple Pay and Apple Cash, Apple is merging the postpay Apple Card and the prepaid Apple Cash, glued together with Apple Pay into one service. Two is better than one, right? This merge of postpay + prepaid is a long overdue development for the American market that builds on ideas and experience that Apple gained from Apple Pay Suica in Japan.

The credit card drag on Apple Pay adoption
The slow uptake of Apple Pay and other digital wallets in the USA is pointed out from time to time. The eMarketer blog piece in May 2018 predicted stronger growth for In-App loyalty prepaid cards like Starbucks, over Apple Pay and Google Pay. The Starbucks card is like many prepaid loyalty cards that offer points and rewards along with apps that let users add the loyalty card and attach a credit card for easy In-App reloads. It’s an easy entry point for customers to enjoy the benefits of using prepaid cards and get the most out of their purchases.

There are other factors cited for slow Apple Pay adoption rates in America, but I think the basic reasons are simple. During my 4 month American stay in 2018, I was surprised how slow and uneven the Apple Pay experience was at checkout. Pulling out a plain old credit card was often the faster hassle free choice. Either way it’s the same credit card right? It’s marginally move convenient, but not a new service.

That is the problem. Apple Pay and digital wallets are new technology but bank cards carry the combined weight of a creaky, out of date banking industry. Banks operations are retro, analog businesses living in the digital age on borrowed time. Bank cards with all kinds of new technology attached to them are still the same stodgy card services from the same stodgy banks.

The real point of the eMarketer piece is that In-App prepaid cards with postpay credit cards attached on the backend, offer customers a convenient new merged service that is than far better than either by itself, with bank cards limited to a indirect backup role. The prepaid card is the main point of contact between the customer and merchant, not the bank card. And this makes all the difference because it’s where the innovation is.


Japan Transit IC eMoney Transactions for non-transit purchases topped 8 million a day in April 2019

Apple Pay Japan success built with prepaid
Prepaid card use for transit and purchases in Japan dwarfs credit card use, especially with younger people. The major prepaid cards include WAON, nanaco, Rakuten Edy and Japan Transit IC cards (an interesting bit of history is that Suica and WAON were initially conceived to be a single card). Of these the Japan Transit IC card standard occupies a very special category, 255 transit companies form a common interoperability standard which includes Suica. There are more issued Transit IC cards than people in Japan, everybody has one.

File:ICCard Connection en.svg
Japan Transit IC Map, a very cool animated timeline is also available

The core group of 9 major cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, TOICA, Kitaka, manaca, SUGOCA, nimoca, HAYAKEN) also share a common prepaid purse: Transit IC eMoney. The national coverage and scale of the major cards transforms Transit IC eMoney into something special found nowhere else: a de facto national prepaid card standard.

Transit IC eMoney transactions for non-transit purchases topped 8 million a day in April 2019. At current growth rates, transactions should be more than 10 million a day when Super Suica arrives in April 2021 and significantly enlarges the common eMoney purse footprint while unifying it.

The success of Apple Pay in Japan is very different from any other country: it was not accomplished with bank cards, it was accomplished with the Suica transit card with it’s common prepaid Transit IC eMoney purse. The success formula has 2 basic ingredients: de facto national prepaid purse for transit and purchases matched with Apple Pay postpaid bank cards for recharging Suica. Prepaid + Postpay as one service with bank cards limited to the backend for reloading.

The concept is just like In-App prepaid loyalty cards: a prepaid front end with a flexible open ended postpay backend. But this one is much more powerful because it can be used everywhere for transit and purchases. Putting the Suica prepaid card on Apple Pay and Google Pay with their infinitely flexible postpay backend for instant, anywhere, anytime recharge and reloads takes everything to a whole new level of convenience and use.

One of the failures of Apple Cash is that the current version is pigeonholed as a peer to peer service. How different Apple Cash would be if it was positioned like Suica. Apple Pay HOP users are just getting their first taste of new things now, as will Chicago Ventra users when Apple Pay Ventra launches later this year. Unfortunately eMoney is not part of the mix for HOP and Ventra, only transit, nor are they compatible with each other.

A first step towards virtual currency?
I used Suica before Apple Pay arrived and have nearly 3 years of Apple Pay Suica use under my belt. The prepaid + postpay service model matched with transit + purchase eMoney is a combination that is almost impossible to describe to a person who has not lived with it. The daily experience is very different from using bank cards which feel like hard money wrapped in plastic. Hong Kong Octopus card users are probably the only ones who can relate to it, and then only Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay users.

Suica eMoney on digital wallets represents a small step towards virtual currency in a way that bank cards do not. QR Codes serve the same function for China, the first small step away from hard cash. Even though QR Codes payment systems are usually hard wired to bank accounts, they are not run by banks.

None of these schemes are real virtual currencies of course, but they are an important cushion for the mind. The daily use experience prepares people for a future where payments, and the whole infrastructure supporting them, will be completely different from what we have now. It changes old habits, and more importantly, old ways of thinking, just a little. Taking the next step from there is much easier.

A few days ago I wrote:

The Apple Card rollout due this summer is a head scratcher. There are lots of things Apple Card can do in Wallet that other cards, as yet, cannot do. It feels too big and important for just a press release and a new web page. And yet, by itself, it’s too small for a full blown Apple event. I think the Apple Card rollout is going to be a very interesting release for all things Apple Pay.

The new Apple Card + Apple Cash will be the first major postpay + prepaid Apple Pay service for iPhone users in America. The experiment will be fascinating to watch, but Japan remains the world’s most exciting and heady payments market experiment there is.

Rakuten Pay branded Suica for Android in 2020

Apple Pay users got the Mizuho branded Suica in 2018, so it’s only fair that Android Suica users get a digitally branded Suica too. JR East and Rakuten announced Rakuten Pay Suica today. Starting next spring, Rakuten Pay users on Osaifu Keitai Android (no mention of Google Pay, ahem), will be able to create a virtual Rakuten Pay Suica card in the Rakuten Pay app and rack up Rakuten points when recharging it with Rakuten Pay.

Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani is a former bank executive and his buildup of the Rakuten payments service empire is impressive. The whole point is to remove credit cards and banks from the Suica recharge process for Rakuten Pay users, and there are lots of them. So much so that some Apple Pay users might be tempted to switch to Android just to use Rakuten Pay Suica.

All things Suica will change with the arrival of Super Suica in 2021. Until then this is another nice, and strategically important, expansion of the Suica Transit Platform, extending the usefulness of Suica in the Rakuten Pay point universe that has a deep user base in rural areas. Come to think of it, this is JR East getting their ducks in a row for the Super Suica rollout that will incorporate all those local rural transit IC cards that have been left out the e-money and digital wallet revolution. It’s a perfect matchup.

UPDATE
Rakuten and JR East are examining iOS support in addition to Android. Jennifer Bailey and the Apple Pay crew had better get cracking on negotiations with Rakuten, Rakuten Pay Suica is going to be way bigger and more important than Mizuho Suica can ever be.

For the Rakuten Pay app, FeliCa is just one payment protocol sitting alongside barcodes, Bluetooth and QR Codes

Golden Week Golden JRE POINT

Golden Week 2019 is going to be an extraordinarily long one, 10 days in all. It would not be Golden Week without a few marketing gimmicks and JR East has not disappointed: 15X bonus JRE POINT running May 2~6 with any JRE POINT registered Suica purchases at yellow sticker Suica JRE POINT stores (NewDays, Becks Coffee Shop, Kiosk, etc.) .

To be sure setting up Apple Pay Suica with JRE POINT is a pain, but once done it’s nice to rack up the points. Until May 6, goodbye Starbucks and hello Becks.

When you purchase things with Apple Pay Suica at Suica JRE POINT stores you earn JRE POINT automatically

Maintenance and Localization

Online guides are like underwear, if not changed regularly, they get smelly and nasty. There were some big changes in March 2019 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.

I updated Apple Pay Suica and Suica App guides with new instructions and screenshots that follow JR East’s recommendation of using SuicaEng to add Suica to Apple Pay. Suica App is there for advanced users who need the extra functions and have the necessary Japanese language skills to navigate it on their own. It will have to do until JR East releases a multilingual version of Suica App.

Lots of people complain that JR East is incompetent because after 2 years since it hit the App Store, 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.