The Super Suica Touchless Connection

The recent flurry of press releases and news reports for touchless walkthrough transit gates and handsfree touchless store payments sheds considerably more light on the next generation Suica architecture and FeliCa OS. The new Suica card due in spring 2021 does not have an official name. I call it Super Suica. Here’s what has been announced so far.

Next Generation Suica “2 cards in 1” architecture, new FeliCa OS, new IC card format announced by Sony, JR East, JR East Mechatronics (JREM) in September 2018.

Handsfree touchless Mobile FeliCa payments technology based on UWB+Bluetooth on Mobile FeliCa announced by Docomo, Sony, NXP Semiconductors in December 2019. A new JR East touchless transit gate was also reported by Kyodo News around the same time and was confirmed by JR East. The new touchless payments technology uses FeliCa for transactions but uses a UWB+Bluetooth front-end instead of NFC.

No delivery date for touchless gates or touchless payments has been announced but as Junya Suzuki pointed out in his recent article, Japanese transit infrastructure investment runs in 7~8 year cycles. The Takanawa Gateway station opening and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 are the kickoff for the next transit infrastructure cycle. I see 3 basic transitions for JR East and the other major transit companies.

  • Suica transition from legacy architecture to next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Super Suica staring in spring 2021.
  • FeliCa transition from NFC only front-end to incorporate UWB+Bluetooth radio technologies for handsfree touchless payments. News reports suggest deployment of JR East touchless walkthrough gates starting in 2023.
  • QR Code transition from legacy magnetic strip and other paper ticketing. Testing and evaluation is due to start at Takanawa Gateway station in 2020 with new Suica+QR Code dual reader transit gates.

Next generation Suica and Touchless Mobile FeliCa represent an interesting twist in that both require a new version of FeliCa. My take is that the new versions of FeliCa OS are one and the same, and that both Super Suica and Touchless incorporate UWB and Bluetooth protocols for transactions in addition to NFC-F.

Zero-sum Game Reset?
People are already complaining ‘oh no, not more JR East/FeliCa proprietary BS,’ but that snap judgement is way too early. Outside of the basic technologies we don’t know what standards are involved for handsfree touchless payments, but we do know that NXP is partnering with Docomo and Sony on the effort. That means MIFARE is already working on it too. JR East announced at the 2016 Tokyo NFC Forum conference that they are dedicated to working for open compatible transit payments (i.e. open ticketing between transit operators, not EMV).

Let’s take JR East at their word and assume that there is just one flavor of UWB+Bluetooth touchless, that it is fast, that it is open. In this scenario the same UWB+Bluetooth touchless front-end could be used by anybody from the large established proprietary players like EMV, FeliCa and MIFARE to open transit payment associations like Calypso. I hope this is the scenario that plays out. We don’t need a repeat of the ‘let’s make NFC A-B (Philips and Motorola) an open standard and shut NFC-F (Sony) out of the game’ nonsense that didn’t help anybody except QR Code players.

The Apple angle is interesting. Global NFC support put Apple Pay ahead of the curve. Apple putting UWB into iPhone 11 this year could be another ‘get ahead of the curve’ move so that everything is ready to roll with Super Suica on iOS 15/watchOS 8 in late 2021. I doubt anybody will see it this way, but I think touchless Mobile FeliCa and JR East plans for it are one factor in Apple’s decision.

Handsfree Touchless Smartcards?
One very important question: does this stuff work on smartcards? So far only smartphones have been mentioned in the press releases. Indications are that Super Suica is launching with new IC smartcard issue, by necessity it will have be backwards compatible with current transit card IC infrastructure.

If JR East plans to deploy touchless gates systemwide starting in 2023, Super Suica plastic transit cards must work seamlessly with the new gates. It doesn’t make any sense to issue yet another card, Super Duper Suica, to work with handsfree touchless. It also doesn’t make sense if touchless is only for smartphones. If it’s going to work in the minds of transit users and be used at all, all of it has to work perfectly, out of the gate.

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Another week, another new JR East gate design

JR East sure has a lot of irons in the fire. We have Super Suica, the new eTicket system, the Touchless walkthrough gate, and now we have yet another new gate design mentioned in yesterday’s press event release for the new JR Takanawa Gateway station due to open in spring 2020.

This 2nd design is supposed to be wheelchair friendly with the Suica reader on the right hand side rather than on top. It’s not as wheelchair friendly as the touchless walkthrough gate and downright hostile for left hand Apple Watch users which Japanese users have tweeted and complained about.

And it has a QR Code reader on the front. Don’t hold your breath because it is only for “testing and evaluation” purposes in a new station with initial low passenger traffic. There are still one-off paper ticket variations without mag stripes that don’t work on the current Suica architecture or on ticket gates and have to be collected by a station agent.

Those low volume specialty tickets would fit well with QR Code as JR East migrates away from paper ticketing all together. Osaka Metro have said they plan to test other technologies such as face recognition. I have no idea if those systems will work any better than Face ID for face mask wearing hay fever and flu suffering transit users. It doesn’t sound fun.

The vague JR East press release wording, and the wheelchair specific design suggests these gates will not be universal at Takanawa Gateway station. They will probably be installed in the manned booth areas to free up station agents to deal with more important business.

The Suica Part

The arrival of Apple Pay Express Transit on Transport for London this month is getting a lot more press than the debut of Apple Pay Express Transit and Suica in October 2016. Local coverage at the time was focused on the arrival of Apple Pay in Japan, Express Transit was barely mentioned. TfL is also getting more press than the debut of Express Transit on the New York MTA OMNY system earlier this year. Apple even created a special page highlighting its arrival.

I suspect there are a few reasons for the brouhaha. The Oyster IC transit card has been around since 2003, open loop EMV contactless cards service started in 2012, Apple Pay support arrived in 2015. MTA on the other hand only started OMNY with very limited open loop transit service in late May. The majority of MTA users still do the MetroCard manual swipe thing. In short TfL users are very familiar with Oyster transit IC cards, contactless bank cards and Apple Pay. They are well aware of the Express Transit difference. The same is true for Apple Pay users in areas like Sydney with a similar transit card system.

MacRumors did a good job of reporting the initial Express Transit on TfL test ramp up before the official debut. Joe Rossignol’s explanation of Express Transit mode support in “parts of Japan” is rather odd though. Which parts does he think don’t work?

The Suica part covers JR East, but since Suica is part of the Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association this means that Apple Pay Suica works with the PASMO, ICOCA, manaca, nimoca, Pitapa, Toica, Sugoca, Kitaca and Hayaken parts. The Okinawa part will be joining in April 2020. Maybe Rossignol means the parts outside of the blue/pink square mutual transit use area? Most of these are already transit compatible with Apple Pay Suica (the ones with IC arrows pointing at them). This leaves the ones without IC arrows, which will be joining with Super Suica in 2021.

With the exclusion of the soon to join Okinawa OKICA, Apple Pay Suica already covers all the major transit parts in Japan. I have no idea which Apple Pay Suica incompatible parts Rossignol is referring to. The Minobu line? The Oigawa Railway? It is a mystery.

File:ICCard Connection en.svg
Japan Transit IC Map, outside white area cards are due to join Super Suica in 2021

Touchless walkthrough transit gates coming in 2020, Mobile Suica eTickets more popular than ever

Mobile Suica has been under a lot of stress this week. The cloud service almost went down under a heavy load on November 26, at the same time the Suica App has shot up in the App Store Japan rankings, briefly touching the top 3 which is unusual. At first I scratched my head then remembered that Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTickets become available 30 days in advance, and that means the New Year vacation period. But the unexpected Mobile Suica load and Suica App downloads signal something else: more first time Suica App users than ever before.

Even though Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket purchases are not eligible for CASHLESS rebates, it looks like more Japanese are taking the opportunity to go cashless this year with many first time users signing up for a Mobile Suica account and going all in with Apple Pay Suica/Google Pay Suica. Discounts on some advance Shinkansen eTickets are also pretty good.

In other news Kyodo reports that JR East is developing a new ‘touchless’ walkthrough gate with an overhead antenna design that lets users keep Suica in a bag or pocket. No more waving cards and devices over a reader. It’s also big help for left handed people, Apple Watch Suica users and wheelchair users. Field tests are expected to start in 2020 with a rollout in 2~3 years. It sounds like a perfect match for the new eTicket system that JR East will launch in April 2020 and Super Suica coming in April 2021. It will be Super Suica all the way, we are entering the final years of magnetic strip paper ticketing.

It would be great fun if a few JR stations near Tokyo Olympic venues could have a few walkthrough Touchless gates installed for inbound Apple Pay Suica users to try out. Great for travelers with both hands full. Look ma, no hands! Take that QR Code fans.

UPDATE
It looks like Kyodo News is playing somewhat loose with their reporting. Ever reliable IT journalist Junya Suzuki contacted JR East for confirmation. JR East confirmed the basic story that they are developing a Touchless gate but have not committed to a rollout schedule. The picture that ran with the Kyodo piece is an older photo of an exhibition demo unit and not necessarily the Touchless gate, or the Touchless gate technology in development.

Fields of Dreams: the endlessly looping open loop vs closed loop transit debate

MacRumors reported that Apple Pay Express Transit support is finally arriving, bit by bit, on the TfL system after being announced back in May. I only noticed the piece because somebody threw a link to my site in one of the forum comments and the discussion has some interesting, and deliciously snarky, open loop bank cards for transit vs. native transit card debate.

The ‘Japan has a transit IC card problem’ angle is interesting. Yes, Japan does have a transit IC card problem, if you work for a bank credit card operation that wants to promote open loop, which I suspect is the case in the forum debate. The counter argument presentation-like power points are just too glib: to date no major transit system has junked native transit cards for bank cards, not even Oyster. Transit is a license to print money and the huge transaction volumes in Tokyo alone are mouth watering. The ‘problem’ for bank card players is how to angle for a bigger cut of the action.

The debate perfectly represents the plastic era transit card vs credit card mindset. More interesting to me are the things people don’t discuss: the impact of Apple Pay and Google Pay digital wallet platforms and transit business models. My take is that smartphone digital wallets do away with old plastic era distinctions and create new business opportunities for transit companies, if they chose to pursue them. Most don’t.

Tech analysts love to talk about ‘value capture’. The current cashless payments frenzy in Japan is all about capturing users to sign on with a payment platform then growing the ecosystem with more and more services that users, hopefully, want to pay extra for. Nobody talks about this in the open loop vs closed loop debate. The bank that owns the credit card owns the customer going through the transit gate, not the transit company. Put it this way, JRE POINT that go back into free Suica recharges, Green Car upgrades, etc. are vastly different from bank card points, as are the business platforms they feed customers back into. Moving people are money in motion, who gets a cut and what businesses do with that cut is everything.

It an interesting paradox that Europe and America talk about privatizing public transportation in various degrees but to date only Japan and Hong Kong have built highly successful businesses based on ‘value capture’. The endless open loop vs closed loop debate always comes down to this: you can argue all you want about the parts but in the end it is meaningless. To truly understand things, you have to examine the whole business model, how everything fits together, and how that can benefit everybody while growing and evolving.