JR East Shinkansen eTicket Service Launch

Today, March 14, marks the end of Mobile Suica Shinkansen ticketing in Suica App and the start of a new open IC transit card eTicket Shinkansen service. It doesn’t have name. It’s just one of many ticket options available in the good old JR East ‘Eki-net’ (Station-net) online ticket reservation service, well known and not loved by many. A Japanese friend said it best, “You would think that a top tier Japanese company like JR East with many smart employees would create something better than Eki-net or pay somebody to do so.”

The problem is not that Eki-net doesn’t work. It works, but throwing everything new (IC transit card eTickets) and old (email tickets and paper tickets) in same Eki-net shoebox is a cluttered unwieldy package, a confusing and messy UI not nearly as convenient as JR East wants us to believe. Instead of a sleek new Shinkansen eTicket service, we get the same stodgy paper ticket service with a new hard to find eTicket option.

JR East would have been better off making a clean break by rebranding the new eTickets as a completely different service with a new spiffy name and separate multi-lingual app, just like JR Central’s SmartEX with the addition of new eTicket options over time. The less is more SmartEX approach focuses exclusively on Shinkansen eTickets and eliminates local line travel options because those are covered by Suica/ICOCA/Toica, etc. Eki-net on the other hand makes a big deal of ‘big trip’ options covering everything from Shinkansen and regular express trains to tour packages and car rentals.

The Eki-net approach does have one advantage over the 2-tier JR Central/JR West SmartEX (free membership with small discounts) and EX-Press Reserve (annual membership fee/special IC card/bigger discounts): Eki-net is ‘flat’ with free membership, offering the same discounts to all members in one service. Shinkansen eTickets are only available at launch from the online Eki-net site. I recommend the more streamlined smartphone online browser version. JR East has announced an updated Eki-net App for App Store/Google Play with eTicket support that should be coming March 21 (now postponed to an unknown future date). The new eTicket service is also available to JR West e5489 ticket reservation service members as JR West shares Hokuriku Shinkansen operations with JR East.

The end of Mobile Suica eTickets in Suica App means a mandatory app update that strips out the retired service. Users must update to the new 2.6 version by March 18. After this date older Suica App versions stop working. The migration from the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service has good and bad points:

Good Points
JR East Shinkansen eTickets are compatible with all major transit IC cards. This finally opens JR East operated Shinkansen lines to plastic and mobile transit cards, the old system was limited to Mobile Suica. An interesting new twist is that up to 6 transit IC cards can be attached to one account for family or group travel.

Bad Points
The migration from the Mobile Suica Shinkansen/Suica App system means no more Suica App/Apple Pay in-app purchases, you must register an Eki-Net account, yes another JR East service, and a credit card. The current Eki-net system is designed around the account registered credit card for paper ticket pickup at station kiosks using the card PIN code, this effectively eliminates Apple Pay/Google Pay as an in-app purchase choice. Last but not least the new Shinkansen eTicket service is Japanese language only.

New IC/QR gates at JR Takanawa Gateway Station opening March 14

Shinkansen eTickets are only the first step in a long term migration away from mag strip paper tickets. Mag strip ticket gates are more expensive than transit gates with NFC or QR readers with higher maintenance costs, there is also the increasing cost of recycling the special mag strip paper.

Paper tickets for all transit will remain a cash purchase at station kiosks, as they must, these will be QR codes instead of mag strip. The tricky parts are: 1) how much ticketing can be ported over to the transit IC card side 2) what local transit fare tiers apply to QR. Since Shinkansen eTickets are simply one time purchase options attached to a transit IC card number in the cloud, theoretically any purchased option can be attached to a transit IC card number. Local transit has fare tier for cash tickets and a less expensive one for transit IC cards.

I see local transit cash fare tiers staying in place for station kiosk purchased QR paper tickets, but I don’t see smartphone app QR Codes for one time local transit. The cheaper fare tier incentive for reusable transit IC cards will likely remain in place. This leaves smartphone app QR Codes for express trains, limited use tourist/season/campaign passes and group travel.

Mag strip tickets have served us very well for the past 30 years. The final migration to Mobile/NFC/QR will be interesting but I’ll miss those marvelously mechanical ticket gates from Omron.

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iOS 13.4 beta 2 Apple Pay Suica tweaks and questionable UI choices

Apple Pay Suica has more commute plan UI tweaks in iOS 13.4 beta 2. Commute plan information displays correctly now, and with more detail than before, but the renew button is gone and evidently dynamic: it only appears during the 2 week commute plan renewal period before expiration date. The design goal is clear but cannot absolutely confirm it until my plan enters the renewal period on April 15, hopefully beta testers will confirm it on Twitter before then.

A dynamic Suica commute plan renew button makes sense because the button does not function outside of the 2 week renewal period, but I’m not sure it’s the best UI choice. Most users will be confused when there isn’t a renew option showing. No button, no user feedback. My own choice is for a button that is always there but greyed out until it’s active for the renewal period.

What UI Apple delivers for the official iOS 13.4 release is anybody’s guess but the constant Suica tweaking before iOS 13 Dark Mode and after is telling. Apple is making questionable UI choices because Dark Mode severely limits UI color schemes. That is why Apple Pay Wallet buttons are black for daytime and white for Dark Mode. Grey is not an option. That’s why Apple is playing with dynamic buttons that only appear when needed. Dark Mode in fine in limited doses but things like Apple Maps Dark Mode are a disaster, Apple Pay Wallet Day/Dark Mode is a mixed bag. I hope iOS 14 Dark Mode delivers a better design than what we have now.

Outside of the UI, I’m happy to report that Apple Pay Suica performance on iOS 13.4 b2 is the best ever.

Transit IC only JR East Shinkansen eTicket reservations start today

The new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service debuts March 14, but 30 day advance ticket reservations mean it kinda starts today. The best explanation, Japanese only at this point, is the Eki-net online guide that outlines the new reservation, purchase and seat assignment process for PC and smartphone web pages. I find the smartphone online version more streamlined than the PC one but they are straight forward if you are familiar with Eki-net. The basic Eki-net process is the same until step 7, the section where you assign the eTicket (s) to your registered transit IC card (s). The differences from smartEX are interesting:

  • You can register up to 6 different transit IC cards to a single Eki-net account: Suica, Mobile Suica, PASMO, Kitaca, ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, PiTaPa, nimoca, SUGOCA, Hayaken
  • A single Eki-net account can reserve/purchase up to 6 Shinkansen eTickets then assign tickets and seats to registered transit IC cards

JR East Shinkansen eTickets are geared for family travel in a way that smartEX, EX-Press and the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTickets ending March 13 are not. Other systems can only attach a single IC transit card per account. The flexibility opens up some interesting possibilities, since Apple Pay Suica is just another transit IC card, one person can buy and assign eTickets up to 6 difference Apple Pay Suica devices. The downside is that transit card linking is completely manual and up to the user to update information when a new card is issued or the Apple Pay Suica ID number changes (less common than before but still happens). There are bound to be some very short trips that end with a transit gate error. Some other observations:

  • eTickets require a Transit IC card (paper tickets can be issued in the event of a lost transit card)
  • eTicket reservations are currently limited to Eki-net online but Eki-net app will gain eTicket support when the service launches March 14
  • As Suica App is tied to Apple ID and the Mobile Suica cards registered to it, I don’t see Shinkansen eTickets being integrated back into Suica App anytime soon
  • I don’t see QR Code ticketing support coming until after the transit IC eTicket system is complete and necessary gate infrastructure in place, a few years down the road at best

Eki-net eTickets are limited to JR East operated Tohoku, Yamagata, Akita, Hokkaido, Joetsu, Hokuriku Shinkansen lines. The next obvious question is when will other ticketing be migrated to Transit IC, and what kind of discounts will be offered?

Discounts, incentives and ticket system silos
Most Japanese don’t buy express train or Shinkansen tickets at regular prices. The whole point of Eki-net, smartEx, and all the other account based ticketing systems are the discounts and incentives to get people out of the ticket office line and online. Each operator has their own complex set of discount schedules which they guard and control carefully because it is their business engine.

For this reason I am not optimistic we will see an all-in-one train ticket app. Sure, there is some integration of JR East eTicket and JR West e5489 because they share Hokuriku Shinkansen operations, and there might even be an app than integrates many different ticket systems, but I don’t see it offering all the discounts of stand alone apps like Eki-net, EX, Odekake-net, etc. I also don’t see multi-lingual support in the mix, at least not in time for Tokyo Olympics. The fun starts March 14 with many things still coming down the pipe, from next generation Suica to new transit gates. It will be an interesting time.

New JR East Shinkansen eTicket service is a bumpy transition

Three new Suica App system notices spell out the end of old style in-app Shinkansen ticket purchases ending March 13 for the new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service launching March 14. The switchover is going to be bumpy and clear as mud. A quick list of things to be careful of:

The Bad Ugly

  • Automatic Apple Pay Suica ID# linking is dead
    You have to manually enter your Apple Pay Suica # in the fugly Japanese only Eki-net online site (not the iOS app). Unfortunately copy/paste from Suica App does not work well because the first 2 letters of the string must be entered via pull down menu (macOS) or scroll wheel (iOS) and the entry field cuts off the final 2 digits of the string. This is stupid UI design in the smartphone era.
  • Suica App Shinkansen in app purchases are dead, new eTicket Shinkansen reservations/purchases have to be made online in Eki-net. The current version of iOS Eki-net has not been updated yet and is only for old style ticket reservations and purchases.

The Good

  • All major transit IC cards can be registered for JR East Shinkansen eTickets on the Eki-net site.

The Missing
From a system standpoint it’s clear that locally processed Shinkansen tickets directly downloaded to Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica are over. All JR systems will use the same smartEX approach of soft-linked transit IC card numbers with the eTicket information stored on the cloud.

We are losing Suica App Shinkansen in-app integration, iOS Eki-net app is not plugged in with Shinkansen eTicketing, taken together with backend system changes I guess JR East is breaking eggs to make a new omelette. Will things end end up bigger and better?

JR group cooperation is a classic cat herd, Shinkansen lines might be connected but they don’t appear to be cooperating on a deep level to integrate eTicketing systems, at least not from the outside. This needs to change. The JR East press releases details the Shinkansen eTicket system merger with JR West which operates the Toyama~Ishikawa section of the Hokuriku Shinkansen. There are a few minor updates on the JR Central EX system, details on the EX site (Japanese), but nothing that indicates more interoperability.

The challenges of operating a massive ticketing system smoothly while rebuilding it must be huge. It will be a longish migration of many moving pieces and even though we know what is going away, it’s not exactly clear what the finished service will include. Let’s hope JR East is up to the job when the real fun starts on March 14, and stay focused while aggressively fixing the inevitable bugs and problems during the transition.

UPDATE
Right on cue JR East Eki-net and JR West e5489 systems have been experiencing occasional credit card processing problems for Shinkansen ticket purchases. These 2 systems are being integrated for Shinkansen eTicket service.

5G Contactless Payments Part 1: Fast QR vs Ultra Wide Band enhanced FeliCa and MIFARE

Payment empire players envision a brave new world of 5G enhanced contactless payment solutions, seen in recent moves by JR East and other major Japanese transit companies to replace expensive legacy mag strip ticketing with lower cost QR Code ticketing. 5G flavored QR Code and ‘Touchless’ Ultra Wide Band (UWB) Mobile FeliCa solutions were also on display at last months Docomo Open House 2020. How can it be that Docomo is developing Ultra Wide Band Mobile FeliCa and QR Code solutions?

The endless push pull of ‘this contactless payment works great for me’ that drives somebody else crazy is endless fascinating. We have more choices than ever: digital wallets, plastic cards, face recognition, NFC, QR Codes, etc. 5G and UWB promise to mix things up even more.

Ultra Wide Band enhanced FeliCa and MIFARE Apple CarKey?
The evolution of EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE and other similar protocols as they transition from plastic smartcards to digital wallets devices opens up opportunities to include other radio technologies like Ultra Wide Band and Bluetooth in addition to NFC. Ultra Wide Band Touchless FeliCa on display at the Docomo Open House was all about cars, not Touchless walkthrough transit gates that will appear in a few years.

Touchless FeliCa makes great sense as a ‘NFC car key’ that utilizes UWB for operation at greater distance and better accuracy when needed. Touchless makes even more sense as a ‘keep phone in pocket’ touchless payment method for drive thru purchases. The addition of UWB into the mix makes smartcard protocols much more useful than just NFC. I would certainly welcome a smartphone UWB powered Touchless FeliCa replacement that ditches the need for automobile ETC cards and readers on Japanese expressways.

How UWB enhanced FeliCa would fit with Apple’s new CarKey feature said to be coming with iOS 13.4 is unknown but iPhone already supports FeliCa. UWB touchless support for iPhone 11 and later models is a logical evolution. Sony and Docomo are developing the technology with NXP which certainly means that MIFARE will also support UWB enhancements. The long history of FeliCa and MIFARE as keycard solution providers is a natural fit with Apple CarKey. NFC is the only protocol that has been discovered in iOS 13.4 beta CarKey framework so far but I would not be surprised if UWB code references turn up at some point.

5G Cloud vs Local Processing
The Docomo Open House also showcased a QR Code transit gate with 200 millisecond (ms) transaction processing but the real star was the speed of 5G. 5G powered cloud processing promises to upend the current advantage of locally processed prepaid stored value cards…cards like Suica.

The basic promise of 5G is that IT system designers finally achieve a nirvana of everywhere, always available, big pipe central processing without wires, the big cloud. The original Suica card design effort back in the 1980’s had to leverage local processing because central processing wasn’t up to the task of handling massive transaction volumes of a Tokyo-Shinjuku-Ikebukuro station at peak rush hour. This is why Suica cards are stored value by design, the FeliCa technology behind the card design delivers 200 ms and faster transaction times for local processing at the transit gate. What happens when 5G promises, in theory, to deliver 200 ms central processing?

Kill mag strip paper tickets first then Suica?
As Junya Suzuki points out in his article ‘Is QR the future of Suica?‘, transit QR Codes on the complex Japanese transit network only need be a unique local passkey with everything else, verification, transaction, etc., done in the 5G cloud. The same concept applies for facial recognition systems where the registered face is the unique local passkey. With the power and speed of 5G, Suzuki san argues that the need for Suica-like local processing falls away. In his scenario all Suica needs to be is a unique passkey that can lose stored value functions.

I understand his point, Suzuki san comes from an IT system background, as a journalist he has covered JP transit payment system developments for a long time. For low traffic stations a Suica-lite 5G cloud based network makes sense and does away with the expensive hard wired transit gates. Just one year ago JR East said they are building a cloud networked Suica to cover all non-Suica areas.

However the old Tokyo-Shinjuku-Ikebukuro station peak rush hour central processing crunch problem remains. I’m not convinced super fast 5G enabled cloud processing is going to solve that problem any better or cheaper than Suica does now, and reliability is a complete unknown. We also have the next generation ‘Super Suica’ format and FeliCa OS coming in the next 12 months, the design goals here include a flexible, modular cloud friendly architecture and lower costs. Next generation Suica coupled with a flexible local processing~cloud processing backend may be a compelling solution that finally delivers a practical inexpensive Suica infrastructure to the little end of the line station which only gets a few trains or buses a day.

New JR East Suica / QR Code transit gate for Takanawa Gateway station

JR East, Hanshin and Osaka Metro are testing QR Codes and facial recognition ID ticketing to replace mag strip paper. As Junya Suzuki points out, mechanical paper ticket transit gates are more expensive to install and maintain than IC transit card gates but the real expense is mag strip paper recycling costs. Mundane but not surprising. The more important long term question is this: do transit companies keep the current more expensive cash base paper ticket fare vs less expensive IC card fare structures in place, or do away with it when QR Codes replace mag strip tickets? I don’t think we’ll see an answer to that question for a few years.

There is no doubt that 5G will enable new payment possibilities, and a lot of debate. But I don’t see 5G cloud completely upending and replacing the need for local processing and stored value cards. Both are evolving, both have their place. It doesn’t have to be, and should not be a one size fits all solution. Each approach has strengths that can be complementary and build a better stronger system.

For me it comes down to one simple thing. My Apple Watch can be buried under multiple sleeve layers but Apple Pay Suica works great going through rush hour transit gates every time. It’s the best argument for UWB enhanced FeliCa and MIFARE touchless transit gates and stored value local processing I can think of. QR can never match that, nor can face recognition…think face masks during an epidemic or pollen season.

In the next installment I hope to explore 5G and the evolution of digital wallets.