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.

Apple Pay Suica Market Share Math

One side benefit from the fake NFC TIMES article is that we now have the latest Mobile Suica issuance numbers direct from JR East: as of August 2019 total Suica issue is 78 million, Mobile Suica is 7.8 million. This is 10% exactly and has nothing to do with transaction volume, but let’s have fun and run some numbers.

If there is anything I have learned in the past 3 years, I am certain that Apple Pay Suica users use Suica much more than regular plastic Suica users. The Apple Pay ‘recharge anywhere, anytime’ factor, the ability to see what the Suica balance is at a glance, plus the magic of services like Suica Auto-Recharge, all combine to completely transform Suica into a super card. Let’s be conservative and say that Apple Pay Suica users use their Suica at least twice as much as regular plastic users, though it is probably 3 x ~ 4 x more.

In a simple hypothetical one on one scenario with 2x Mobile Suica transactions, Mobile Suica would account for 20% of total Suica transaction volume though I think 30%~35% is probably a more realistic estimate. When you factor in the cost of plastic Suica issue with its lower transaction volume, it’s clear that Mobile Suica is the future of the Suica platform.

What about Apple Pay Suica market share? There are 7.8 million virtual Suica cards installed on iPhone and Android smartphones. Let’s be conservative and say 40% of that total is iPhone/Apple Watch Apple Pay Suica, which is about 3.1 million. But let’s pull out that interesting survey from a few months back that found only 1 in 3 iPhone users who can use Suica (global NFC iPhone), actually install and use Suica: 3.1 x 3 = 9.36 million.

9.4 million Apple Pay Suica capable iPhones exist in Japan. This is a very conservative estimate but already more than the total Mobile Suica issue base. Add in all those iPhone SE/6/6S devices that can’t do FeliCa begging to be upgraded to global NFC spec iPhone… and I believe that Jennifer Bailey and the Apple Pay team are looking at a golden 2020 Tokyo Olympics opportunity for Apple Pay Suica. Now all we need is a good marketing campaign from Apple to mine it.

Tokyo Cashless 2020: Are Apple Maps and Siri really Apple Pay level ready for the Tokyo Olympics?

1️⃣ Dear JR East, we need a new Suica Charge App
2️⃣ Consumption tax relief with the CASHLESS rebate program
3️⃣ >Are Apple Maps and Siri really Apple Pay level ready for the Tokyo Olympics?
4️⃣ Blame the Japan Cashless Payments mess on VISA and EMVCo, not FeliCa

Tokyo Cashless 2020 is a series covering all things cashless as Japan gears up for the big event. If there is a topic that you’d like covered tweet me @Kanjo


iOS 13 is not a software release. It’s a mission statement of what Apple hopes to achieve by the end of the iOS 13 life cycle. iOS 13 will be peaking out just as the Tokyo Olympics take place between 24 July – 9 August 2020. There will be a huge influx of inbound smartphones using all kinds of apps for transit, navigation and payments. Apple has told Japanese journalists that Apple services will be ready. How will peak iOS 13 Apple Pay, Apple Maps and Siri stack up with the competition? How useful will they really be? Let’s find out, starting with the strongest contender.

Apple Pay
Apple has put a tremendous effort into creating a global NFC platform that incorporates all the key NFC technologies (EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, etc.) into one seamless package sold worldwide. This is still unique and unmatched. Inbound visitors with iPhone have the option of adding Suica to Wallet and instantly gaining all the benefits of using Japan’s famous tap and go transit and making contactless payments nationwide.

Apple Pay with Suica makes iPhone a great transit and payment solution for the Tokyo Olympics and Apple Pay Suica will be the inbound star player for all things transit and payments. iPhone and Apple Watch are so perfectly matched for using contactless payments in Japan during the Olympics that I can only wonder if Apple has been planning for this opportunity all along. Make no mistake, Apple Pay is going for the gold.

In addition to Suica support, merchant support is growing for inbound Apple Pay cards as well

Apple Maps
Apple Maps Japan is one of those players with great unfulfilled potential that is never realized. Apple has vowed that Maps will be ready for the Tokyo Olympics. This means that Apple Maps 2.0 for Japan will be ready with new detailed maps, Look Around, and, one hopes, indoor maps that include stations, not just airports and shopping malls.

The biggest use case for Apple Maps during the Olympics is transit directions and local walking area navigation in station areas. Apple Maps is still a very ‘America centric’ app in that default map views and the UI are geared for driving, not transit and walking. iOS Google Maps has a more intelligent approach that layers transit over the current map view that eliminates the transit view/map view UI toggling of the chunky Apple Maps UI. Google Maps is a much more smoothly integrated collection of services.

Even with the addition of better map detail of Apple Maps 2.0 and Look Around however, Apple Maps must absolutely clean up and completely revamp its cluttered cartography and Point of Interest (POI) layers and remove the bolted on transit functions with improved integration to be a serious contender in the Tokyo Olympics Navigation contest. I don’t see that happening: there’s no way 7 years of bad habits and ‘Where’s Wally’ can be magically fixed in the 10 month run up to the Olympics.

Siri
Bringing up the rear, Siri is the ‘Cool Runnings’ contender in the wrong Olympics. With Google Maps you can ask Google Assistant “when’s the next train to Shinjuku” and Google Maps will give you a list of transit options. Google Maps Transit also gives you platform guidance, optimum car positions for the destination station, and ground truth yellow exit numbers:

Siri and Apple Maps offer none of this. In fact Siri is not even programmed at this point to provide transit information and politely declines all such requests (and when did Japanese Siri’s speaking rate speed become so SLOOOOOW?). Even a manual Apple Maps Transit search does not provide the same level of Google Transit information: no platform guidance, no car positions, no crowd conditions, etc. Meanwhile JR East just announced an agreement with Google to offer Google Assistant Shinkansen transit information. This isn’t even a contest.

Quick Summary and Tokyo Olympics iPhone Guidance
Given the current state of Apple Pay, Apple Maps and Siri, I offer the following suggestions.

  • For iPhone 8/Apple Watch Series 3 and later inbound visitors from countries with Apple Pay availability:
    • Add Suica to your iPhone and recharge it with your Apple Pay card from home
    • Use Google Maps and Google Assistant for navigation and transit
  • For iPhone 8/Apple Watch Series 3 and later inbound visitors from countries without Apple Pay availability:
    • Purchase a regular plastic Suica card from a JR East station kiosk and transfer it to your iPhone (Welcome Suica cards cannot be transferred), you cannot recharge it with a credit card but Apple Pay Suica can recharged with cash at any convenience store checkout register, any 7 Eleven ATM, or JR station smart kiosk. The advantage of Apple Pay Suica over plastic Suica is that you always know what the balance is and when it needs recharging. You can avoid long queues at station recharge kiosks.
    • Use Google Maps and Google Assistant for navigation and transit.

August 2020 UPDATE
Apple Maps updated Japan maps with Look Around for the greater Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya areas, and a full set of IPC data which has been available all these years, but Apple didn’t, or couldn’t, integrate it for some reason until now. Whether Apple call this ‘new maps’ or not isn’t clear. And at any rate it is not Apple collected map data.