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.

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Suica and Octopus Compared

Hong Kong’s Octopus is coming to Apple Pay soon, it shares the same FeliCa technology base with Suica but there are some interesting differences.

Branding
The mobile version of Suica is Mobile Suica across 3 different payment platforms: Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay and Google Pay. The current mobile version of Octopus is called Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay but it’s not clear yet if the Smart Octopus branding will stay with Samsung Pay or be set free.

Deposits
Mobile Suica does not have deposits. Plastic Suica cards have a ¥500 deposit but is automatically returned to the stored value (SV) balance when transferred to Apple Pay or Google Pay. Octopus has a HK$50 deposit on both plastic and mobile versions. An interesting difference is that the Octopus deposit will be used temporarily if the SV balance is insufficient to pay transit fare at the exit gate.

Stored Value Balance Limits
Suica has a SV balance limit of ¥20,000. Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) just raised the Octopus SV balance limit for cards issued after October 1, 2019 from HK$1,000 to HK$3,000. In JPY this is roughly double the current Suica limit, about ¥40,000 which puts it inline with other Japanese e-money card balance limits like WAON. Suica balance limits will likely be doubled when the next generation ‘Super Suica’ card architecture arrives in April 2021.

Number of Cards
Smart Octopus is limited to a single card per Samsung Pay user account. Mobile Suica/Apple Pay Suica can have the multiple Suica cards up to the device Wallet limit.

Recharge Fees
One of the many innovations that Apple Pay Suica brought was elimination of the annual Mobile Suica ¥1,050 ‘membership fee’, Google Pay got the same deal and Mobile Suica membership fees are disappearing altogether next year. Mobile Suica does not charge any upfront fee for recharges, but Smart Octopus does: 2.5% a pop for the luxury of recharging in Samsung Pay with Visa and Mastercard card brands although Union Pay cards are apparently free.

The differences in this last section are interesting. JR East charges nothing for recharging Mobile Suica, while OCL does for Smart Octopus. Mobile Suica has been around far longer and JR East has many more online services, such as EkiNet, to offset cloud expenses. Smart Octopus only started in December 2017 and the footprint of Samsung Pay devices compared with everything else is probably small and doesn’t drive enough transaction volume to offset Smart Octopus cloud startup costs. Apple Pay will growth the transaction size of Smart Octopus considerably, hopefully enough for OCL to reduce or eliminate the Add Value Service Fee at some point.

I look forward to digging through service details when Octopus finally launches on Apple Pay.

Apple Global NFC Lineup 2019

With the removal of iPhone 7 and Apple Watch Series 2, the new 2019 iPhone and Apple Watch lineup on the Apple Store is finally global NFC across the board. The Apple Watch Series 5 S5 chip did not gain ‘Express Card with power reserve’ or NFC background tag reading this time. The former would be a very welcome addition for the eternally battery challenged Apple Watch, while the later is necessary at some point if Apple wants to use the ‘yet to be formally unveiled’ NFC Tag Apple Pay to kick QR Code payment systems to the curb.

There is something missing in the lineup however: a low cost entry level global NFC iPhone that’s even lower than the price cuts Apple implemented with the 2019 lineup. As Ben Thompson of Stratechery explains in a great post:

That means that this year actually saw three price cuts:
•First, the iPhone 11 — this year’s mid-tier model — costs $50 less than the iPhone XR it is replacing.
•Second, the iPhone XR’s price is being cut by $150 a year after launch, not $100 as Apple has previously done.
•Third, the iPhone 8’s price is also being cut by $150 two years after launch, not $100 as Apple has previously done.

The rumored A12 chip iPhone SE2 may well be pie in the sky, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t market appeal for an inexpensive global NFC iPhone for places like Japan and Hong Kong. Those markets have highly integrated transit networks coupled with highly evolved transit card systems like Suica and Octopus. With both of these on Apple Pay there’s a good opening for a small SE size inexpensive global NFC iPhone, it would do very well.

UPDATE: What’s the best iPhone for Suica?
A reader asked for my recommendation of a good Suica use iPhone in the 2019 lineup. I do not recommend iPhone 8. The superior NFC and Suica performance, plus the Express Card with power reserve and background tag reading features of A12 Bionic and later is a huge leap over previous models. These enhanced NFC functions are important for new Apple Pay features yet to come. I think it comes down to a choice between iPhone XR and iPhone 11, and how long you plan to use it in Japan.

It’s also helpful to remember that 2019 is the last lineup of 4G/LTE only iPhone. I think iPhone 11 is better optimized for 4G in the long run as Japanese carriers start to switch over bands to 5G. There is also the much better camera to consider. Last but not least is battery. The power optimization of A13 Bionic is going to deliver much better battery performance over a longer period of time.

It boils down to this: if you plan to use the iPhone for 2 years iPhone XR is a good choice, if you plan to use iPhone for 3~4 years iPhone 11 is the better choice.

Apple Pay Octopus and the future of the Octopus Transit Platform

UPDATE: Hong Kong OCL officially announced Apple Pay Octopus

One downside of breaking a tech story on the internet is news aggregator sites. Responsible tech news sites like MacRumors and AppleInsider post outside sourced news that serves their readership and sends traffic to the original source. And then there are not so nice aggregator operations posing as news sites like The Verge, TechCrunch and 9to5Mac who craft crappy posts, lifting whole chunks from outside stories, or simply lifting without attribution, minimizing any outside contribution to keep traffic on their own site.

So it’s a bummer that SC Yeung’s excellent EJ Insight story “Why Hong Kong can expect Apple Pay support for Octopus Card,” quotes the 9to5Mac ripoff of my piece instead of the original, but it’s an interesting read with good analysis. Yeung makes the same point I did a few months ago that the expansion of Octopus to Apple Pay is an important step forward for the platform. But it can’t stop there: Octopus Cards Limited needs to continue digital wallet expansion and create new business opportunities. Unfortunately it has to accomplish this while parent company MRT Corporation is opening up its transit gates to QR Code and EMV payments which will compete with the subsidiary OCL Octopus card business:

MTR will begin accepting QR code payment starting from next year and the rail operator will also add more contactless payment systems on its gates in future. For commuters, Octopus Card will no longer be the only choice for MTR payments…

<It> is becoming clear that <OCL> needs a new business model to maintain its market-leading position. Using a specific card for payment is no longer a modern way of payment. The core issue for Octopus is transform into something bigger, moving beyond the current payment functions and offer a lot more, perhaps even a mobile banking service, to retain users.

Why HK can expect Apple Pay support for Octopus card

JR East has taken a very different approach. Suica is a central business pillar and JR East will be expanding it with the next generation Super Suica in April 2021. Suica will gain the ability to virtually host other transit card under the same Suica umbrella on plastic and on mobile. Think of it as a national transit and payment card with Express Transit anywhere, anytime. How fascinating it would be if Octopus had a similar kind of opportunity to expand outside of Hong Kong.

Even from the short vantage point of 2.5 years since the launch of Apple Pay Suica, it’s already easy to see the charges that it has brought to the Japanese payments market. It will be interesting to watch the changes that Apple Pay Octopus brings to Hong Kong.

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.