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.

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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.

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.

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

Apple Pay Transit and 6 Reasons for Closed Transit Fare Systems

After the announcement of Apple Card and more Apple Pay Transit coming soon to “major cities in America” like Chicago (Salt Lake City/Utah Transit Authority is an embarrassment to Apple since UTA dropped Apple Pay EMV credit card support in summer 2018 because of too many difficulties), I came across this interesting tidbit about the Ventra card:

Arguably it’s a good thing that the Ventra prepaid debit card is going the way of the dinosaur. The debit card function debuted with a long list of fees that had the potential to siphon of much of the money stored on the card, including:

A $1.50 ATM withdrawal fee
A $2 fee to speak to someone about the retail debit account.
A $6.00 fee for closing out the debit balance
A $2 fee for a paper statement
A $2.95 fee to add money to the debit account using a personal credit card
A $10 per hour fee for “account research’’ to resolve account discrepancies

“These fees were probably not any different than other bank cards offered by Money Network or Meta Bank or other predatory banks,” says Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance, who reported on the issue at the time. “But it was shameful for the CTA to be aligned with that.”

After a backlash, most of these fees were reduced or eliminated, but CTA retail outlets were still allowed to charge Ventra card holders a fee of up to $4.95 to load cash on the debit sides of their cards. So maybe it is for the best that the CTA is getting out of the bank card business.

Streets Blog Chicago December 2017

Open loop transit fare systems with EMV contactless credit cards are invariably promoted as a great convenience and the bright open future of transit, but the dark business downsides of letting credit companies and banks on transit gates is rarely, if ever discussed.

Fees and predatory banks are never going away and will always be a problem as long as credit cards are allowed on transit gates. It’s a much better business solution to keep banks one step removed from the process and limited to the back end for adding money to transit prepaid cards that can then be used for building a real business that benefits the entire transit region. In one sense Apple changing the rules for Apple Pay Cash person to person transfers protects customers from a potential layer of ‘predatory fees’ by removing the credit card (debit cards are still ok) .

I have said it many times and say it again: if a transit region is serious about building a Japanese style Transit Platform, keeping transit gates closed system is the first rule of business. The next step is leveraging the transit card on digital payment platforms like Apple Pay and Google Pay that can mix and match credit/debit cards for adding money on the back end, link with rewards and much more.

For JR East the tight integration of transit, Suica and retail has been very successful: 30% of 2017 revenue (26.8 billion USD) was Suica/IT/Retail projected to grow to 40% by 2027. It’s a business model that grows revenue even when transit ridership has leveled off. This kind of growth is impossible to accomplish with open transit fare systems.

JR East presentation slide from March 2019