The Japanese Transit Platform Business Model

It’s about time. Somebody from outside Japan finally took in the big picture of the Japanese Transit Platform model and wrote a business outline of it in English. Egon Terplan of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) came to Tokyo and liked what he saw: Falling in Love With the Trains of Japan.

By 2017, Japanese trains carried nearly 30 percent of all rail passengers in the world, more than all of Europe. But unlike many European countries, Japanese rail companies are privatized, with for-profit publicly traded companies running separate rail lines all around the country.

JR East, the largest of the JR companies, carries 17 million passengers per day on 12,300 trains. (By comparison, Amtrak carried just 31.3 million passengers during all of 2016, a record year in ridership; the New York City subway averages 5.5 million daily rides and BART, 430,000.) And JR East’s $26 billion in annual revenue includes no government subsidies.

Terplan then lists what he thinks are the major components:

  1. Allow rail operators to become real estate developers to capture the value they bring to the stations.
  2. Turn stations into major destinations.
  3. Build over tracks to create new land opportunities.
  4. Dramatic reductions in travel time between cities can lead to major increases in rail’s market share.
  5. Interoperable rail cards (Suica, etc.) are key to making rail easy to use nationwide.

Essential points all, but Terplan doesn’t explain the importance of how all the different infrastructure pieces not only integrate (Shinkansen, regular lines, subway, buses, station retail, services, Suica, etc.) but also create a whole that is much larger than the sum of parts, and why. Perhaps he is only outlining the model and will return with a deeper analysis later. I certainly hope so because it’s a great transit model for other countries to adapt and adopt. Hong Kong already has a similar system on a smaller scale as does South Korea and Taiwan.

The last component, nationwide interoperable Japan Transit IC prepaid cards for transit and store purchases aka Apple Pay Suica, is the secret sauce binding everything together into a tight slick business model. That is the missing why and it’s just starting: interoperable features like Shinkansen e-ticketing, commuter passes, local loyalty point systems and hosting everything on digital wallets are still weak points. JR East and Sony are busy creating the next generation ‘Super Suica’ format that aims to integrate everything while reducing costs and taking it to the next level.

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More Smart Octopus

I assumed the Smart Octopus Coming to Apple Pay post would be ignored in the end of year rush period. However the timing perfectly coincided with an Octopus Cards Limited press conference where the CEO demurred any Octopus tie-up with Apple and the post got much more attention than I ever anticipated. Obviously there are lots of iPhone users in Hong Kong who want Smart Octopus Apple Pay. A few readers were confused by the situation and asked for some clarification.

First of all the source who correctly predicted last years Smart Octopus on Samsung Pay launch tipped me about the Apple Pay launch. That in itself was enough for me but here’s the thing: if Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) is really serious about expanding Octopus use on mobile platforms, taking the next step of getting Smart Octopus on Apple Pay is the only way to achieve that.

Digital Wallets like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay are the most tightly integrated NFC software and hardware digital wallet platforms out there with integrated FeliCa, but Apple is the only one to integrate the necessary Secure Element on their own A Series/S Series hardware with FeliCa Networks keys, and sell the package globally. All the major NFC technologies are standard on Apple Pay: NFC A-B-F, EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, VAS.

Smart Octopus on Google Pay might look nice on paper but it can’t achieve anything of scale yet because of the highly fragmented nature of Android: to date hardware manufacturers have yet to produce an answer to Apple’s global FeliCa iPhone and Apple Watch, even though everybody’s smartphone has a NFC A-B-F chip. Not even Google has pulled it off. Huawei says they are planning to add global Felica but it will take time.

OCL is playing coy because majority shareholder Hong Kong MTR has added QR Codes and EMV contactless to the transit gate mix removing the exclusive Octopus Card franchise, but the technology and market politics don’t mesh. On one hand you have a fast, established and ‘open’ in-house contactless payment system (as in anybody can buy a plastic Octopus card and ride) basically run by public transit companies. On the other hand you have slow and ‘closed’ contactless payment systems (as in only people with certified credit cards and bank accounts can ride) run by major outside credit/debit network companies chipping off money from both customers and transit companies.

In this context putting Smart Octopus on Apple Pay isn’t just adding a card to a digital wallet platform, it is also a statement of who ultimately controls, operates and benefits from the public transit gates. It’s more about market politics than technology, in other words another battle in the contactless payment turf wars. The outcome will be fascinating to watch but determines whether Octopus will remain a great transit payment platform for Hong Kong with a future, or not.

Apple Pay Japan Market Info Update December 2018

The Bank of Japan posted presentation material from the 7th FinTech Forum held November 30. The Rakuten presentation has some contactless payment market data for Japan that is worth a look.

Year over year contactless payments use in the first slide basically covers the same period of the MMD Labo report but with different questions. The Rakuten data shows Rakuten Pay in the lead, naturally, at 15.2% and Apple Pay in 2nd place at 12.9%. The MMD numbers showed Rakuten Pay at 13% and Apple Pay at 20%. Google Pay only added Japanese payment support in May 2018 so the full impact will take time to play out, the 30% Osaifu Keitai use figure from the MMD report suggests a possible outcome. 

As I explained in the earlier post, Apple Pay use is highly regional and tied to Suica compatible transit routes. In major metropolitan areas Apple Pay use is higher than Rakuten but Rakuten has done a good job building an ecosystem of e-commerce, travel reservations and other services that offer members large discounts and points. That’s the reason behind the robust growth from 3.4% and the larger nationwide average use figure.

Apple Pay Suica is the entry point for Apple Pay use, the more incentives that customers have to use Suica the faster Apple Pay use in Japan will grow. Sachiko Watatani pointed out that only 27% of Apple Pay Japan capable device users actually use Apple Pay, that represents a lot of potential users sitting on the fence. The Rakuten Pay growth rate shows that points and discounts are great incentives but Apple Pay Suica, convenient as it is, doesn’t offer that. At least not without going to the trouble of getting the right Apple Pay credit cards for the right points. And even then, as setting up and using the JRE POINT app makes clear, it’s not user friendly.

The next big opportunity for Apple Pay Suica growth is ‘Super Suica’ that will unite transit cards, commuter passes and various transit point systems in a single format for plastic and mobile. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen until April 2021. Until then Apple Pay Japan needs to add the other e-money prepaid cards (WAON, nanaco, Rakuten Edy) and as many point system reward cards to Wallet as possible to keep growing. Not only that but also make them work better together than they do on their own. Think PONTA card with the kinks ironed out.

Apple Maps Japan Quick Point: indoor maps

Before starting let me get this out of the way: indoor mapping on digital devices is in the stone age and basically sucks. It doesn’t matter if it’s Google, Apple or Yahoo Japan Maps. It all sucks, some less than others. That would be Yahoo Japan Maps.

Indoor maps overwhelm the user with mediocre information and detail they don’t need, map vomit, and are more confusing than helpful. Getting intelligently collected human curated high density map information and presenting it in clear, concise user-friendly fashion is a challenge, especially so for indoor maps which have to collapse 3D information into a 2D format.

Apple Maps Japan has not officially announced indoor map availability yet but you can see it in action at Narita International Airport on iOS. Here is a quick comparison big view of Narita with Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps.

As usual Yahoo Japan Maps has the most intelligent use of Japanese text, high contrast and different text sizes to emphasize significance but it ends here: Yahoo Japan Maps does not have indoor maps for airports as they have focused efforts on major train station indoor mapping instead. In terms of real everyday use, it’s the smarter choice.

Comparison closeups of Terminal 1 3rd Floor show that Apple Maps still suffers from the same old problems of using 3rd rate 3rd party data suppliers with poor vetting and coordination: some stores are located out on the tarmac. The Apple Maps reboot effort has yet to be felt in Japan.

A comparison closeup view of Terminal 1 4th Floor check in and store areas: Apple has a good idea in offering canned search buttons for Check-in, Restaurants, Cafes, restroom, etc. Unfortunately the iOS UI control puts Japanese names at the bottom of the every list and tapping a canned search button only highlights results that add another layer of visual noise. It would be much better if canned searches also hide or grey out unrelated details and offer Japanese names at the top of every list with alphabetized English names at the bottom. Meanwhile Google Maps uses the same hunt and peck ‘one size fits all’ search conventions for indoor and outdoor maps.

Realistically I cannot imagine using any of these indoor maps in real life on an iPhone screen. It’s much easier walking to an information booth or asking airport or station staff for directions. Until indoor maps and Siri get much smarter and tightly integrated with highly reliable information on the backend, I don’t see these solutions solving problems for anybody.

7-Eleven Japan ATM Suica Recharge Service

7-Eleven ATM e-money recharge

7-Eleven ATM Suica Cash Recharge service started today. I gave it a test run but it’s not as fast or convenient as Smart Charge kiosks at JR stations. The video highlights the user experience and the weak points:

  • 7-Eleven ATM Apple Pay Suica Recharge is not Express Card savvy. You have to use Touch ID/Face ID and put Suica in the manual ready state like an Apple Pay credit card.
  • The reader stand on the right of the touchscreen is designed for plastic cards with the NFC hit area at the bottom of the stand. This means you have to put iPhone on the stand upside down for Apple Pay Suica to work. It’s very awkward.
  • The process is not that fast.

The service is OK but nothing more. Suica cash recharge at the JR station or the convenience store cash register is a faster deal, and the convenience of Apple Pay Suica Recharge always beats cash recharge. The main benefit is that 7-Eleven ATMs are plentiful, open 24 hours and offer Suica cash recharge during the Mobile Suica late night maintenance offline hours 1am~4am.