QR will eventually replace mag strip paper tickets which are increasing expensive to recycle, and the new gates will gradually replace those ingenious paper ticket/Suica combo transit gates made by Omron. I have tried the new gate in Shinjuku and all I can say is…I’m glad I wear my Apple Watch / Apple Pay Suica on the right.
UPDATE: Conflicted Impressions Junya Suzuki has posted a deeper dive into the QR reader design on the new JR East gates with his usual fascinating analysis. Suzuki san is very big on the evolution of Suica away from local processing to a centrally processed unique ID model that does away with stored fare.
His IT background experience really shines through as he makes a convincing argument that a centralized unique Suica ID approach greatly simplifies the IT system by reducing hot-list/off-list refreshes that have to be coordinated between local and central systems.
Perhaps I am missing something in his analysis, but I think there’s a happy medium that leverages the strengths of both for a robust innovative transit fare payment system as the centerpiece of the transit business platform.
Here’s a recap of his observations and reader feedback:
Separate QR reader placement In Suzuki san’s piece JR East tech leads explain that widely separate NFC and QR readers work much better than an all-in-one approach. NFC always reacts faster than QR and this creates problems with the all-in-one reader and smartphones when fast, clean, precise read times are required. The gate QR sensor is made by DENSO. If you have ever used a poky DENSO POS QR+NFC reader at store checkout, you can relate.
Security Invisible Ink As FeliCa Dude points out, JR East is likely using IR transparent ink to create unique ID codes for security. Apparently this is already used for Okinawa Monorail Okica QR paper tickets.
Poor Walk Flow One of the great things about the mag strip paper ticket gates is they pull the ticket into the machine and spit it out at the other end of the gate. This is clever guided incentive to keep walking to pick up the ticket. With QR code transit gates people stop and wait for the reader to do something. Another nice thing about mag ticket machines is they eat the used tickets. The QR paper ticket downside not mentioned by JR East or the media: where do people put their used tickets for paper recycle? Who and what collects them, a bin?
Apple Maps Japan can’t catch a break. Traffic has been available since September 2019 but only got listed on the feature availability page last week, June 2020. Handa International Airport is currently listed for indoor maps but the data isn’t there. And so it goes for the Apple Maps 2.0 reboot. Here is a quick list of missing features along with some new feature requests.
There are several iOS 13 Apple Maps features that have not made it to Japan:
More accurate detail is always welcome but I don’t think Apple can ever get the whole picture by themselves especially with the 2nd rate Japanese map data supplier they currently use. Google Maps real genius is it’s deft ability to synthesize disparate data suppliers in a seamlessly whole service. Apple Maps biggest single failure, from day one to today, is it’s utter inability to synthesize various data suppliers into a solid service.
It’s a chunky clunky Japanese product, from eternally 2nd rate map data from Increment P (IPC) on down to 3rd rate Foursquare JP. Top Japanese map data supplier Zenrin is the logical choice especially since Google dropped them, but Apple doesn’t seem inclined to switch, nor could they intelligently integrate it.
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.
Real-time Transit Another no-brainer transit feature for Japan, but Japan is a low priority and the transit system is complex. There are plenty of transit data suppliers but given Apple Maps limited ability to integrate different transit data sets, I think it will be a long time before we see the addition of real-time transit in Japan, if ever.
There are small tweaks Apple could make to transit directions that would make them much more useful such as transfer station platform numbers and crowd conditions, features that Google and Yahoo Japan have offered for a long time.
Junction View Navigating complicated elevated expressways in urban areas isn’t just in mainland China, it’s been a fact of Japanese urban driving since the 1960s’. Junction View like navigation has been standard in Japanese navigation systems for a long time, it should be standard in Apple Maps too.
Adaptive transit times: car and walk navigation is adaptive: if you take a different road the navigation route updates automatically. Transit directions need to be adaptive too.
Crowding information: Yahoo Japan offers crowd heat maps for locations, both Yahoo Japan and Google Japan maps offer rudimentary transit crowd information. In the COVID era crowd information for transit and locations is a must have feature.
Improved Apple Watch transit integration: Apple Watch turn by turn navigation integration with iPhone is excellent but transit integration is weak and passive. The current iOS 13/watchOS 6 version ‘sits on the wrist’ without alerts, haptic feedback or much interaction, and it’s brain dead after switching to another watch app.
Indoor/Underground Station Maps: Last but not least real indoor maps for vital station hubs covering Tokyo, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Osaka, Namba, etc.
Offline navigation: Apple Maps turn by turn won’t be completely reliable unless it navigates in expressway tunnels instead of dying.
Apple Pay Octopus launch day was a big success, so successful that Octopus apologized for their servers buckling under the demand. What’s next for Octopus, Google Pay? There are some possibilities but when it comes to Android there is the matter of the Secure Element (SE), where it resides and what transaction protocols are supported.
From the NFC hardware angle everything has been ready to go on all smartphone hardware for years, NFC A-B-F is required for NFC certification. The problem has been on the SE side, the black box where all the transaction magic happens. From Global Platform the SE certification organization:
A SE is a tamper-resistant platform (typically a one chip secure microcontroller) capable of securely hosting applications and their confidential and cryptographic data (for example cryptographic keys) in accordance with the rules and security requirements set by well-identified trusted authorities.
There are different form factors of SE: embedded and integrated SEs, SIM/UICC, smart microSD as well as smart cards. SEs exist in different form factors to address the requirements of different business implementations and market needs.
SE Wars and Google HCE ‘SE Pie in the Sky’ In the pre-Apple Pay mobile carrier hardware era, carriers used SE SIM or embedded Secure Elements (eSE) + SIM combos that chained customers to service contracts for the privilege of using mobile payments. This is the classic Osaifu-Keitai textbook maneuver pioneered by NTT Docomo: leave those pesky SIM Free whiners in the cold world of plastic cards and hard cash, or crippled digital wallets until they give up and buy an overpriced carrier SIM. This brain dead approach is one reason why Mobile FeliCa ended up being ridiculed as ‘galapagos technology’ even though everybody copied it with inferior crappy me-too products.
This carrier SE hostage situation, i.e. the Mobile Wallet SE Wars, led Apple and Google to follow different strategies to address the problem.
The Apple Pay Way Apple’s answer of course was Apple Pay. A unique in house strategy of putting a Global Platform certified Secure Element in their A Series/S Series chips then building it out from there. Most eSE go on the NFC controller, but doing it the Apple in-house way has advantages over a NFC chip vendor bundle: control of the eSE applets and ability to update them and the Apple eSE for new protocols in iOS updates. We saw this in action with the addition of FeliCa in 2016, PBOC in 2017 and MIFARE in 2018. We may even see the addition of Ultra Wideband (UWB) Touchless in iOS 14.
The Google Pay Way Google’s answer to the carrier owned SE problem was the more convoluted evolution from Google Wallet (2011) to Android Pay (2015) and finally Google Pay (2018). Google first salvo was Host Card Emulation (HCE): “NFC card emulation without a secure element” hosted on Google’s cloud. Later on Google attempted to do the same for FeliCa with HCE-F.
But then something happened that put an end to all this: Google decided to get into the hardware business. And now we have Google Pay and Google Pixel with it’s own embedded Secure Element (eSE). With Pixel, Google decided they didn’t want to be the Secure Element cloud provider for every Android OEM out there especially when the Chinese OEMS are all rolling their own eSE based digital wallet services anyway, completely ignoring HCE. Sure, HCE/HCE-F is still there in the Android developer documentation but it’s a dying vestigial relic of the SE wars.
But Google Pixel depends on vendor bundled eSE + NFC controllers and the Osaifu Keitai software stack. This makes global NFC support more complicated because Google doesn’t ‘own’ the eSE and the software stack, at least not in the Apple sense of making their own all in one design. This is one reason why Pixel 3/4 only support FeliCa in Japanese models even though all worldwide models have the same NFC A-B-F hardware.
The end result of all this is the Android market is a very fragmented landscape, there are no global NFC Android smartphones: a device that supports EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, PBOC out of the box in one globally available package.
Google Pay Octopus and the Android Global NFC Installed Base Back to our original question, can Google Pay Octopus happen? We already have Google Pay Suica right? Let’s assume that Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) has everything in place for it to happen. Here we run into the problem just described: there are’t any global NFC Android smartphones available globally. Samsung sells them in Japan and Hong Kong, Google only sells them in Japan along with Huawei, Oppo, Sharp, etc.
For OCL this means the potential Google Pay installed base that can support Hong Kong Octopus consists of Samsung Galaxy smartphones that are already using Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay; not exactly a mouth watering business opportunity worth the support expense. Even if Google Pixel 5 goes deep instead of cheap, Hong Kong would have a potential Octopus non-Samsung Android device, but that’s only one new device not an installed base. I only see Google Pay Octopus happening if Google localizes all the necessary Osaifu Keitai software and foots the entire support expense.
There is a way forward however for OCL: Garmin Pay Suica. The same Garmin APAC models that support Suica can also support Octopus, the recharge backend is entirely Google Pay. Garmin smartwatches work with any Android 5 and higher smartphone, a much larger installed base that bypasses the fragmented Android problem. Garmin Pay Octopus would offer Android users a way in, who want to use Octopus on a mobile device but who don’t want to use Samsung or Apple devices.
The conclusion: forget Google Pay Octopus for the time being. Hong Kong is a golden opportunity for Gamin Pay Octopus….if Garmin can get Garmin Pay clearance from Hong Kong authorities and banks, and cut a deal with OCL. It’s certainly in Octopus’ best interest for OCL to help turn the negotiation wheels. It’s also in Google’s interest as Google Pay would supply the recharge backend as it does for Garmin Suica. Big hurdles all, but I hope it happens.
Good news for long suffering Hong Kong iPhone users: press invitations labeled ‘Redefining Mobile Payments’ that went out to local media outlets on May 28 signaled Octopus for Apple Pay would finally launch on June 2, which it did in tandem with Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit directions just before 1 am June 2 local Hong Kong time. The press event took place at 12:30 pm.
OCL teased everyone when it first announced Apple Pay Octopus as ‘coming soon’ in July 2019, then ‘as soon as possible’ in September, finally postponing it in December for ‘later in 2020’ without explanation. This despite endless beta test leaks that indicated everything was ready to roll and endless launch rumors that never panned out. A timeline:
September 2017: Apple releases global NFC iPhone 8/X and Apple Watch Series 3 setting the stage for Octopus support
December 2017: OCL launches Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay
Global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch Apple Pay Octopus is just like Apple Pay Suica with Express Transit. It can be used on iPhone 8 and later with iOS 13.5, and Apple Watch Series 3 and later with watchOS 6.2.5. Apple devices from anywhere can add and use Octopus thanks to Apple global NFC support but practical use is limited to having a Hong Kong issue Mastercard, Visa or UnionPay bank card already in Wallet.
iPhone 11 Pro/11/XR/XS have the A12/A13 Bionic exclusive Express Transit with power reserve feature that gives users an additional 5 hours of Express Transit use when iPhone is in low battery power reserve mode. A12/A13 Bionic powered transit card performance is also much improved over previous iPhone models because the Bionic Secure Element directly handles transactions that eliminate iOS overhead. If Octopus on iPhone X doesn’t work well, check this support post.
Apple Watch is the first time Octopus has landed on a smartwatch. As a long time Apple Pay Suica user I can tell you that it’s the Apple Watch killer app. Octopus users will really enjoy the experience on Apple Watch especially when hooked up with auto recharge/Automatic Add Value Service (AAVS).
Similarities with Suica Octopus is based on the same FeliCa technology that powers Suica, both cards are very similar in scope and use for fast transit and contactless payments of all kinds. According to Wikipedia over 33 million Octopus cards were in circulation as of 2018 used by 99 per cent of Hong Kong residents. The ubiquity of Octopus with Express Transit for transit and purchases will drive Apple Pay use in Hong Kong far more than regular credit/debit cards.
Apple Pay Octopus and Apple Pay Suica both have the same fast Express Transit performance that no other Express Transit cards can match with faster gate performance than the recently added Apple Pay China T-Union mainland transit cards.
New virtual Octopus cards can be created directly in Wallet just like Apple Pay Suica cards or added via the Octopus app (v6). Plastic Octopus cards can also be transferred to Wallet but cannot be used after transfer.
Some attached services are not supported. Be sure to check Important Notes to Customers before transferring a plastic Octopus. Another issue to be aware of is that the Octopus card number changes when transferred which can cause problems with some card ID# linked services.
Not Inbound Friendly OCL limits Apple Pay Octopus card creation and recharge to having Hong Kong issue Mastercard, UnionPay and Visa cards already added in Wallet. It’s clearly not geared for inbound visitors. This is a shame because Apple supports global NFC on all devices which Samsung and Android devices do not, a key difference.
In practice this means any iPhone 8 and later from anywhere can use Apple Pay Octopus but only when a Hong Kong issue bank payment card is already loaded in Wallet. Suica is very different in this regard: it can be created and recharged in Wallet with any Apple Pay loaded card no matter the brand or country of issue, all without service fees. It’s a very inbound friendly deal for Japan visitors with iPhone.
Unfortunately OCL was limited by restrictive Hong Kong bank agreements and didn’t offer any Apple Pay inbound friendly solutions at the press event. Hopefully they will expand inbound bank card support down the road as banks realize the value of enticing tourists to use Hong Kong transit (see Updates for Octopus for Tourists).
Octopus was the first real transit platform (contactless transit and eMoney) that had a tremendous impact on the development of other transit card fare systems around the world such as Transport for London Oyster. However, OCL needs to aggressively expand Octopus services on other mobile digital wallets like Google Pay especially as MTR moves to add QR Code payment Open Loop support.
Apple Maps Transit Integration Hong Kong Apple Maps Transit directions launched in tandem with Apple Pay Octopus. It makes sense for Apple to offer both services as an integrated package as they did for the Apple Pay Suica. In Japan, Google Maps transit directions offer more detail and a better UI than Apple Maps Transit even though they use the same data suppliers. Your milage may vary but Google Maps transit directions for Hong Kong has been in place for some time and offers extras like crowding info. Another limitation shared with Apple Maps in Japan: no indoor station mapping.
Greater Bay Area Apple Pay Transit Compatibility Apple Pay Octopus is the last piece of the transit puzzle that delivers Express Transit convenience to Greater Bay Area iPhone/Apple Watch users who, up until iOS 13.4.1, were limited to China Union Pay (CUP) cards without Express Transit and plastic Octopus cards.
The recently released Apple Pay China T-Union transit cards are interoperable transit cards that work across the country, some 257 mainland cities, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO. China T-Union uses the PBOC 2.0/3.0 protocol, the Chinese variant of EMV with the slowest NFC transaction speeds, they are limited to UnionPay issue credit/debit cards for recharge and cannot be used for purchases. Octopus uses the faster FeliCa protocol and offers an open Apple Pay recharge backend for Hong Kong issue cards.
The advantage for wide area travelers is that they can now add both Apple Pay Octopus and China T-Union cards in Wallet. Having 2 different Apple Pay transit cards in Wallet may not be exactly the same as the dual mode Sold Octopus•Lingnan Pass but it should be close. It will be interesting to hear what the Apple Pay Greater Bay Area transit experience is like using both services.
Why the long wait? There has been endless speculation regarding the reasons for the Apple Pay Octopus delay. Technically it could have launched on iOS 12 but was held back for an unbelievably long test period over 2 major iOS versions, running from December 2018 and iOS 12 all the way to May 2020 and iOS 13.5, the last major release before iOS 14.
Why? Personally I always felt the unexplained November 2019 Smart Octopus service outage was an ominous sign that OCL plans were under political pressure. Other possible delay reasons include Apple Pay recharge card support and fee negotiations, and lining up Apple Map transit data. There’s no question that the go-slow OCL approach was not helped by the ever-deteriorating political situation.
The Apple Pay Octopus launch story was a long winding road with many ups and letdowns in the very difficult year of 2019. 2020 is also a very difficult year in a different way, though I hope it can still turn out to be a time of recovery.
I’d like to thank all the readers who shared Octopus tips and comments that let me report a complex, ever changing situation. I learned many things, the most important of which is that Hong Kong people are very kind and very smart. Wish you all a safe, healthy and happy transit wherever you go.
July 30: OCL released the Octopus App for Tourists, this is an iOS app for inbound iPhone users to add a digital Octopus to Apple Pay and recharge it. The app requires a foreign issue Mastercard, Union Pay or Visa and the user must select a non HKD currency when adding the card. This is forced dynamic currency conversion and is a card compliance violation: card users should be able to make purchases in the local currency.
While OCL does not charge an upfront Octopus recharge fee, the forced currency exchange average adds 4% compared with direct HKD purchases. This is customer gouging. Why Apple allows this on their App Store and Apple Pay platforms is baffling. The app adds and locks an Octopus card to a non-HKD currency for recharge and cannot be changed. See the Octopus on iPhone and Apple Watch tourist page for details.
June 3 8:00 JST: Octopus issues apology, “Due to the overwhelming response to the launch of Octopus on iPhone and Apple Watch, some customers could not add their Octopus between 11:30 am and 12:19 pm on 2 June,” and compensating some Octopus users June 2 12:00 JST: Octopus Card Limited site updated for Apple Pay Octopus and a press release June 2 09:00 JST: Apple Pay Octopus page added to Hong Kong Apple site with instructions for creating, transferring and topping up Octopus cards in Apple Pay June 2 03:20 JST: Octopus App v6 update released June 2 01:50 JST: Apple Pay Octopus has launched, rollout expanding in stages June 2 00:46 JST: Apple Pay Transit directions for Hong Kong appearing in advance of the Apple Pay Octopus
Suica was the big thing that put Apple Pay front and center in Japan. It still does, everybody loves using Apple Pay Suica Express Transit for Face/Touch ID-free transit and store payment in our face mask era. The funny thing is that Apple is slowing removing Suica as the Apple Pay Japan poster child. The process started with iOS 13.4 Apple Pay Wallet blurb text that removed the hot market brand ‘Suica’ name replacing it with the very pedestrian unmarketable ‘transit’.
Now we have another Suica removal from the iPhone SE spec page Apple Pay section. Other iPhone 11/Pro/XS model spec pages all have the Suica blurb. Why? I said it before and say it again: Suica has massive brand recognition in Japan and Apple Pay has leveraged the Suica brand at every opportunity. Apple would not swap Suica for generic wording lightly, not without a very good reason. That reason is more transit IC cards coming to Apple Pay: Mobile PASMO, please stand when your name is called.
UPDATE August 6 2020: Apple Pay PASMO Announcement Right on cue, PASMO announced Apple Pay PASMO for 2020. Let’s say this is a iOS 14 release goodie for October and keep fingers crossed. Mobile PASMO is licensed Mobile Suica IT assets (and may even be hosted on Mobile Suica), so everything is easy to qualify and test since it has be in use since 2016. Of course it will all work on any iPhone 8 / Apple Watch Series 3 or later from anywhere.