Look Around for Hiroshima disappears and reappears

Now you see it, now you don’t. The Apple Maps Japan story has been consistent…consistently flawed and second rate. Look Around was rolled out for the (now postponed) Tokyo Olympics in August 2020 covering greater Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya but it hasn’t expanded much. A December 2020 update added Fukuoka, Hiroshima and Takamatsu but over the past week of March 8 or so, Hiroshima Look Around has disappeared. That nobody seems to have noticed or cares is all that you need to know about Apple Maps use in Japan.

This is the first time that Apple has pulled a Look Around region after the official rollout, why they would do so is a mystery. It may be temporary until Apple improves the quality and extends coverage (new pedestrian and car JP data collections starts this month) as the quality for December Look Out Japan additions is spotty. But I am not optimistic and even Justin O’Beirne thinks Japan is not a candidate for the next big update. Put another way, this just proves that Apple isn’t serious about their map product in Japan, after all Apple Maps refuses to even acknowledge the Sea of Japan.

Meanwhile Google Maps JP and Yahoo Japan Maps are pulling way ahead in transit directions that include real time transit and crowding information…and acknowledging the Sea of Japan. If the Tokyo Olympics goes ahead this year those will be the go-to solutions. Apple Maps Japan doesn’t offer it and has not signed on any transit company that provides real time transit and crowding information to Google and Yahoo Japan.

UPDATE
Tested Look Around on 4 devices with different network connections with Hiroshima missing from them all. The iPad had not been used for 2 weeks and briefly showed it for a split second until the Maps screen refreshed as the cache updated. An iOS user in Okayama confirmed it. One interesting bit about the Apple Maps Japan pedestrian image collection 2021 schedule: if you click on the link you can see exactly what areas are being mapped.

Miyagi
Sendai
Tomiya

Tokyo
Shinjuku
Chiyoda
Machida

Kanagawa
Yokohama
Fujisawa
Zushi
Yamato

Ishikawa
Kanazawa
Hakusan
Nonochi
Kawakita

Hiroshima
Hiroshima City
Nisogi
Hatsukaichi
Yano

Fukuoka
Fukuoka City
Kasuga
Itoshima
Kasuya-gun

Kagawa
Takamatsu
Sanuki

UPDATE 2
Look Around for Hiroshima was restored on March 19 but coverage is problematic, there are areas which do not display as Look Around coverage but work anyway. Hit and miss as to what works and what doesn’t.

First Suica 2 in 1 region card ‘totra’ launches March 21

The first ‘Super’ Suica 2 in 1 region transit card launches March 21, the Tochigi totra card, as in total transit. The card was first announced by JR East in July 2019. Service launch details were announced in December. The transit partners are Kanto Transportation, JR Bus Kanto and Utsunomiya Light Rail though only the bus services are launching on the 21st with LRT support launching next March. JR East announced a totra launch week campaign.

The details clearly state that dual commuter passes are supported: one for totra transit partners, one for JR East. 2 in 1 is for reward points too and there are also totra card points, but it’s not clear yet how these plug into or can be exchanged for JRE POINT. The launch is only for plastic which is expected as 2 in 1 Suica is a whole new Suica architecture powered by a new FeliCa chip, it will take time to integrate the new features into Mobile Suica. I suspect a first step is taking place during the big March 20~21 Mobile Suica service maintenance downtime.

2 in 1 totra Suica is compatible with all other Transit IC regions and covers Nasu, Nikko and other popular Tochigi sightseeing areas. The next Suica 2 in 1 launch is March 27 for Iwate Green Pass that will cover Iwate Kotsu bus lines. All other Suica 2 in 1 launches for 5 more cards will be in March 2022.

The Art of Train Announcements

This morning the conductor made an announcement as the Yamanote train pulled into Meguro station: “This train is not a waste basket, kindly fold newspapers and take reading material with you when you leave,” and went on to kindly remind passengers to hold backpacks in the front, put them on the rack or on the floor.

Train announcements used to be an human art that has largely been replaced with recorded machine announcements. It takes great skill to convey important information on the fly in an easy to understand way. There’s pitch, speed, volume and clarity delivered in a focused train of thought, channeled with personality and humor. Surprisingly there are a few JR East conductors on the Yamanote line who go out of their way to practice this lost art, and a rare select few who manage to combine those qualities in magical voice announcements for train manners and other gentle reminders. It’s a treat to hear a lovely low clear live voice announcement calmly cutting through the clutter of noise, calling out the next station and reminding us to be civil to our fellow passengers.

End of the line for Suica and the native Japan Transit IC smartcard standard?

There is a consistent theme among some Japanese tech journalists: the native Japan Transit IC smartcard system is obsolete and destined for that fabled junk heap, the Galapagos island of over-engineered irrelevant Japanese technology. The arguments always boil down to cited higher costs of maintaining the ‘over-spec’ proprietary FeliCa based inflexible transit IC architecture in face of ‘flexible, lower cost’ proprietary EMV contactless bank payment tap cards and smartphone digital wallets used for open loop transit. Is Suica really ‘over-spec’ or is it clever stealth marketing sponsorship from EMVCo members and the bank industry disguised as journalism? Logically the same argument applies to proprietary MIFARE smartcard transit systems as well but is never mentioned, presumably because it was invented in Europe instead of Japan.

Despite all the digital ink on the subject I have yet to see a single article where said costs are actually shown and compared. Smartcard deposit fees are a standard way to offset plastic issue costs and Japanese transit companies like to earn interest off the float of card deposits and unused stored value. But this is never discussed nor the fact that digital wallet issue is free of hardware costs.

Bank payment cards and smartcards have very different business models. EMVCo members and their card issuers can hide associated hardware and licensing costs in bank transaction fees that NXP, FeliCa Networks and other smartcard technology solution providers cannot. Without hard numbers we can only take journalist claims at face value, that transit smartcards are not smart at all, but expensive obstacles to lower cost open loop centralization nirvana.

I don’t buy the ‘one solution fits all’ argument and neither should you. One constant issue in our internet era is that too much centralization is not only a technology monoculture security risk, cloud services fail, and cloud centralization is abused to limit human rights. As speech is censored on SNS platforms and online profiling is used to limit freedom of travel with politically biased no fly lists, it is inevitable that face recognition transit gates will be used to track people and implement ‘no ride’ or ‘limited ride’ policies. These are issues that people must be aware of in the relentless rush towards online centralization of transit payments and services.

Nevertheless there are articles with valid criticisms well worth reading. I ran across one recently by Masanoya Sano on Nikkei that asks a good question: ‘Does taking 14 years to deliver Mobile PASMO mean the transit IC card foundation is crumbling? While I don’t agree with everything Sano san says he makes a good case that Japan Transit IC association members are failing in the face of a hydra-headed crisis: declining population with less ridership, competition from other payment services such as PayPay and EMV based VISA Touch, and ridership killing COVID lockdowns. He argues that transit companies must fix some basic problems if the Japan IC Transit standard is to survive:

  • Increase coverage: get all transit on the Transit IC card service map
  • Go mobile: for all transit cards
  • Improve the transit IC card architecture: improve compatibility and loosen up current restrictions for cross region transit, and the ¥20,000 stored fare limit

I believe most, if not all of these can be addressed with next generation FeliCa + 2 in 1 Suica (aka Super Suica) launching this year and deeper payment infrastructure sharing between transit companies. Nothing is guaranteed of course but here’s a look at each category and possible solutions.

Coverage
The transit IC coverage gap is the biggest failure of Japanese transit companies and there are big gaps. Suica only covers major population areas in Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai, roughly half of the stations on JR East are not wired for Suica. A similar situation applies to the other JR Group companies. JR East has promised to get their entire rail network on Suica with a simplified lower cost cloud based Suica in the 2020 fiscal year ending March 2021 but has yet to announce any details (they are specifically referenced in the new Suica Terms and Conditions effective March 27).

On the plus side JR West is expanding ICOCA coverage with a light rail approach of incorporating NFC readers installed in the train car for tap in/tap out for unmanned stations. No wires. SMBC and VISA use the same strategy for their VISA Touch transit boutique marketing program. It’s a practical low cost strategy for lightly traveled rural lines that reduces the hard wire requirement. Only stations that need it get wired and even those installations can use the lower cost JR East cloud based system.

JR West ICOCA area expansion includes on train NFC readers starting March 13, 2020

All major transit companies need to install these lower cost solutions to fill the transit IC gaps and integrate remaining isolated regions. VISA Touch transit boutiques are marketed as a solution for inbound and casual users, but these EMV only installation leave those transit areas off the transit IC grid for regular users and don’t work for wider area travel.

Mobile
Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO combined represent 80% of the current transit IC card market. Mobile ICOCA (JR West) is due to launch in 2023. There is no word yet about mobile for TOICA (JR Central), manaca (Nagoya City Transit rail/bus), PiTaPa (Kansai region private rail/bus), Kitaca (JR Hokkaido), Sugoca (JR Kyushu), nimoca (Nishitestsu), Hayaken (Fukuoka City Transit). This is a big challenge but the borrowed Suica infrastructure used for Mobile PASMO is a strategy that can be applied to the other major cards.

Improving Transit IC
JR East is releasing the 2 in 1 Suica card architecture that incorporates new FeliCa OS features the most important being the “2 cards in 1” Extended Overlap Service. New regional transit card using this new FeliCa OS and Suica format are launching this month in Aomori, Iwate and Utsunomiya. The next challenge for JR East is expanding 2 in 1 Suica to existing and important region transit cards inside the JR East transit region such Niigata Kotsu Ryuto and Sendai City Transportation Bureau icsca. The JR Group has cooperated to deliver cross region commuter passes which started in

The ultimate long term success of the Japanese Transit IC systems depends on infrastructure sharing and integration. For this to happen other JR Group companies and private rail outside of the JR East regions have to incorporate the 2 in 1 Suica format and improvements for their own cards and regions. Only when all Transit IC Mutual Use Association members are using the new format can they link and combine services in new ways, and add new features such as raising the stored fare card value above the current ¥20,000 limit.

Will it be enough? I have no idea. Immediately I see problems for the Kansai region PiTaPa card association companies (Hankyu, Hanshin, Keihan, Kintetsu, Nankai) as they have to make fundamental changes to use the new card format. I don’t see a Mobile PiTaPA in its current incarnation and this is why SMBC (who run PiTaPa card accounts) and VISA are targeting the Kansai area for VISA Touch transit: non-JR Kansai transit companies have their backs against the wall and no way easy forward to mobile except for going all in with JR West Mobile ICOCA, or taking what SMBC offers them.

Open Loop competition
Kansai area private rail companies never managed to create the equivalent of PASMO. PiTaPa is a postpay card that has credit card issue checks and cannot be purchased at station kiosks like all other transit cards for casual use. Issue is limited, so Kansai transit companies issue JR West ICOCA commuter passes for people who can’t use credit cards. This is the context surrounding the SMBC VISA Touch transit for Nankai announcement that got lots of press attention as the first major test deployment of open loop on a Japan Transit IC card system.

Junya Suzuki’s latest Pay Attention installment has a deep dive on the VISA Touch Japanese open loop transit system solution powered by QUADRAC Q-CORE server technology. It is the solution also used for the Okinawa Yui Rail monorail fare system that integrates Suica/Transit IC and QR support. He argues that open loop EMV is good enough because, (1) we don’t need the over-spec FeliCa 200 millisecond (ms) transaction speed (it’s actually faster, between 100~150 ms), (2) it has a leg up on future MaaS and cloud integration. Holding onto Suica local transaction performance as ‘faster/better’ is a myth holding back progress.

I have tremendous respect for Suzuki san and his work but his arguments fall down for me here. He completely ignores the white elephant in the room: closed loop is here to stay because the open loop model cannot support all fare options. Even on the open loop systems that he champions, Oyster and Opal for example, closed loop cards are still essential and are transitioning to a closed loop EMV model for digital wallet issue. The only change is the closed loop card transition from MIFARE to EMV because bank partners are running the transit system account system backend instead of the transit company. In other words it has nothing to do with technology at all, it is bank system convenience. Bank convenience is what it all boils down to.

Making the right technology choices are essential in our era of limited resources, ride the right horse and you succeed. I want to believe the cloud holds the promise to extend transit IC to low transit volume rural areas that don’t have it now, but every time I use a slow cloud based stera payment terminal I’m reminded how impractical that approach is for stations with high transit volume.

Does it make cost sense to replace the current transit IC system and re-create it with EMV open loop when Opal, Oyster and OMNY systems will always need closed loop cards? The practical thing is leveraging a good system already in use. Upgrade the Japan Transit IC system we have now, spend precious resources that fix current limitations and extend it with new technologies like UWB Touchless.

The strength and weakness of the Japan Transit IC standard is that it’s not top down but based on mutual cooperation. It’s not one entity but association members have to move forward as if they are one. JR East has been the technology leader and is working to improve and share it at lower cost. 2021 is not the make or break year for Japan Transit IC, but it will be an important and challenging one that will set its future direction.

Related post: The 2 in 1 Suica Region Affiliate Card

The good old Japan Transit IC card mutual use map, all the little one way arrows marked with the ‘IC’ logo pointing outside the main IC area indicate transit system compatibility.

2021 Outlook: Apple Pay Code Payments and Multi-Payment Wallet Cards

A happy new year to everybody. When reading Junya Suzuki’s year end Apple Pay and contactless history in Japan article, I was irritated by its ‘rah rah for open loop’ ending that seemed to conclude EMV isn’t very slow and tap speed differences don’t really matter. After reading followup tweets with other IT journalists I realized that wasn’t his point at all. What Suzuki san was really saying was the total transit gate experience counts more than any particular technology package (MIFARE, FeliCa, EMV Open Loop, etc.).

Steve Jobs said the same thing about technology and products in the famous, “you have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology,” 1997 WWDC video. In other words, the whole (the product) has to be larger than sum of the parts (the technology pieces that make up the product) to be a success. It’s all about how they integrate as a product into the larger whole ‘vision’ thing. JR East transit gates are great because the total experience is greater than sum of FeliCa, Suica, JREM reader and gate design technology parts added together.

When it comes to payments however it’s not just about technology, it’s also the raw power plays going on behind the scenes. In the same article Suzuki san nonchalantly mentions that NTT Docomo dCard, which SMBC has issued and operated since the very beginning but in open warfare with Docomo these past few years, is dumping SMBC for UC Card group (Mizuho) this year.

There is also constant pressure to eliminate Japanese FeliCa contactless payment networks in favor EMV using the old bait and switch tactic of promoting a proprietary industry standard when the real end game is eliminating local competitors. These are issues that few journalists bother to analyze deeply and also what got Jack Ma in trouble when he blasted the Basel Accords, the traditional banking system, as an exclusive old men’s club that stifles innovation.

Power games in the world’s greatest free-for-all payments market
I’ve said this many times but one of the great things about Japan many western journalists completely miss, is that Japan is the world best guinea pig test market. Especially useful for observing new payment trends at work. The market is a perfect not too big not too small size, super cohesive, and it has a long history of Osaifu Keitai mobile payments with a wide foundation of payment technologies encompassing FeliCa, EMV and QR. And there is lots of money sitting in bank accounts. This unique mix affords the careful observer a virtual front seat on the power games playing out right now after the introduction of QR based payment services like Line Pay, PayPay and dBarai (dPay).

When Docomo unveiled their dBarai app service it confused many users. What was the point of using code payments when Docomo already had dCard and the whole Mobile FeliCa iD network in place for promoting contactless payments? But it wasn’t long before Docomo linked the 2 payment services together. dBarai users can pay using 3 different backend payment choices: direct dCard billing, monthly Docomo billing, a rechargeable stored value dBarai account with cash recharge options via ATM or linked bank account.

From the user point of view it doesn’t matter when they pay with a Docomo code payment app tied and charged to their dCard on the backend, it’s the same monthly bill. But to Docomo it is very different: instead of using the iD or SMBC VISA/MC payment network on the front end, it’s the Docomo dBarai payment network. I suspect Docomo pays less of a transaction cut to the bank because they have the cash flow to assume some of the risk that banks usually assume in establied credit card network transactions. Docomo likely also leverages the daily transaction float. In short the AliPay model. The next logical step for Docomo dBarai will be P2P payments that leverage Docomo’s Mercari connection.

The value of code payments in dBarai isn’t the technology, it’s a expedient tool that Docomo leverages to circumvent the limitations and fee structure of banks and card networks to create their own flexible payment network. This wiggle room is the essential margin that drives QR Code payment empire cashbacks, point giveaways and new services. This is the epicenter of the cashless payment turf wars that pits new mobile payment players against established card and bank networks. And Apple is about to dump delicious chunk bait into this shark tank.

The Toyota Wallet multi-payment model
In the Apple Pay 2020 wrap-up I mentioned Toyota Wallet as the most important trend: a Wallet app that lets users pay with a QR code or with NFC via an instant issue prepaid Apple Pay Wallet card. The Toyota Wallet iD/Mastercard has 2 Apple Pay device account numbers, one for the iD payment network and one for the Mastercard payment network. This is common for most Japanese issue payment cards on Apple Pay but it is less about NFC protocols (FeliCa, EMV) and all about dual payment network support in a single payment card. And it is not limited to Japan. In Australia there are dual payment Apple Pay cards that support both Mastercard and EFTPOS payment networks in a single card.

With Apple Pay Code Payments on the way, possibly with iOS 14.4, we have another option for multi-payment network cards: code payment and NFC payment. Apple Pay Code Payments are thought of as being only for AliPay and WeChat Pay support in China, but they are much more than that.

Apple Pay Code Payments gives mobile payment players the ability to move QR/barcode payments from an outside app and integrate them directly into an Apple Pay Wallet card. In the Toyota Wallet example below, Toyota could simply add another device account number for the QR Code payment network:

This might seem trivial but it’s important to remember some key differences of Wallet payment cards:

  • Direct side button Wallet activation with automatic Face/Touch ID authentication and payment at the reader.
  • Device payment transactions handled by the eSE without a network connection.
  • Ability to set a default main card for Apple Pay use.

If Apple Pay Code Payments are equal with Apple Pay NFC payments, and by all indications from beta screen shots they are and use the same ‘card’ UI metaphor, I think we are in for another wave of Apple Pay market disruption. Instead of NFC vs QR Codes, or Apple Pay/Google Pay vs apps, all of it just red herring fake debate, we can focus on what’s real: the payment network turf wars.

In the Japan market Line Pay, PayPay, dBarai, Rakuten and all other new players will have the tools to create better services tightly integrated in a Apple Pay Wallet card. Docomo for example could incorporate dBarai into dCard with an additional device account number. Mix and match payment networking in one card.

In the payment network world where market share is all, card networks have held too much power for too long, exactly what Jack Ma was complaining about. I see competition as a good thing that encourages innovation and choice, mobile payments are doing that.

Looping back to the open loop beginning of this piece I think it makes sense now to realign the debate points away from focusing on technology (EMV vs FeliCa, NFC vs QR, etc.), i.e. things that can change and evolve, and focus on payment network turf wars, i.e. things that are hard to change until you see the battles lines clearly enough to create a better strategy and get where you want to go.

In the public transit arena it always comes down to this. Moving people quickly and safely by transit, managed wisely, is licensed cash flow from the fare gates. A transit company can keep control of that license to build something of greater long term value for the users and businesses of the transit card region, which can cover the nation. A transit company can give control away to someone else and let them take their cut, but just like Jack Ma pointed out before he disappeared, will there be innovation when going all in with traditional card and bank payment networks?

I still say a transit platform, especially in the mobile era of chaotic opportunity, is the best approach if a company wants to achieve the former: a system where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Start with the best customer experience you want to deliver and work backwards to the technology.