Suica, iOS and the Apple Watch

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This is going to be a two parter, mostly because I don’t want to write two separate entries. I’m going to talk about Suica on iOS and how well it works, but I also want to talk about my general experience with the Apple Watch Series 2.

The iPhone launched in Japan missing many features that people believed made it an unviable product in that market. The iPhone didn’t allow users to attach phone charms, something that people thought would hurt it’s adoption, it didn’t. The iPhone didn’t initially ship with emoji support, though they did add it fairly early on in an iOS update. It wasn’t waterproof, something that most Japanese handsets pre-iPhone were, though it now is with the iPhone 7. Finally, it didn’t support Japan’s FeliCa IC payment system, something that a lot of Japanese handsets did dating back to 2006. In fact Japanese domestic market android phones have had a FeliCa radio and have supported the MobileSuica protocol since 2011. Despite all of that, the iPhone has totally dominated the Japanese market for years, to the surprise (and dismay) of all of the local phone makers.

Well, with the iPhone 7 Apple has finally added a FeliCa radio to Japanese market iPhones. This is not present on global phones. This now allows Japanese users to maintain a MobileSuica account on their phone (these accounts are tied to a single device) and refill it via Apple Pay from any Apple Pay credit card. Suica is JR East’s IC payment system, and is Japan’s largest. It works across the country for transit as well as some vending machines and convenience stores. It’s a fantastic standard allowing for instant distance based travel across dozens of travel systems and has been in use since 2001. You can even use it to buy stuff on Japanese market Nintendo Wii U consoles!

The iOS implementation involves a Suica app that coordinates the Apple Pay functions. Users with a MobileSuica account (requires a domestic address and phone number) can add their account to a JDM iPhone 7 or Apple Watch Series 2 and begin to make payments right from their phone. The system itself works very well, however the setup is a bit buggy. It was a very rocky launch with a lot of errors due to congestion. Even 5 weeks later when I went to set it up it was very slow. After setting everything up the actual ApplePay linkage took ~30 minutes to show up (with a notification saying it was now live).

You can only have the MobileSuica set up on a single device, so not both an iPhone and Apple Watch. You can transfer it between the two devices. When setup on an Apple Watch it’s a pretty slick system. You have to make sure to enable it as an Express Transit Pass, which if you set it up via the Suica app is not on by default (though it is if setup through the Apple Watch app). When this isn’t enabled, you have to go to Wallet and double tap to pay every time you want to use it. With it as your Express Transit Pass you simple wave your wrist at transit gates, vending machines or the pad near cash registers and it works. Most people wear a watch on their left wrist, while transit gates are on the right, which makes for a kind of funny looking gesture if nothing else. You get a simple notification vibrate and popup on the watch. Actual payment amounts are not in the notifications which is kind of strange, though your balance is always shown wherever you use it. (Balance is also shown from the Suica iOS app or from the Wallet itself) This may change in time, we’re clearly very early in the roll out.

Don’t turn off wrist detection on the Apple Watch. It nukes everything from Apple Pay, which makes sense and I should have paid more attention. Re-adding your credit cards is easy, just a few emails from your banks with unlock codes and you’re done in a few minutes. Re-adding a Suica account is a little trickier. You cannot re-add your Suica right away, in fact you get a ‘it will work within 24 hours’ notification if you remove it. Stranger still, the ApplePay mobile Suica linkage undergoes maintenance between 3-5am, during which the error changes to ‘will work after 5am’ and sure enough at 5am you can re-add your Suica account to ApplePay. This maintenance seems to happen every night, and though it doesn’t block your usage of Suica, it doesn’t allow you to set it up during this time. Again, probably something that will go away over time, this has been a huge roll-out for ApplePay.

So yea, Apple has finally basically closed the loop on all the features Japan has been asking for (minus those phone charms), and MobileSuica via ApplePay works pretty well. Onto the Apple Watch in general.

I’ve resisted the Apple Watch since it came out. I really like mechanical watches, and having one watch to rule them all is kind of tough. I had previously rocked a little Garmin band that did fitness tracking and got mail/message/call notifications from my phone. It was nice because you could wear it next to a watch without too much trouble, but it died literally months out of it’s lack luster warranty. Thanks Garmin.

The Apple Watch when launched was definitely pretty. But it was clunky and slow and featured extremely poor battery life. It wasn’t waterproof, which for a wearable is a little more of an issue than for a phone. Big improvements came all around with WatchOS 3.1 and the Apple Watch Series 2. Now all of the watches (even the originals) are more responsive with a far better UI. The battery life is ~3 days under my usage, not the 18 hour nonsense they had previously. The Series 2 display is gorgeous, with twice the brightness of the original and CPU performance is considerably improved as well. It’s also finally waterproof to 50m, which is more than enough peace of mind for my needs. I bit the bullet and finally got one.

I went with a 42mm aluminum unit. I decided to go with it over stainless steel because I don’t believe I’ll keep it long enough to warrant the larger investment and because it weighs 30g vs 50g. The aluminum Apple Watch is lighter than many mechanical watches, it’s not just light for a smart watch. With the silicon band I have (mostly because thats all that was in stock, though I have no regrets) it honestly doesn’t feel like you’re wearing anything at all. The constructions feels like that of an iPhone, while the stainless steel unit feels like a premium watch. Fitness tracking is better than that of the Garmin band I had previously, it seems more accurate (though that’s purely from my own speculation). The ability to use it when the phone is off or not around over wifi is great. I’ve taken a few calls from it and it works in a pinch when you are away from your phone. Responding to messages is good enough and a few of the third party apps are pretty clever.

Is it perfect? No. The hardware is great and the software is much improved, though it still feels neglected like the AppleTV. Customizations that seem obvious aren’t available. Why can’t people create or customize watch faces. “Special” watch faces are one of the differentiations of the ridiculous Hermes SKUs they sell which just come with fancy leather bands at 3x the price, maybe that is why they don’t want to open it up. Purely stupid though. Wrist up detection to turn it on works better than any other wearable I’ve used, but it’s still a bit over zealous. No way to automatically turn that off at night so you can roll over in bed and get woken up by it blinding you, it’s lead me to just leaving wrist gesture detection off entirely. (The battery life will thank you too) Why can’t you hide the system applications as you can in iOS 10? It seems even more valuable on the watch.

The software may continue to mature in time, but I fear Apple isn’t paying enough attention to the platform. For now it’s a good enough wearable for me for checking the time, seeing what messages and alerts come in and getting some better fitness awareness. Is it a must have device? Certainly not yet. I think the hardware is actually pretty good (I don’t personally think it needs its own LTE radio), but the software needs some more love. We’ll see how long it can be my primary watch.