Friday, July 26, 2013

Covert JAL miles to WAON points for FeliCa mobile payments

EDIT: Washing machine pic added.

Mobile payments in Japan

There are several competing mobile payment systems in Japan, all using the FeliCa standard (as opposed to NFC). Of the rail transit passes, JR East is the only only one to create a mobile FeliCa app (Mobile Suica), which can be used and charged at many convenience stores. There are two other national cash-based systems, the original EDY (which erroneously stands for Euro Dollar Yen, apparently), and WAON. EDY is much more widely accepted and is now owned by Rakuten with a tie in to ANA airlines. WAON is owned by the Aeon retail group and tied up with Japan Airlines.

(There are also two competing credit based systems, iD (NTT Docomo/DCMX/Visa) and QUICPay (JCB), but we won't really discuss those here.)

The nice things about these Mobile FeliCa payment systems is that they can be linked to point systems. For example, the EDY card can be linked to any one of these systems, and it can be changed at anytime through the mobile app: 1) Rakuten Super Point, 2) ANA, 3) Ponta (Lawson), 4) gREE, 5) T-POINT (Tsutaya), 6)Yodobashi, 7) EPOS card, 8) Belle Maison, 9) Bic Camera, 10) NEXCO, 11) Matsumoto Kiyoshi, and 12) EdOn.

The WAON android app is hard linked into the JAL Mileage Bank, so unless you fly a lot on JAL, or otherwise accumulate a lot of JAL miles, (we'll come back to that later), EDY might be the better choice.

The bottom line is there's really no reason to use cash for payments if you can link your FeliCa payment app to the point card of your choice. For every hundred mint crunky purchased at the 7-11, you could get a free iPhone case at Bic Camera. Win-win (except for the fact that the iPhone lacks FeliCa).

Convert airline miles to mobile money

Getting to the actual topic of the post, JAL miles can be converted to WAON points and "downloaded" via the WAON FeliCa app directly to your phone*. What makes this interesting is that, until the end of fiscal 2014 (3/31/2014),
  • The upper limit on the number of miles that can be converted each year (20,000) is removed, and
  • Conversion of 10,000 miles nets an additional 2,000 points. (1 point = ¥1)
This means that you get ¥12,000 for every 10,000 miles converted, with no yearly limit, and as you use the WAONs, you accumulate JAL Miles, which could then be in turn converted back to more money.

While you can convert as many miles as you want, you can only carry up to 50,000 WAON points on your phone at anytime. My washing machine broke. I bought a new one. With points. Converted from airline miles. No, I’m not kidding.

JAL MIleage Bank account holders can apply to convert Miles to WAONs by clicking here. Be warned however, this is all in Japanese and if you don’t read at a fairly advanced level, please get someone to help you along. Conversion is a two step process:
  1. Convert the miles to points.
  2. Download them to your phone (or JMB card). Points can be added to a mobile phone via the android app or a “Waon Station.”*
From the Convert page linked above, click the red 特典を申し込み button.

From the next screen, choose the number of miles you want to convert, and then from your phone, download the points.

*All these FeliCa apps rely on a browser plugin that is unsupported by Mobile Chrome. This means they won't function properly downloading points or anything fancy like exchanging money with friends if you disable the native android browser. In this case you'll have to download the points via a terminal, such as a "WAON Station”.

By request, this is the washing machine purchased by WAON points converted from frequent flier miles.

Monday, July 22, 2013

i heard a totally unsubstantiated rumor

That is almost certainly incorrect and doesn't even come from a very reliable source, and I'm only posting about it because of the chance to reconsider what the prospects and requirements would be for a Docomo iPhone, since the rumor is that Docomo will carry the "iPhone 5s", if such a thing ever exists.

Perhaps Steve Jobs held some grudge against NTT Docomo — it's not difficult to imagine how poorly any hypothetical, initial negotiations concerning the iPhone 3G would have gone and he's known to have been friendly with Softbank founder Masayoshi Son — that has contributed to the lack of a Docomo iPhone, but things are obviously different today.

Softbank is no longer the exclusive Japanese carrier of the iPhone, and Android phones are gaining market share in Japan. The latter is because the Android OS has matured nicely and domestic makers can actually produce a phone that not only doesn't suck, but also manages to more or less integrate the galapagos features without massively breaking anything. (In the beginning smartphones from domestic makers were terrible. Their UIs were crap, their firmware was buggy, and they rarely, if ever, saw an update.)

Now I have a Sony Xperia A, and here's an example of galapagos features that do not suck: HD video taken with a water resistant Docomo SO-04E shoved in the webbing of my vest. (edit, was 1080x1920 video but it was transcoded on upload.)

What has not changed is that Docomo puts junk on their phones, so the big question becomes whether Docomo will be content to offer a phone that lacks all it's crapware. For example, Docomo installs their own contacts app, phone dialer, system UI, and more, which exist in parallel to the standard Android apps, or in this case, the Sony Xperia Skinned apps. Android 4 and higher allows for disabling of preinstalled, system apps, unless they are mission critical, like a dialer or UI. This means the duplicate Docomo apps will always be staring at you - you can't make them just disappear.

To make matters worse, depending on the choices you made when you first set up your phone, or if you accidentally reset certain defaults, you can end up with a situation where you are prompted to choose whether you want to complete that call with "dial" or "phone".

Um… most people are going to be like WTF, I don't know, I just wanna make a phone call. This is most likely to happen after just purchasing the phone, when the user is still unfamiliar with it, adding to the confusing and perhaps causing buyer's remorse. Yeah, this is not happening on the iPhone. So what are the points in favor and against a Docomo iPhone?

In favor:
  • A different Apple CEO
  • Docomo operates Band 1 LTE (2100 MHz) so the iPhone is already compatible
  • Softbank Mobile is no longer the exclusive Japanese iPhone carrier
  • iPhone still massively popular but Android is catching up (meaning it's in Apple's best interest to add Japan's number 1 carrier)
  • No way Docomo crapware will be preinstalled
  • Docomo unlikely to give extra, special display space for an iPhone
  • Docomo unlikely to give discounted data rates only for iPhone contracts

An Addendum. I should point out that the Docomo apps, while annoying, buggy, and generally undesirable, do some things better than the Sony apps, though these issues have long been fixed in the "pure" Android OS (AOSP). The problem seems to partially originate from Google's unwillingness to acknowledge that language and locale are indeed entirely separate. This is an issue for their mobile and desktop products, as anyone who dares to use a different language than that of the location associated with their IP address knows.

And while I'm complaining, after spending years to create a code base that doesn't hose the battery on an Android phone when latitude location reporting is active, and spending what would appear seconds to toss all that code in the trash to move all locations services to the half-baked, "locations" tab of the G+ plus app, which often doesn't even (apparently) know how to use GPS to determine location, is to say the least, annoying. Very much so.

Back to the point at hand, when "language and locale" are not set to Japanese, Sony's contacts app sorts all the Japanese-language contacts under a single "symbol" heading (#). At least it orders them based on the phonetic spelling (furigana), so you can still systematically find people, but looking at the below screenshot will show you just how dumb this is. Of course if the language is set to Japanese, everything is properly organized. This was a problem with Android 1.6 Donut. It shouldn't be an issue now, and Docomo at least gets this right where Sony fails.

Sony Xperia A contact organization when the system language is Japanese (left) or English (right)

The red line denotes the Japanese-language contacts, that are all sorted under "#", because the system language is set to English.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Location and Event Driven Profiles Using LLAMA

Now that I have a phone that supports NFC I started looking into using NFC tags to turn things on and off depending on where I am. Before going to bed I could turn off all notifications, when I get to work I could turn certain options on or off, etc. I had always heard great things about Tasker so I bought it from the Play store but was immediately confused. Tasker is not an intuitive application and this is coming from someone who is very technical.

I ended up trying LLAMA by KebabApps which is a free app in the Play Store and very easy to use. It can use NFC tags for events but it's a lot more robust than just that because it allows you setup different locations and it learns where that location is based on the cell towers that your phone can see. This is information the Android OS is already collecting so there aren't any extra location services that are going to drain your battery. You can then enable various sound profiles and change settings depending on where you are or some other phone driven event such as NFC tags or connection states.

The events that I have enabled are:
  • At work - set sound profile to quite (turn all notification volume down to low)
  • When Wifi is connected - Set Android location service polling to every 4 hours
  • When WiFi is disconnected - Set Android location service polling to every 10 min
  • Leaving Work - set sound profile to normal
  • At Home - set sound profile to normal
  • At home 11PM-6AM - set sound profile to silent (notifications off, ringtone to vibrate)
  • Leaving home - set sound profile to normal

*Note: when LLAMA is learning a location it is recording all of the cell towers that it can see over the specified time period, so it is a good idea to have your phone connected to a charger. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

How to register for mobile suica with no credit card or yearly fee

With the EASY Mobile Suica option, none of the options are usable.
In fact, there's probably no reason to open the mobile suica app ever again.
It's may not be immediately obvious, but there are two options for registering for JR East's Mobile Suica app. (have I mentioned that it's ugly?). The standard registration requires a credit card and, unless it is a JR East "View" card, payment of a yearly ¥1,000 fee, which seems ridiculous if you only want to charge your rail pass for riding trains and buying conbini onigiri.

Fortunately, there is also an option "Easy Mobile Suica" which offers few options but is totally free. You cannot use this to by "green car" tickets, express tickets, or commuter passes. The charge can be used for purchases where Suica cards are accepted and there is an option for adding money via a bank account.

The status and balance on all of your FeliCa apps can be checked through the master Osaifu Keitai app.
As can be seen below, this also has an option to show the apps using the NFC element embedded on the SIM card (That Docomo calls a UIM card). This is good because you get the information you want all in one place, without having to open the (ugly) Suica app.

Registration for EASY Mobile Suica cannot be done on a computer - only via the Suica app. Here's how I did it. Once you've downloaded the app, start it up and follow along with the screenshots below.

1. The apps permissions are displayed: accessing Felcia, network communications, making phone calls (no idea why it needs that), and reading the phone's ID. Tap agree 同意する(以降確認なし).

2. You are next presented with the first start page. There is a warning that if you chose to register a gmail address, that some mail contents may be displayed improperly, meaning that they are breaking email standards when the spam you. tap option 1, new registration 会員登録.

3. The next screen explains the two options for mobile Suica, as I described above.

4. Continue to the next screen and tap option 2, agree 同意する. If registering for the full Suica, you can do that at the webpage listed, but Easy Moible Suica requires use of the app to register.

5. The cost and included services for the two options are shown next. To register for free version without a credit card, chose option 2, クレジットカードを登録しない(EASYモバイルSucia).

6. The actual registration step. The items marked with are OPTIONAL.

  1. Enter something for a name if FULL WIDTH characters. I used English. For example: SB for my first name and for my last. Below that enter in FULL WIDTH KATAKANA the reading: エッス ビ エッス. (Note that this works in general for any Japanese web form where it asks for Kanji - just switch to Japanese and enter 2-byte Romaji.
  2. Enter your birthday.
  3. Chose male or female.
  4. Japanese postal code.
  5. Home phone.
  6. PC mail account (keitai mail will also work).
  7. Mobile number.
  8. Mobile mail address.
  9. Suica password (6 to 8 half width digits).
  10. Forgotten password question.
  11. Answer no to all the email questions, 希望しない.

7. Registration done, don't forget your password. Click next a few times through the next couple of screens, 次へ. The app will connect and register, which might take a minute or so.

8. Setup complete, go to the main menu, メニュー. And behold the ugliness of mobile suica.