25 October 2016
The Octopus card was once an icon of Hong Kong’s efficiency and innovation, but has now been outstripped by mobile payment solutions. Photo: HKEJ
The Octopus card was once an icon of Hong Kong’s efficiency and innovation, but has now been outstripped by mobile payment solutions. Photo: HKEJ

Why the city’s iconic Octopus card is so yesterday

We all love the Octopus card. It’s just so convenient. It seems we can’t live in Hong Kong without it.

But if you look at how an ordinary day passes north of the border, you may think otherwise.

In the morning, you hail a taxi to get to your office. Virtually, that is, since if you stand on the roadside and wave at a passing cab, you won’t get one. All you have to do is punch a few buttons on your Didi Dache (滴滴打車) app and a taxi comes in no time.

You don’t need to pay cash to the driver. In fact, many cabbies may refuse to accept cash, thanks to the WeChat payment platform (TenPay). Transactions via TenPay will earn you points which you can use later for discounts.

Paying for you breakfast at a fast-food restaurant is as simple as a quick scan of a QR code, and you automatically get e-coupons.

That’s why you will feel you are still living in medieval times in Hong Kong where local retailers still hand out stamp-sized paper coupons on the presumption that you will patiently collect them to exchange for rewards or discounts.

Money transfers can be done within a second on WeChat or AliPay platforms, which also eliminate the risk of counterfeit notes.

When Hongkongers think paying bills at 7-Eleven with the Octopus card is not a big hassle, their mainland cousins can get things done just by tapping a few buttons on their phone screen, which also allows them to do many other things like buying air tickets, making credit card payments or even investing small amounts through crowdfunding apps.

Now you know why our beloved Octopus card and other means of payment are so yesterday.

Hong Kong used to take pride for its pioneering application of e-money.

Tapping your Octopus card against the reader for the “beep” sound which signifies that payment is done was something so futuristic when the territory introduced the stored value smart card system in 1997.

For years we have heard sincere compliments from non-locals and overseas visitors, and the card became an icon of Hong Kong’s efficiency and innovation. Back then people said we could live without cash in Hong Kong.

In the following decade, Hong Kong’s Octopus card inspired many similar systems in other nations including Oyster Card in London and the citizen card in Shenzhen.

But soon, the southern Chinese city became a launch pad of the mainland’s great leap forward in information technology and soon outstripped Hong Kong, its original model, in the field of cashless transactions.

The Octopus card’s ubiquitous presence still stands unrivalled with over 28 million cards in circulation and 13 million daily transactions totalling HK$150 million.

But it has become a dismal laggard in comparison to other more advanced solutions seen on the mainland.

It seems that its operator, Octopus Holdings Ltd., is not at all bothered by some obvious drawbacks of its obsolete e-payment system and is not planning to modernize it.

Many, if not all, Octopus users have felt the embarrassment of hearing the high-pitch sound of rejection when their card turns out to have insufficient credit at the MTR turnstile or 7-Eleven store. 

The problem is that you won’t know how much credit is left unless you top it up or your card is rejected.

A few card readers have been installed at some MTR stations for users to check transaction records but it’s hardly a solution.

Similar cards in other cities have new technologies like the e-ink screen, similar to Amazon Kindle e-book reader, which enable the user to check the remaining value.

Also, up to today, Octopus is still not accepted in some sectors such as the city’s 18,138 taxies.

Over the years the card operator has also been criticized for data leakages and wrong values deducted or added.

This writer once found that only HK$400 was added to the card after inserting five HK$100 notes into an add-value machine, and had to complete a long form to apply for a refund.

It took the card operator more than three weeks to confirm the complaint, and the only method of refund is a crossed cheque sent by mail, rather than an instant transfer of the amount to the card.

That looks like the Stone Age for WeChat payment users.

“It’s just like mainland consumers using the ultra-fast 4G LTE telecom network, while Hong Kong is still resting on our faded laurels made in the 2G era,” comments a local IT graduate.

The Octopus card and the local IT industry as a whole, having earned the first-mover advantage in e-payment, have been cast behind by the new wave of smartphone-based technologies.

But changes are finally underway.

HKT (06823.HK) has established a new unit to tap into the fast-growing mobile payment segment. Rival SmarTone (00315.HK) is also set to launch mobile wallet services next month, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

Services will feature online shopping payment and peer-to-peer money transfer using near field communication (NFC) technology commonly found in most smartphones on the market.

And, sooner or later, Tencent (00700.HK) and Alibaba will make their forays into Hong Kong’s stagnant e-payment sector as they strive to expand their services overseas.

Hong Kong people will always embrace better solutions that can make everyday life easier, and we certainly won’t mind if our beloved Octopus card goes the way of a nostalgic memento of yesteryears in the near future.

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Surely we won’t mind if our beloved Octopus card goes the way of a nostalgic memento of yesteryears in the near future. Photo:

EJ Insight writer

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