SoftBank sounds bell for mobile slugfest

15 Oct 2006

'My feeling is that of a boxer stepping into the ring before the fight,' confessed Masayoshi Son, president and CEO of the SoftBank group, near the start of his presentation in Tokyo on July 28.
A few months after announcing the acquisition of Vodafone Japan and slightly less than one month before the October 24 start of mobile number portability in Japan, Son rebranded the company on October 1, replacing the Vodafone red with white and changing the company name to SoftBank Mobile.

More significantly, he also launched new handsets and outlined a four-point strategy to catch up with market leaders NTT DoCoMo and KDDI.

Whereas Vodafone Japan was notorious for its limited product lineup, SoftBank Mobile is now pushing new handsets out as fast as it can. Son claims that his current product launch with 13 models and 54 colors is the biggest single launch in Japan's mobile history.

The lineup includes Japan's slimmest 12.3-mm handset, one with a 5-mega-pixel camera and 3X zoom, and two offering HSDPA. There are trendy designs for men, women and teenagers. The Talk Rock package bundles handsets with iPod nanos. Son said all would be released before the end of the year and more models will follow early next year. He also stressed offering free content via Yahoo! as well as keys that facilitate instant access to Yahoo! Auctions and share trading without having to input passwords and IDs.

As a boxer, SoftBank Mobile already looks far nimbler, more aggressive and sharper than its back-peddling, tight-fisted, shrinking foreign-run predecessor. In just a few months Son has done what Vodafone was unable to do. The company has already landed some good early punches: it claims the best-selling handset over the last three months, the best-selling one-seg mobile TV handset, and the latest monthly sub data shows that, despite hemorrhaging PDC subs, it added more new 3G subs than KDDI for the first time ever.

Son is not only working on handsets, content and subs. He is also accelerating network coverage using cost-saving methods. From 20,000 base stations in January, SoftBank now has 25,000 and Son promises to add another 21,000 by the end of March, which he believes will end complaints about the network.

But will his company be able to sustain a toe-to-toe, slug-out against the power and experience of its two bigger rivals‾

'At the moment I think not,' says Kazuyo Katsuma, senior analyst and vice president of J.P. Morgan Securities Asia. 'I expect they will lose customers with MNP.'

'Their handsets are clearly better than in the Vodafone era, but its weakness is not only handsets, but network coverage and customer support. They are moving in the right direction, but it will take time,' said Katsuma, adding that she won't be downgrading her ratings for DoCoMo or KDDI any time soon.

Katsuma is not alone. 'I am not impressed,' says Michito Kimura, senior analyst in charge of mobile communications at IDC Japan. 'There is no new technology [in the announcements], and both DoCoMo and KDDI already have more advanced handsets.'

Son knows that the analysts and media are going to be skeptical of his high-stakes strategy. He has seen it all before. At the same conference in the summer, he smiled broadly as he predicted this would be the third time everyone forecasts his demise, the last being his Yahoo! BB ADSL venture.

Probably too soon to start counting Son out just yet. It is already beginning to look like he can dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee in the mobile business too.

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