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CEO Sanda had been talking about microSIM since last April & had revealed such a chip was in the work last May. The day has come: mobile virtual network operator b-mobile has announced earlier today it was about to release a microSIM for unlocked iPhone 4 in Japan.

Yes, for any unlocked iPhone 4.

And, well, that would also likely work with an unlocked iPad.

Unlocked. Mmh. Interesting. The problem is that in Japan, both the iPhone and the iPad are locked with SoftBank.

No matter the recent debate about a general SIM unlock in the country, SoftBank won’t bulge. There’s no way you can legally unlock your iPhone in Japan.

Some countries mandate operator to factory unlock (via an Apple software) the device after the end of the contract or after a specified period of time (usually 12 month). Nice, heh? But it’s just not the case in Japan.

So, honestly, what type of market is b-mobile after in all this iPhone envy craze?

First idea that comes to mind, the unofficially unlocked iPhone. Since the handset is only sold through Softbank and not Apple, the market remains tiny. The vast majority of people do not go and hack their iPhones, don’t delude yourselves. Plus, since they’re already paying for a full 24 months contract which started two months ago at the earliest, why would they go fishing for another contract before 2012? And, oh, the practice is illegal in Japan.

Inbound business (and geek) travelers? Unlikely. The information site b-mobile provides is in Japanese only and it wouldn’t, again, be a very interesting market. Not mentioning that it’s only a matter of time until SoftBank starts renting microSIM for those iPhone tourist addicts (see Pietro’s excellent summary of options if you’re travelling to Japan).

So what then? The obvious. Imported iPhones and iPads. Still, there can’t be a vast amount of the former, since it was just released and there was no microSIM available until now in Japan. Note that SoftBank won’t sell SIM-only contracts.
There might be a tad more of imported iPads. Before the Japan launch, you could see a reasonably good number of devices in the hands of Tokyoites (and in some shops in Akihabara with a crazy markup, 20% more expensive than those grey imports in Singapore)

But there too, there’s the fact that it’s illegal. Imports do not come with the technical seal of approval of the ministry of communications. You know, that little printed T on the back of your device. [NB: read the Update at the end of this post]
Not that I see this regulation being enforced anyway, but b-mobile is very aware of it, trust me. Sanda kinda address the issue in this morning’s paper, implying Apple could service imported material. His point: SoftBank has no exclusivity on the sale of Apple products and he’s willing to work with independent importers.

Now, I might be a little harsh on my view there. b-mobile is a small player that doesn’t have to invest too much in equipment since it uses DoCoMo’s network. It doesn’t need to have a very big market to make some interesting profits.

The micro SIM itself is free. It will cost you JPY 3,785 per month (roughly USD 44) or JPY 2,980 per month for data only (presumably for your iPad, and that’s approx. USD 35). You can pre-reserve it here.

[UPDATE, August 6, 2010, 9pm JST] Colm correctly points out, in the comments, that the regulation concerning the technical conformity certification -what I called the little T in my article, for the sake of expediency- are due to be modified. Last March, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications announced that the display of that little T (the certification mark) could be now documented either by printing it on the device itself or through the screen. Check your iPhone 3GS, 4 or iPad, under Settings -> General -> About -> Regulatory and you’ll see a list of certification icons. While I’m under the impression that this modification of the law is not in force yet, it renders my certification point kinda moot, at least in the very near future if no strong opposition is raised. Sorry for my hastiness. It hence now all boils down to the nature of the exclusive deal between Apple and Softbank. Its exact dispositions are unknown, besides that iPhones are not sold by Apple in Japan, but only through the operator. Will “parallel” importers be able to find solid channels for mass imports? Will Apple Japan accept to repair imported iPhones? Will it be legally bound to? The international warranty should apply, but no one is certain. We’ll know soon enough.

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