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You know how we all thought DoCoMo would get the iPhone next? Well, time to think again. au/KDDI, the second biggest mobile carrier, might very well be the one to get its hands on the prized Apple handset. Maybe as early as this summer.

It’s not a change of heart, it’s just a technological possibility that didn’t exist: KDDI’s network is based on the W-CDMA standard. Like -you guessed it- Verizon.

The introduction of that “new” iPhone in the USA last January is giving way to a different scenario in Japan as in some other Asian countries.

iPhone in an open relationship

But wait, isn’t Apple tied up with an exclusive agreement with SoftBank? Exclusive deals are gone. As many -and we- had correctly guessed it, SoftBank’s exclusivity ran for two years. July 2008 – July 2010.

That type of deal was not unique to Japan, but the nail in the coffin was the official confirmation during the Q1 2011 earnings conference call that the AT&T deal was the last territorial exclusivity falling. Rest in peace.

More subscribers, more growth

Tim Cook, Apple’s COO and Jobs’ standing man during his leave of absence, also stated during that call that the company was constantly evaluating growth possibilities, seeking new ways to expand market share.

He couldn’t be clearer than that. No more exclusive deals + W-CDMA iPhone = growth.


Now, can the Japanese equation be: no more exclusive deals + W-CDMA iPhone + growth = KDDI?

Apple being in bed with three to four carriers in certain countries, no one can rule DoCoMo out -I wouldn’t, ever- but the chatter is that Cupertino’s would go first with KDDI who’s apparently less demanding in the negotiations -hey, DoCoMo is the big fish here, it can afford to be grandstanding a bit.

iSuppli, the market research firm, seems to be certain KDDI will lock the contract before this summer. It even computes this in in its worldwide W-CDMA iPhone shipment for 2012 –16.5m.

The official KDDI stance? A simple “no comment”, as President M. Tanaka Takashi reiterated during KDDI’s Q3 results presentation at the end of January. Well. That’s after the PR department made a blunder a few days before by implying talks were going on.

KDDI needs the iPhone

KDDI has been struggling in the smartphone wars in Japan. Although still number 2 with approximatively 33m subscribers (against 25m to SoftBank and 57m to DoCoMo), it has been lagging in new users additions and seemed unable to offer a solid smartphone strategy for a long time. The recent announcement of the Skype partnership, the Foursquare tie-in, the social gaming Gree marketplace, the IS series -although delivered with an outdated Android OS version- or the upcoming Motorola Xoom -this April- show that it’s getting something of a grip, but the iPhone would obviously be the massive boost the company needs, both in terms of sales and image.

The iPhone was the most popular smartphone in Japan during pretty much all its run. In the last six months of 2010, MM Research says that it was responsible of 60% of the smartphone segment’s shipments -the Xperia being a very distant second. That’s the phone people still talk about and KDDI needs one phone everybody talks about. The IS03 was close to it, but was drowned in DoCoMo’s Galaxy S noise.

KDDI promised that smartphones would account for the majority of its lineup this year. While not entirely true -those keitais are still hot for some-, it has revealed new high-end phones, like a nice WiMax-compatible HTC. Still, not a single one was able to cover its competitors’ noise so far. KDDI, I repeat, needs a big winner. It needs the iPhone.

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