SoftBank, the number 2 Japan carrier, is going Android after all.

As we broke news earlier, the operator announced that it would start carrying the HTC Desire, renaming it the X06HT and will launch it with Android 2.1 almost untouched.

Softbank’s Nexus

The Desire is basically Google’s Nexus One without the search engine branding and was announced by HTC at the Mobile World Congress in mid-February in Barcelona.

It comes with an unique home screen that reminds a lot of Apple’s exposé, which allows to see all home screens at once.

The hardware is close to Google’s phone, with Qualcomm’s 1GHz SnapDragon chip for instance, but leaving some features out as to reduce pricing, while adding nice touches as an optical trackpad.

SoftBank will offer it at around 10,000-16,000JPY with contract and add a 2GB microSD card to the lot. The S! Basic Pack (315 JPY per month) will be needed for internet connectivity.

Smartphone diversification

It’s interesting that SoftBank, known for its flagship smartphone, Apple’s iPhone, would diversify like this. Up to now, only NTT DoCoMo was selling an Android-powered phone, the disappointing HT-03A (KDDI has previewed its Sharp IS01 but won’t sell it before October). I wouldn’t read too much into it and imply that the carrier is dissatisfied with the current level of iPhone sales –estimated at around 2.5m, but simply that going away from what is basically a one high end model strategy makes sense (well, SoftBank also does Windows Mobile).

Yahoo! goes Google?

It will also be interesting to see if and how SoftBank will port it’s current Yahoo! services to what is a Google phone. Dedicated applications or software updates might address this issue, as well as the S! Mail one, also absent in the iPhone, giving headaches to many users depending on these addresses for services in Japan.

On its press release however, SoftBank touts Gmail, Google Maps, Google Earth and other Google services.

Android in Japan

In a saturated market, going Android could open doors to some growth potential. SoftBank was the first operator to earn more revenue from data than voice in 2009 and  going to an app-driven market seems sound.

Smartphone penetration is also very low in Japan compared with other countries.

Remains to be seen how the big three will coordinate -or not- some of their Android efforts. The number 1 operator is gearing up with localized resources, operator-specific APIs and reaching out to local app developers –DoCoMo needs them, as having an app market means easier entry for foreign entities, not having to go through the keitai specs to release services in Japan anymore.

KDDI is going with its au one Market and will link it to the Android market with its own billing platform this summer. It also hinted at a later version of an Android smartphone with Osaifu keitai -RFID payment- integration.

Android in Japan: will it blend?

Image by SoftBank Mobile