Reports: Apple talks iPhone with Japanese carriers

Apple Inc. has been in talks with several Japanese mobile service companies, including NTT DoCoMo Inc. and SoftBank Mobile Corp., as it searches for a partner before introducing the iPhone, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal and Reuters Tuesday.

Both news organizations cited sources close to the companies who claimed Apple's CEO Steve Jobs had recently met with Masao Nakamura, DoCoMo's president, to talk a deal, and that discussions with SoftBank had also been taking place. DoCoMo is Japan's leading mobile service provider, with a claimed market share of over 53%, while SoftBank is the country's third-largest cell phone network.

One Wall Street analyst pegged an iPhone in Japan as a sure bet. "We would say Japan is 90% likely [to have the iPhone] by the end of 2008," said Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray & Co.

Apple, however, has only gone so far as to say it will introduce the iPhone to Asia next year, but as is its practice, has not specified countries or launch dates.

In every market it's entered so far -- the U.S., the U.K, Germany and France -- Apple has picked an exclusive mobile carrier partner for the iPhone. The subscription revenues that those carrier share with Apple have been a closely-guarded secret, although most analysts have pegged Apple's piece of the action at between 10% and 13% of the monthly fees.

But as the Engadget blog pointed out Tuesday, DoCoMo's network is based on the HSDPA/UMTS technology (High Speed operates a Downlink Packet Access/Universal Mobile Telephone System), also called 3G, not the slower GSM/EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) technology used by AT&T Inc. in the U.S., and the iPhone partners in the U.K., Germany and France. That means the current iPhone would not work on the DoCoMo network.

A 3G iPhone is reportedly in the works. In late November, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told attendees at a meeting in California that a 3G iPhone would appear in 2008.

The holdup in cranking out a 3G iPhone, Jobs said last summer, is the technology's bigger power appetite. "The 3G chip sets are real power hogs," Jobs said at the U.K. rollout of the iPhone in mid-September. "Our phone has a talk time of eight hours, and that's really important when you want to use [it] for Internet and music. 3G needs to get back up to five-plus hours, something we think we'll see later next year."

More than a month ago, news of other possible iPhone partners in Asia surfaced as Wang Jianzhou, CEO of China Mobile, acknowledged holding talks with Apple about becoming the exclusive carrier in the world's largest potential cell phone market.

Munster wasn't as sanguine about China's chances to land the iPhone next year. "China's a long shot for '08," he said.

Apple's reply to a request for comment was in line with the company's traditional policy. "We will not comment on rumors and speculation," Apple spokeswoman Jennifer Bowcock said Tuesday.

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