July 4, 2006

Sharp Says Not Fretting BlackBerry’s Japan Debut

TOKYO -- Japanese electronics maker Sharp Corp. unveiled a new smartphone on Tuesday, aiming to cement its leading position in the market ahead of the impending launch of the popular BlackBerry device in Japan.

Canada's Research in Motion said last month that it would bring the BlackBerry to Japan this autumn, potentially breathing new life into Japan's relatively small smartphone market while also causing headaches for entrenched players like Sharp.

Smartphone is a term referring to handsets with computer-like functions such as e-mail.

Sharp said its new phone, called the W-ZERO3 would come equipped with a Microsoft Corp. operating system and 128 megabytes of flash memory. In addition to making calls, users can access the Internet, read e-mails, and work on Microsoft applications such as Word and Excel.

The phone will be sold by mobile carrier Willcom Inc.

"We think our product is the Japanese BlackBerry," said Junko Nakagawa, general manager of Sharp's Product Planning Department, on the sidelines of a press conference. "We don't yet consider it our competitor in the Japanese market."

Smartphones and personal digital assistants (PDA) have not taken off in Japan as they have in the United States because Japanese handsets are already among the most advanced in the world, allowing users to e-mail, download music and surf the Web.

BlackBerries to be sold in Japan will operate on both W-CDMA and GSM/GPRS networks and will be usable around the world for voice and data communications. It will be sold by Japan's top mobile operator, NTT DoCoMo Inc.

But initial expectations are low because the first product is not expected to have an operating system able to write Japanese.

Kanae Maita, chief analyst at Gartner Japan, said Japan's PDA market is nevertheless growing and would likely expand by nearly 50 percent to 370,000 units in 2006, helped in large part by Sharp's W-ZERO3, the popular predecessor to the W-ZERO3that was launched in December.

According to research firm Gartner, Sharp controlled 34.5 percent of Japan's PDA market in 2005, ahead of number-two player Hewlett-Packard Co. with a little under 17 percent.

Sharp said its new phone would go on sale on July 27 for 29,800 yen ($260). It aims to sell 250,000 units of the W-ZEROmodel in the current business year to March 2007.

The president of Willcom, Japan's largest operator of PHS (handyphone system) services, said he was closely watching Blackberry's debut in Japan.

"I think it's an interesting product, though the clientele will be very limited at the initial stage," Yoichiro Yatsurugi said. "But we know that won't be the end of it, and we will keep looking out for their next move."