Vodafone Happy Talk?
Vodafone Happy Talk?

Vodafone Happy Talk?

Vodafone Happy Talk?

Wireless Watchers will have noted that it’s changing-of-the-guard season in Japan, with NTT DoCoMo’s Keiji Tachikawa about to move on just as the company enters a self-described “paradigm shift.” We believe we know what his successor, Executive Vice President Shiro Tsuda, will be up to — mainly because DoCoMo strives at every opportunity these days to tell one and allit’s not a carrier any more, but rather a budding e-commerce service platform provider. More intriguing, however, are the senior staff developments at Vodafone’s struggling Japan opco, Vodafone KK (struggling, that is, through a device dry spell that won’t see any significant new 3G models out until the fall). Big V has just shipped over a new COO, David Jones, who has arrived, we guess, with a briefcase full of spring-cleaning items. Certainly the appointment of a new chief operating officer hints at a change of gear for the company. Is this a push to boost the lagging 3G provider from neutral to at least first gear?

Of course, while it remains speculation, we really do wonder what new management will be able to do with Vodafone KK if, as it seems, the companyis unable to field any major new 3G handsets or services before October.

Further, Japan’s other two carriers’ willingness to provide regular press briefings and DoCoMo’s willingness to meet the media full-on in monthly Q&A sessions mean that at least people are exposed to a series of key messagesfrom Big V competitors. In contrast, Vodafone seems to have disappeared offthe media radar screen. While there have been 31 Japanese and 30 Englishpress releases posted on their site so far in 2004, only two had anynotable 3G connection: the launch of the 3G data card and the announcementof the V801SH 3G megapixel handset (which is still not in the shops).

Let’s hypothesize that the primary objective of Vodafone’s acquisition ofJ-Phone was to get access to Japanese handset makers’ cool technology andthe J-Phone human capital and brains that took on DoCoMo and KDDI duringthe mobile Internet’s initial 2G era. Some of these aims have translatedinto Vodafone’s global ecosystem (handsets are indeed forthcoming, MMS mailis indeed available across markets) – but not all have and the fact thatVodafone K.K. is performing increasingly poorly compared to its domesticrivals might just have come to the attention of senior management backhome.

Beyond a cold assessment of the balance sheet, does anyone in London reallycare? Sure there have been net adds and subscriber growth, but withrevenues down we can’t help thinking the arrival of a COO may just mean thechop is coming for more than just a few staff.

Certainly Jones is too busy to talk to the media (Vodafone told us so).

But if Mr. Jones is just a routine appointment and he has been expresslyflown in just to boost the local boardroom, there are a number of things hecould take a peak at.

The first is data flat-rate pricing, partially conceded to by DoCoMofollowing KDDI’s lead at the end of last year. What kicked us into today’sViewpoint was yet another ad hoc bundle of freebies and cheapo callservices announced by Vodafone — but no actual flat-rate plan to match therivals.

This week Vodafone announced “Happy Time 2” allowing 30 minutes of freechat on Saturdays, Sundays, and national holidays after subscribers havetalked the first 5 minutes. Nice as far as it goes, but unlikely to permitthe No. 3 carrier to seize any sort of strategic 3G initiative.

WWJ is also still waiting to find out what Big V’s position on contactlesscard IC technology and FeliCa is; again, both rivals appear to have adecisive lead (see our earlier coverage on FeliCa). We fear no news is badnews and the fact that there are not even hints from Vodafone on mobileepayments might mean:

  1. Vodafone doesn’t care about only-in-Japan epayment services becauseit’s concentrating on the group’s European businesses (which would be grimnews for Vodafone Japan)
  2. Vodafone doesn’t care because it simply really doesn’t care (it’s gotwhat it wanted and Vodafone Japan is now a lower-order priority in view ofBig V’s booming businesses elsewhere – which would also be a strategicdisaster for Vodafone Japan)
  3. Both of the above, or
  4. None of the above – in which case what the heck are they up to?

Of course, we’d love to be wrong about all the above and it would be reallycool if Vodafone comes out swinging with a series of ultracool 3G celliesboasting some innovative and useful new features and services to competewith DoCoMo, FeliCa, etc.

In the mean time it doesn’t look so much like the Ides of March as thebloodstained Axes of April that might be swinging away sooner rather than later.

— The Editors