Softbank this week introduced its summer smartphone lineup for Japan and included a device -- Sharp's Pantone 5 -- that includes a Geiger counter to track radiation.
Aside from the novelty of the first smartphone that can track radiation, Softbank's move highlights how it knows its local market well and may tap into a global theme at some point. Softbank is among the leading wireless players in Japan.
The backdrop for Softbank's Pantone 5 is obvious. In March 2011, Japan was hit with a tsunami and earthquakes that led to a nuclear meltdown. Since the disaster, there has been widespread distrust about nuclear power, the Japanese government's reaction to the event and disclosure to citizens. Simply put, worries about radiation in Japan will persist for years.
Softbank Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son said at a press conference this week that customers had been asking him for a radiation detector in a smartphone. After all, Geiger counters are in short supply and bulky when they are available. Building radiation detection in a phone could calm fears, said Son.
Son has said that the Japan disaster made him re-evaluate his company's role. In his letter to investors, Son said "I realized that information is itself a lifeline, and that, in that sense, we at Softbank have an important social responsibility to fulfill."
At the company's presentation, Son said that the Pantone 5 is a key product because "a lot of people feel insecure, especially mothers with little kids."
Specifically, Softbank started to study embedding radiation detection into a smartphone shortly after the earthquakes hit. Son, however, couldn't proclaim whether Softbank could deliver until he did more homework. In any case, it was clear that the Japanese market would be concerned about radiation and the "invisible scariness" for the foreseeable future.
"We couldn't easily respond because [radiation detection] was difficult," said Son. "We didn't want to disappoint if we couldn't make it happen."
Softbank worked with Sharp, which makes the Pantone phones, to develop a chipset to detect radiative material, specifically cesium. Sharp created an exclusive sensor to measure radioactivity and put it into the phone, which includes two diodes, explained Son.
The sensors include four modules, structured one by one. Son indicated that it these modules can't be mass-produced. Each module measures cesium 137, which is a common radioisotope.
Son's demo highlighted a few key features. Among the notable radiation detection elements:
The sensor starts with one click. Softbank had one button added just for radiation detection.
Results are then tested and listed on a map. "If kids are coming into schools, mothers will be able to report radiation levels on a map," said Son.
The interface is straightforward and resemble your average Web map.
Pantone 5 is a smaller device and designed to be "comfortable to be held by a woman with one hand," said Son.
"This is a uniquely Softbank product. It was developed because there were a lot of people who suffered," he said.
Will the Pantone 5 sell?
Clearly, Softbank is going for mothers worried about radiation and its effect on children. Analysts have indicated that the Pantone 5 could fill a niche.
In a research report, Macquarie analyst Nathan Ramler said: "One of the main new smartphones unveiled was the popular Pantone (from Sharp), which in addition to the usual wide range of global and domestic features (e.g. waterproof, mobile wallet, TV) has a Geiger counter -- the first phone in the world to do so. This follows widespread concern after the March 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster, and it has been designed to be simple to use with a single push of a dedicated button on the front of the device."
However, Softbank's business continues to ride with the success of the iPhone 4. The company has coverage issues and needs to upgrade its infrastructure, said analysts such as Deutsche Bank analyst Yoshio Ando. If rivals such as DoCoMo offer the iPhone, Softbank could suffer.
Given that competitive reality, Softbank's Pantone 5 could offer differentiation from the wireless pack in Japan.
It remains to be seen whether Softbank's Geiger counter phone presages a global movement. Radiation detection could theoretically become a feature outside of Japan. Would Russians be interested in a device? What about South Korea residents who could be worried about their northern neighbor? How about Americans who fret about smartphone radiation along with a bevy of other items? What's novel for Softbank in its market could become a global feature in smartphones.