Here’s How SoftBank Got an Exclusive iPhone Deal From Steve Jobs

Masayoshi Son — the founder, CEO, and chairman of  SoftBank — recently revealed to journalist Charlie Rose how he was able to secure exclusive distribution rights for Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone when the device made its debut in Japan. Although SoftBank is only the country’s third-largest carrier, Apple awarded the company an exclusive iPhone distribution deal in 2008. Japan’s second-largest carrier, KDDI, didn’t acquire the iPhone until 2011, and the country’s largest carrier, NTT DoCoMo (NYSE:DCM), only began offering the iPhone in September.

According to Son, he requested a meeting with Apple CEO Steve Jobs about two years before the iPhone launched, in 2007. The SoftBank CEO noted that he is an admirer of Jobs and compared the legendary co-founder of Apple to Leonardo da Vinci, due to Jobs’s ability to marry art and technology.

“I brought my little drawing of an iPod with mobile capabilities and I gave him my drawing, and Steve says, ‘Masa, don’t give me your drawing. I have my own,’” recalled the SoftBank CEO as he laughed. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t need to give you my dirty paper, but once you have your own product, give me for Japan.’ And he said, ‘Masa, you are crazy. We have not talked to anybody, but you came to see me as the first guy — I give to you.’”

Although Son tried to get Jobs to put his promise in writing, the Softbank chief executive recalled that Jobs refused on the grounds that the Japanese entrepreneur didn’t even own a cell phone carrier yet. Son noted that this was before he acquired Vodafone Japan.

Despite the lack of a formal agreement, Jobs stayed true to his word and made Softbank the first official iPhone carrier in Japan in 2008. “I said, ‘Look Steve, you promised me, gave me your word,’” Son told Rose. “I bring a carrier for Japan.”

According to recent data from market research firm Kantar Worldpanel, Apple took a 68.7 percent share of total smartphone sales in Japan for the three-month period ending in December. Similarly, the February rankings from BCN, Japan’s leading mobile sales tracking company, showed that various versions of the iPhone 5S accounted for the top six spots on a list of the top-selling smartphones in Japan.

Although the iPhone is unquestionably popular in Japan today, it seemed an unlikely market for the iPhone in 2007. However, Son noted that he knew that Japanese consumers would want the iPhone because of the superior user experience that the device offered.

“Before iPhone, most of the handsets was just the crappy, handmade software without an operating system,” Son said to Rose. “[The iPhone] is not a mobile phone — it’s an Internet machine.”

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