We started exploring Japan’s Big Three providers last time with SoftBank Mobile, the smallest of its three giant mobile carriers. Today we will continue up the ladder and look more deeply into its closest rival, au by KDDI.

At roughly the same percentage of the market and influence throughout the country, the two are stuck in a constant battle for second place of the mobile industry.

au by KDDI has the least gimmicky qualities to it. No mascots, no baseball teams or contracts with Hollywood megastars. It gets its user base through old-fashioned affordable plans, a wide range of phones, and reliable service range.

Foundation

Post War Japan Phone Line

Unlike SoftBank’s romantic vision of a idealistic entrepreneur emerging with his small company, au by KDDI’s history is one of faceless corporations mixing, merging, and entangling into the entity that it is today.

The KDDI Corporation founded its beginnings as a communication company in Japan during the early 1950’s as the Kokusai Denshin Denwa Co. (KDD), long before the telecommunications boom of the mid 80′s. It found much success in connecting Japan to the outside world. International phone boxes, television broadcasts to and from the U.S., KDD put a great deal of its resources to healing the war torn Japan with news from other countries.

An early impressive feat came in 1964 when it operated the No. 1 Trans Pacific Cable, the first submarine cable link from Kanagawa to Guam. It eventually moved to Hawaii and mainland America, and its 128 phone lines acted as the main connection between the USA and Japan until it closed in 1990.

The KDD Headquarters finished completion in 1977 and acts as KDDI’s headquarters to this very day.

KDD, DDI, IDO

Kazuo Inamori

The corporation marks 1985 as an important year in its history thanks to the passing of the Implementation of Telecommunications Business Law, which deregulated the telecommunications industry throughout the country. Within two years, the DDI CORPORATION (DDI), owned by Kyocera, and NIPPON IDOU TSUSHIN CORPORATION (IDO), owned by Toyota, all saw their foundations laid.

DDI’s founder and CEO of Kyocera at the time, Kazuo Inamori, pictured above, currently heads the KDDI Corporation as well as being the chairman of Japan Airlines, which he rescued from bankruptcy from 2010-2012. His Amoeba Management system is still implemented in both Kyocera and KDDI today.

1986-1988 saw the opening of regional networks all across Japan with the CELLULAR company, and these would provide the basis for the future of au’s network. Tokyo Telecommunication Network Co., Inc. (TTNet) got off the ground in 1986 followed by the KANSAI CELLULAR TELEPHONE COMPANY, in the Osaka region, and CELLULAR spread to all other regions in Japan, winding up in the northern island of Hokkaido in July 1988 and southern archipelago of Okinawa in 1991.

IDO was the first of the future KDDI companies to launch a cellphone in 1988, the Handy Phone Service.

DDI finished it nationwide service in 1992, eventually landing it on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

KDDI Corporation

KDDI Merger

The corporate tendencies began to take over in 1998. KDD merged with a company called Tellway. IDO and CELLULAR worked together in 1999 to complete the cdmaOne, a seamless nationwide network which proved to be the most reliable at the time.

Finally, in 2000, the KDD, DDI, and IDO joined under one roof at the KDD headquarters in Shinjuku, Tokyo under the KDDI company name. Whew…

The final piece of this long puzzle finally found its way into the fray the following year when all the branches of the CELLULAR company united as the au Corporation and merged with KDDI. The acquisition brought along the cdmaOne nationwide network and was rebranded au by KDDI.

Recent Developments

au iphone

au by KDDI still trucks along at an even pace, being the middle man of the Japanese telecommunications industry. It has the second largest network in the country, and it sees the second largest rate of growth as well.

Subscribers spiked in 2011 when SoftBank lost its exclusivity deal with Apple, and au provided its customers with the iPhone 4s for the first time. To supplement and eventually overtake the CDMA2000 WIN, au launched the “au 4G LTE” network in September of last year

iida INFOBAR

INFOBAR logo

au is the only major provider of the three to still design and manufacture its own line of phones, the INFOBAR.

au teamed up with industrial and web designer Naoto Fukusawa to design a phone with cutting edge ideas and a unique presentation. In 2003, the INFOBAR launched with great success thanks to an expertly crafted iconic look featuring “tiled” number panels. Fukusawa continued his success with au into 2007 with the INFOBAR 2.

The success of these two phones led au to create its own branding called “iida” meaning “it’s good” in Japanese

INFOBAR

By 2010, with cellphones rapidly vanishing in the face of smartphones, au one again teamed up with Fukusawa to bring touchscreen and Android to the INFOBAR line, this time through the INFOBAR A01.

The result was a huge success, the INFOBAR Ao1 hit the market just before au had announced the iPhone 4s, making it was the most popular product at au for a few months at least. For what it’s worth, the A01 offers a version of Android not found in any other phone. It has totally unique layout of “tiles” which can be arranged anyway seen fit.

iida a01

Its design remains exclusive to the iida and INFOBAR name solely for au cusomters, so it’s unlikely you’ll ever see the light of day outside of Japan. It’s not the most efficient layout on the market, but you’ll never experience anything like it before should you get the chance.

The icing on the cake comes from the three android buttons retaining the “tiled” style of the original INFOBAR.

Another 4G LTE INFOBAR, the A02, was released just this year, but the success seems rather limited with the iPhone, HTC One, and other options available. It does have a similar interface, but has cast aside its iconic buttons for a more generic smartphone look, negating all of its charm.

LISMO

LISMO

As mentioned before, au does not have a generally well known mascot like SoftBank’s Otoosan or NTT DoCoMo’s mushroom headed Docomodake. This is almost unheard of in Japan, where every major company has some cute mascot tied to its name.

The closest to what au can call its mascot is LISMO-kun, a faceless silhouette of a squirrel who can be found in the logo of KDDI’s streaming music service, LISMO.

Turning back to au’s corporate roots, the Tokyo Telecommunication Network Co., Inc. (TTNet) went through its own mergers over the years and eventually formed POWEREDCOM Inc, which of course KDDI swallowed up in 2006. au by KDDI turned the branding into the LISTENING MOBILE SERVICE, or LISMO for short.

Most Android and cdma2000 WIN phones sold through au come equipped with the service, and it further expanded in 2008 with LISMO VIDEO. Today, it remains one of the most popular ways to stream news, music, and Japanese television in Japan.

Orange

au box

T-Mobile is magenta. Verizon is red. au stands out clearly on the streets of Japan thanks to its flashy bright orange signs, which are impossible to miss from three blocks away.

SoftBank and DoCoMo have established themselves as “white” companies, with DoCoMo going for only blotches of pink here and there. au makes the best out of its lack of other advertising gimmicks by making its stores the same color as something you are not supposed to shoot in the woods.

On occasion, especially with the LISMO service, a shade of light green makes its way into the au branding, making one of the most interesting clash of colors that, beyond all logic, somehow works.

Available Phones

au winter lineup

Alongside the iPhone, au offers a much wider variety of Android phones than its rival SoftBank does.

Latest 4G Smartphones:

  • Sony Xperia Z1
  • Sony Xperia UL
  • Sony Xperia VL
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 3
  • Sharp Aquos Phone Serie SHL22
  • Sharp Aquos Phone Serie SHL21
  • HTC J One
  • HTC J Butterfly
  • Kyocera Urbano
  • Kyocera Digno S

Other 4G Options:

  • iida INFOBAR A02
  • Fujitsu Arrows ef
  • LG Optimus G
  • Pantech VEGA

Quality Cell Phone Options:

  • Pantech PT003
  • Kyocera K011
  • Kyocera Kantan Keitai (Easy Phone)

Two down and one more to go. Check us out next time when we take a look at NTT DoCoMo.