Softbank - Japan's third-largest mobile phone operator - yesterday announced that it was set to sell Apple's iPhone in Japan later this year.

Softbank's online announcement said: "Softbank Mobile today announced it has signed an agreement with Apple to bring the iPhone to Japan later this year."

Softbank, which claims a customer base in excess of 18 million, is third in the lucrative Japanese mobile phone service market; NTT DoCoMo leads with more than half of the country's mobile subscribers and KDDI takes second place.

But while Softbank is the first Japanese carrier to lay claim to the iPhone, others - notably DoCoMo - have also reportedly been in negotiations with Apple. Last December, for example, news reports claimed that DoCoMo and Softbank had both been talking with Apple, while two weeks ago other accounts out of Korea pegged DoCoMo as having the inside track.

Softbank did not say whether it has an exclusive agreement with Apple in Japan; nor did it disclose financial terms.

The Japanese carrier's network is predominantly 3G-based - its 3G subscribers outnumber those using a slower data network by more then 4 to 1 - and the Japanese market is an especially important one to Apple.

Apple stacked up $424m in sales in Japan during the most recently-reported quarter, and Japan was the only Apple market to show a revenue increase over the previous quarter.

In the past four weeks, several countries have been claimed by multiple carriers. The first to break with Apple's business model - which since June 2007 has required mobile providers to share subscriber revenues with Apple - were Vodafone and Telecom Italia, both which said they would sell the iPhone in Italy in 2008.

Since then, non-exclusive deals have been made with carriers serving Austria, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, India and Portugal.

Also yesterday, Telefonica SA said it would sell the iPhone in Spain. In a statement just three words longer than Softbank's, Spain's largest mobile carrier said: "Telefonica has signed an agreement with Apple to sell iPhone in Spain. The iPhone will be launched later this year."

The Softbank and Telefonica announcements come just five days before the June 9 opening of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), where CEO Steve Jobs will take the stage to deliver the keynote address. Jobs is expected to launch a new 3G-based iPhone during the keynote.

Also set to play a prominent part at WWDC will be iPhone 2.0, the firmware upgrade unveiled in March that will let iPhone users add third-party applications to their devices, and allow enterprises to sync corporate iPhones with Microsoft Exchange email and scheduling servers.

"That will be the most interesting thing next week," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with JupiterResearch. "The new iPhone architecture will transform the iPhone into an interesting device, whether you make calls on it or don't."

Apple's iPhone will be available in more than 50 countries by the end of the year. Currently, the iPhone is available only here in the UK, as well as the US, France, Germany and Austria.

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