As Crimson Red model hits stores, Rakuten Mini developers share backstory of ground-breaking phone

In the three months since its release, Rakuten Mobile’s first original device, the Rakuten Mini, has made big waves for a small phone.

Measuring just 10.6cm by 5.3cm and weighing 79 grams, the phone was designed for people who want the convenience of a powerful handset — complete with FeliCa touchless payment capability, facial recognition, high-res 16MP camera and more — but with the added benefit of being able to easily slip it into a small pocket or handbag.

Media in Japan and around the world have praised the phone for its originality and compactness and interest in the device continues to grow with the recent release of a “Crimson Red” version to complement the existing “Night Black” and “Cool White” variants.

To get the backstory on the innovative phone’s development, Rakuten Today sat down with two of the project team’s key members: Tadashi Tsukamoto, from the Device Engineering & Operations Department, and Tomoya Tanaka, from the Device Strategy Department.

Tell us about your roles.

Tsukamoto: I oversee technical development of devices like smartphones. There was only me in the department when the development of the Rakuten Mini started, and, we scaled up the team gradually. We currently have around 30 members in-house.

Tanaka: I’m from the department in charge of device business strategy. Initially, our main role was to make sales strategies to purchase and sell terminals from other manufacturers, but as we’re now making original devices, we’re overseeing the commercialization strategy on the sales and marketing side as well.

How did you come to develop the Rakuten Mini?

Tsukamoto: I joined Rakuten in December 2018. Actually, Tareq Amin (CTO, Rakuten Mobile) explained during the job interview that he wanted to make a device unlike any other, something unique to Rakuten. I got to work immediately. The idea that it would be palm-sized, 4 inches or less, was already in place from the initial stage, and we immediately decided the rough specifications and kicked off the project. That was also when we got Tanaka and other members involved.

Tadashi Tsukamoto (second from right) with Device Engineering & Operations Department teammates in Tokyo.
Tadashi Tsukamoto (second from right) with Device Engineering & Operations Department teammates in Tokyo.

Tanaka: The planned device was just so small. It was like, “What is this?!” I was thinking it would have a 50-50 chance of succeeding when I joined the project. But later, when we started lining up the prototype alongside other phones, and doing market research, we realized there was a real need for small-sized devices. From that point on, our sales team proceeded with confidence.

What is behind the idea of Rakuten Mobile developing its own phone?

Tsukamoto: The major difference from other manufacturers is that we were approaching the development with a clear purpose: to create a phone that would “make it easy to use Rakuten Group services.” The Rakuten Mini plays the role of a “window” into various Rakuten services, with that tiny phone containing various functions such as the Rakuten official app and FeliCa. This is what makes it unique.

Tanaka: For Rakuten Mobile, there were various strategies, one of which was for the SIM card to be a built-in eSIM. Rakuten Mobile’s vision was to allow customers to choose their network subscription plan and smartphone and then get started with a simple, easy onboarding process. While there are some eSIM support devices on sale in Japan, the market is still relatively small. Rakuten Mobile decided that the “Rakuten Mini” would be eSIM-only – without a physical SIM card slot – to provide a true eSIM experience to customers, which we believe will help popularize the format. Because Rakuten Mobile is creating its own original devices, it can get to market fast with new technology and solutions – a key part of our strategy with the Mini.

In manufacturing and sales, were there any points you were particular about, or that caused difficulties?

Tsukamoto: For the phone to be accepted in Japan, it was essential for it to have FeliCa technology for touchless payments. And it had to be palm-sized. That was a big challenge for us. We actually worked together closely with the device manufacture, and proceeded with a separate schedule for FeliCa implementation. It took a long time and the overall development schedule was so tight, but it was very satisfying to achieve. I’m grateful to the manufacturer who worked with us on the development.

Tanaka: As it was our first product, there were so many things to consider — our sales plans, user interface, pre-installed apps, target customers, use cases and so on. Creating that entire worldview and concept from scratch, and shaping it into messaging for users — with so much to do on a very tight schedule, we had no time to spare.

Tomoya Tanaka (top right) and his team, show off their Rakuten Mini devices.
Tomoya Tanaka (top right) and his team, show off their Rakuten Mini devices.

How has the response been since release?

Tsukamoto: Thankfully, we’ve had a great response from our customers. Actually, from the moment I first picked up the prototype during the manufacturing process, I had a feeling it would work out. I made it clear within the company that it would sell, but there was some anxiety until the sales actually started in the market. But since we released it, the results have exceeded our expectations.

Tanaka: Currently, it is one of the best-selling devices at Rakuten Mobile. Also, attention from the media has been higher than we expected. It was great that we were able to show the world that we could create such an amazing phone. Since we released it, praise has also increased online for Rakuten Mobile as a whole.

What are your plans for future development?

Tsukamoto: For Rakuten Mini, the first priority is quality assurance and after-sales service. Beyond that, we’re working on concepts for a new product. We really want to keep to the idea of creating something that is unique to Rakuten Mobile and that capitalizes on our strengths.

Tanaka: I’d like to continue to focus on quality in our products, while also going after further competitor differentiation and ensuring we deliver customer satisfaction. For example, I think we can develop functions that surprise customers and defy expectations, especially focused on children, women and seniors.

Media in Japan and around the world have praised the Rakuten Mini for its originality and compactness.
Media in Japan and around the world have praised the Rakuten Mini for its originality and compactness.

If you’d like to learn more about the Rakuten Mini, now available in Japan in Night Black, Cool White or Crimson Red, check out the Rakuten Mobile website (in Japanese.) The little device packs a big punch, and seems sure to be the harbinger of many more innovative creations from the Rakuten Mobile team.

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