On December 8, 2020, Rakuten Mobile announced two new products in its lineup of original devices: the Rakuten Hand, a slim smartphone perfect for one-handed use and the Rakuten WiFi Pocket, Rakuten Mobile’s first original Wi-Fi router.
We spoke with the team overseeing the planning and development of these devices: Masashi Onogi, Hajime Seki, Kosuke Yajima and Kazuyuki Sato of Rakuten Mobile’s Device Strategy Department, along with Tadashi Tsukamoto and Hiroyuki Ito of the Device Platforms Department. In part one, we learn about Rakuten Mobile’s strategy behind creating its own original devices, as well as take a closer look at the Rakuten Mini and the Rakuten Hand.
Why Rakuten Mobile is building its own devices
What does Rakuten Mobile aim to accomplish by developing its own original devices?
Tsukamoto: We want to provide our customers with complete freedom in choosing devices and services. That’s why we are working to create affordable devices with features such as eSIM compatibility. Rakuten Mobile’s smartphones — the Rakuten Mini, Rakuten Hand and Rakuten BIG for example — are all eSIM-compatible and free of SIM lock restrictions.
The devices also provide an important entry point for the Rakuten Group’s wide spectrum of services. Through these smartphones, users can enjoy music and video content, make electronic payments and use other Rakuten apps. We’re hoping it will be an opportunity for more users to get to know Rakuten’s services.
Additionally, we also made sure that all three devices feature Osaifu-Keitai®, while the Rakuten BIG is also waterproof — something Japanese consumers find particularly important.
The mission: A smartphone never seen before — something only Rakuten Mobile could build
What sparked the development of the Rakuten Mini?
Tsukamoto: We developed the Rakuten Mini soon after I joined the company. During my recruitment interview, (Rakuten Mobile CTO) Tareq Amin won me over, inviting me to come and “develop a smartphone no one’s ever seen before — something only Rakuten could build,” and I got started on the project as soon as I joined. We decided from the very beginning that we wanted to create a device that was four inches or smaller, and got right to work drawing up the designs.
Tsukamoto: Additionally, in order to be a truly Japanese device, we needed to include Osaifu-Keitai® functionality as well as Mobile FeliCa e-money compatibility. And we needed to do all of this in a palm-sized device. That was a significant challenge for us.
To integrate Mobile FeliCa, we worked on a tight schedule with the manufacturer, in parallel with the rest of the development, for it all to come together at the final stage. It was a Herculean task that took a lot of time, but it was worth it.
The Rakuten Hand: A lightweight device that fits right in your hand
What inspired the Rakuten Hand?
Tsukamoto: We planned the Rakuten Hand as a follow-up to the Rakuten Mini. We wanted to sell a device that fit the size gap between the Rakuten Mini and the Rakuten BIG. The Rakuten Hand uses a 5.1-inch OLED display that is just 63mm across. We came up with all sorts of mockups to check the fit in the hand, how light it felt and all sorts of trial and error to eventually come up with this width.
Tsukamoto: One feature of the Rakuten Hand’s design is the curved sides. We all conducted tests and went through endless discussions trying to decide whether to make the edges round or instead go for a flatter design with sharper edges. We also decided on plastic for the back of the phone. Using glass makes the phone more beautiful and gives it a premium feel, but it also makes the whole unit heavier, in addition to affecting the price, so we settled on plastic in the end.
Ito: The main camera features a 48-megapixel wide angle camera, with a second depth-sensing camera to allow for background bokeh on photos. 48-megapixel cameras are more often found on high-end smartphones — it’s uncommon to find a device at this price point that features one. We fine-tuned the camera to work well for night shots and a wide range of photographic scenarios.
Tsukamoto: Of course, just like the Rakuten BIG, the Rakuten Hand features 4×4 MIMO*, meaning the internet will feel just as fast and responsive.
Yajima: Before we released these to customers, we had employees from around the company test the phones, separately from our regular tests. They gave us feedback from a customer’s perspective that allowed us to design a more user-friendly UI.
You can also save by purchasing the Rakuten Hand bundled with accessories.
*Editor’s Note: 4×4 MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) employs four antennas each simultaneously for sending and receiving wireless signals.