Attended by more than 100,000 people, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is where the global mobile industry goes to talk about the future. That made it a fitting place for Rakuten CEO Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani to announce the launch of Viber Communities, a new service enabling users of the Rakuten Viber messaging service to create groups with an almost unlimited number of users.

“Our competitors only allow 250, 150, and at most 100,000 people to follow your chat,” Mickey told delegates at the Congress, during a keynote presentation about the new generation of mobile ecosystems. “The biggest difference between our community and our competitors is that basically we are infinite,” he said, pointing out that the new service allows communities to have up to 1 billion followers.

He went on to explain how Viber is being integrated into the global Rakuten ecosystem, as users can now log in to Viber and other Rakuten services using the same global Rakuten ID and password. Viber is one of the strongest messaging services in a number of very populous countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, the Philippines and Vietnam.

A leading exponent of so-called conversational commerce, Rakuten is combining financial services, e-commerce, communications and content into one convenient package for customers. Its ecosystem encompasses fast-growing e-commerce services in North America, Western Europe and Japan, as well as Rakuten Kobo, the digital e-reading service, and Rakuten TV, which is based in Barcelona and serves more than five million users in 12 countries.

In a conference session entitled “Foundations of The Digital Economy,” which also featured the CEOs of Ericsson, McAfee and Red Hat, Mickey outlined his vision to increase the number of people who are participating in the Rakuten ecosystem from 1.2 billion today to two billion by 2020. After highlighting how Rakuten’s diverse services supporting members’ lives in everything from e-commerce to finance to messaging, he continued: “We have been thinking about how we should stay competitive (and) how can we stay as a meaningful service to society. Our conclusion was to become the largest membership company in the world.”

In front of a packed auditorium at Mobile World Congress, Mikitani announced the launch of Viber Communities, a new service enabling users of Rakuten’s Viber messaging service to create groups with an almost unlimited number of users.

In front of a packed auditorium at Mobile World Congress, Mickey announced the launch of Viber Communities, a new service enabling users of Rakuten’s Viber messaging service to create groups with an almost unlimited number of users.

Toward a new experience for Japan’s mobile users

A key platform for the Rakuten ecosystem is mobile phones. In Japan, Rakuten is planning to move into the heart of the mobile industry, as it applies to become a mobile network operator. Building on extensive Japan ecosystem and the expertise it has acquired through its existing virtual operator business, Rakuten is set on challenging the big three in that market. “Now, we have 1.5 million users, we’re number 1 in Japan, and we have around 190 shops,” Mickey said of the virtual operator business, adding that synergy with Rakuten services had been the key to its success. If the application to become a network operator is approved by the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Mickey said Rakuten will revolutionize the industry in Japan. “We have 95 million members in Japan out of a population of 127 million. Our MVNO business has been very successful, and we can outprice our predecessors in a very strong manner.”

The evening before his speech, Mickey had hosted a reception at the Camp Nou, the trophy-laden home of Rakuten’s partner FC Barcelona, one of the world’s top football clubs. Noting Barcelona’s philosophy of being “more than a club,” Mickey promised that Rakuten will be “more than a carrier.”

A vision for a virtual currency: Rakuten Coin

Explaining how Rakuten is building a multifaceted ecosystem spanning e-commerce, financial services, communications and connectivity, Mickey outlined how the company has already registered 95 million IDs in Japan and has issued more than 1 trillion reward points (the equivalent of US$9.1 billion) through the Rakuten Super Points program. Raising the possibility of a future borderless currency, Mickey said: “Imagine if this was converted into cryptocurrency… all these services would be able to use our blockchain-based coin, or cryptocurrency, or points, or whatever you want to call it, and it could be exchanged into fiat currency.”

Displaying a slide labelled “Rakuten Coin,” he explained how Rakuten is already integrating the Rakuten ID and points across multiple services: “Rakuten, Rakuten Kobo, Rakuten Viber, Rakuten TV, Rakuten Viki, also maybe in the future at the FCB Stadium.” With the establishment of the Rakuten Blockchain Lab in 2016, Rakuten is also devoting significant R&D resources to innovative uses of the blockchain technology behind many virtual currencies.

At the keynote venue, delegates made a beeline to pick up Mickey’s latest book Business-Do, which covers the key tenets of his approach to business, including the importance of relationships and global thinking.

The presentation closed with Mickey’s comments on Rakuten’s “Believe in the Future” corporate philosophy: “We started from Japan – very small but with a very big dream.” It’s clear the dream lives on.