SoftBank ad­ding tech­nol­ogy am­bi­tions, with ARM, ro­bot­ics

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

Photo ops of SoftBank Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Masayoshi Son some­times show him chat­ting hap­pily with his com­pany’s hu­manoid ro­bot, the child­like Pep­per, or grin­ning as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump heaps praise on him for cre­at­ing Amer­i­can jobs. It’s clear Son, Ja­pan’s rich­est per­son, stands out in Ja­pan Inc. He is no “salary­man” pres­i­dent, those typ­i­cal ex­ec­u­tives who rise grad­u­ally and qui­etly through the ranks, Ja­pan-style, in a cor­po­rate cul­ture that frowns upon mav­er­icks and tends to squelch self-made ven­tures.

Since found­ing SoftBank in 1981, Son, a Ja­panese of Korean an­ces­try who grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, has won both crit­i­cism and ac­co­lades as a dar­ing in­vestor who has gath­ered part­ners in di­verse tech­nol­ogy sec­tors from around the world. Some­times those ad­ven­tures cost him. But of­ten, they have paid off. SoftBank Group Corp. re­ported Mon­day a 98 per­cent drop in its April-June profit at 5.5 bil­lion yen ($50 mil­lion) on losses stem­ming from in­vest­ments in the Chi­nese e-com­merce com­pany Alibaba.

Quar­terly sales rose 3 per­cent to 2.19 tril­lion yen ($20 bil­lion), while the Toky­obased com­pany’s op­er­at­ing profit, which high­lights core op­er­a­tions, logged a 50 per­cent in­crease year-on-year as its US mo­bile car­rier Sprint, pre­vi­ously a drain on the bot­tom line, boosted prof­itabil­ity. The first tele­coms car­rier to of­fer the iPhone in Ja­pan, SoftBank has bought Bri­tish semi­con­duc­tor com­pany ARM. Its ac­qui­si­tion of US ro­bot­ics pioneer Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics is await­ing reg­u­la­tory ap­proval.

Re­cently, it has an­nounced it will in­vest in En­cored, a US com­pany spe­cial­iz­ing in IoT tech­nol­ogy in the en­ergy sec­tor. Son be­lieves ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence com­bined with data gath­ered by bil­lions of sen­sors will ben­e­fit peo­ple more than the 19th Cen­tury In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion, help­ing to treat can­cer, de­liver ac­ci­dent-free driv­ing and grow safer food. Son also has money to in­vest: a pri­vate fund he set up last year for global in­vest­ments in the tech­nol­ogy sec­tor, called the Vi­sion Fund, with the po­ten­tial to grow to as much as $100 bil­lion.

Trump has praised him for promis­ing to in­vest $50 bil­lion in US star­tups to cre­ate 50,000 jobs. Son stressed at a news con­fer­ence Mon­day that his com­pany was nei­ther an old-style Ja­panese “za­ibatsu,” a busi­ness con­glom­er­ate with roots dat­ing to the 19th cen­tury Meiji Era, nor a ven­ture cap­i­tal out­fit pur­su­ing a quick pay­back. SoftBank tries to in­flu­ence strat­egy in the busi­nesses it in­vests in, with­out ex­ert­ing out­right con­trol or over­haul­ing their man­age­ment, he said, in­stead col­lab­o­rat­ing on a shared vi­sion of what he called the “in­for­ma­tion revo­lu­tion.”

“We don’t try to stamp our color on our group com­pa­nies,” he said. “We feel a brand should be free.” Son’s spec­tac­u­lar rags-to-riches story, mak­ing one big ac­qui­si­tion af­ter an­other in­clud­ing an ap­prox­i­mately 40 per­cent stake in Ya­hoo in the 1990s, has left many skep­ti­cal over what ap­pears to be a risky way to run a busi­ness, said Sa­toru Kikuchi, a se­nior an­a­lyst at SMBC Nikko Se­cu­ri­ties Co. But as he added stakes in one tech­nol­ogy pow­er­house af­ter the other, names like Mi­crosoft Corp., Novell, Cisco Sys­tems, Ziff-Davis and Comdex, Son has shifted gears when nec­es­sary, ad­just­ing his port­fo­lio and of­ten emerg­ing a win­ner and win­ning trust from key in­vestors, Kikuchi said.

“His goal is to be­come the No. 1 com­pany in the world through ex­pand­ing in the tech­nol­ogy area,” he said. “He has the abil­ity to gather money and in­for­ma­tion. He can act, and he can make de­ci­sions.” In a re­cent, nearly three-hour pre­sen­ta­tion in Tokyo, Son pre­sented some of the ven­tures he is part­ner­ing with, in­clud­ing OneWeb, whose founder and chair­man Greg Wyler wants to use satel­lites in­stead of un­der­ground ca­bles to pro­vide af­ford­able in­ter­net ac­cess for ev­ery­one. He showed off Spot, a four-legged ro­bot that can climb steps and dance.

ARM’s chips are found in nearly all smart­phones and wear­ables, he noted. Data gath­ered from such om­nipresent sen­sors pro­vide far more com­pre­hen­sive data than what can be gath­ered through mo­bile phones or com­put­ers, Son said. “Those who rule chips will rule the en­tire world. Those who rule data will rule the en­tire world.” Son said. “That’s what peo­ple of the fu­ture will say.” SoftBank also runs a so­lar power busi­ness, which Son plunged into with fer­vor af­ter the 2011 Fukushima nu­clear dis­as­ter in north­east­ern Ja­pan. His busi­ness em­pire also in­cludes fi­nan­cial-tech­nol­ogy, ride-book­ing ser­vices and a base­ball team, the Softbank Hawks.

Takenobu Miki, who worked closely with Son in the late 1990s and early 2000s, says Son ex­cels in bring­ing to­gether part­ners whom he thinks will be in­stru­men­tal in the fu­ture. Big Ja­panese com­pa­nies of­ten hoard re­sources like money, fa­cil­i­ties and em­ploy­ees. Son doesn’t, says Miki, who now has his own busi­ness, Ja­pan Flag­ship Project Co., which pro­vides con­sult­ing and project man­age­ment, among other ser­vices. He says those who crit­i­cize Son for chas­ing quick bucks mis­judge him. “What you don’t want is an un­prof­itable com­pany,” said Miki. “And he has a pas­sion, a dream.”—AP

TOKYO: In this photo, SoftBank Group Corp. Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Masayoshi Son speaks dur­ing a SoftBank World pre­sen­ta­tion in Tokyo.—AP

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