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Saving Sprint from being the biggest mobile loser may be the toughest job in tech

Published Mar 7th, 2014 1:39PM EST
Sprint Chairman Masayoshi Son Profile

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SoftBank CEO and Sprint chairman Masayoshi Son really, really does not like to lose. Son’s iconic quote came when he was asked why he would ever want to buy up Sprint and he said that “I am a man, and every man wants to be number one, not number two or number three.” As a new profile in The Wall Street Journal makes clear, Son hasn’t lost any of his desire to win in the United States even as Sprint has consistently remained the wireless world’s biggest loser.

How does Son plan to whip Sprint into shape? Per the Journal’s profile, it seems to start with a lot of yelling. After watching some recent Sprint ads that aired last year, Son reportedly shouted “Are you stupid?” at the execs in the room and suggested that Sprint fire its ad agency. However, the Journal also says that Son is having a much harder time getting Sprint up to speed than he’s ever had with other carriers he’s acquired. The Journal’s sources say that “Son has been frustrated by what he sees as the slow pace of change at the wireless carrier” since its acquisition, which isn’t too surprising given that Sprint has been a mess for years.

In case you need a recap, Sprint really crippled itself for the long-term by making two catastrophically bad decisions last decade: It acquired Nextel and it chose WiMAX over LTE as its 4G technology. The Nextel acquisition was a complete debacle almost from the start as poor interoperabilty between Nextel’s iDEN and Sprint’s own CDMA-based network cost the carrier millions of subscribers. The WiMAX decision, meanwhile, left Sprint as the only major carrier to adopt the technology which made it hard to attract premiere handsets from manufacturers who didn’t want to have to make both an LTE version and a WiMAX version of their flagship phones. The company eventually dropped WiMAX and decided to make a very costly investment in LTE long after its rivals had their own LTE networks up and running.

This double-whammy left Sprint in a very distant third place behind Verizon and AT&T and the Journal says that Son sees his biggest short-term goal as getting rid of the “loser” mentality that he thinks has led to complacency. But despite this determination, we’ve seen very little evidence lately that Sprint is on the cusp of winning anything other than more awards for America’s slowest 4G network.

Brad Reed
Brad Reed Staff Writer

Brad Reed has written about technology for over eight years at and Network World. Prior to that, he wrote freelance stories for political publications such as AlterNet and the American Prospect. He has a Master's Degree in Business and Economics Journalism from Boston University.