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Knocking Amazon Strategy, Rakuten CEO Bets on Messaging

Amazon.com has raised eyebrows by pursuing a strategy of launching smartphones, tablets and TV hardware to try to boost its shopping and video content.

Hiroshi Mikitani, CEO of Japan-based Rakuten, Amazon’s e-commerce rival in Asia and elsewhere, thinks that strategy is misguided.

In an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the Allen & Co. technology and media conference last week, the 49-year-old Mr. Mikitani, who goes by the name “Mickey,” said he subscribes to the notion that mobile hardware will become commoditized, so competing against the likes of Apple and Samsung isn’t worth it.

Instead, he is sticking with software, banking on Rakuten’s newly acquired messaging app Viber to be the central mechanism for expanding the company’s core services—namely, online shopping—outside of Japan and becoming a more global player in commerce, like Amazon.

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The elephant in Mr. Mikitani’s room is Alibaba, the China-based Internet giant that has designs to expand well beyond China, perhaps even to Japan. Given his willingness to talk about all other topics, it was surprising that Mr. Mikitani declined to comment on Alibaba, whose IPO is scheduled for later this year. He also said he had “no plans” to re-enter China to challenge Alibaba on its home turf. Rakuten pulled out of a joint venture with China-based Web-search firm Baidu in 2012.

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The elephant in Mr. Mikitani’s room is Alibaba, the China-based Internet giant that has designs to expand well beyond China, perhaps even to Japan.