Softbank Corp. and Apple Computer Inc. are planning to develop mobile phones equipped with Apple’s popular iPod music players, sources said Saturday.

Softbank and Apple are expected to launch third-generation cell phones with iPod functions next year, the sources said. The phones will be capable of downloading songs from Apple’s iTunes Music Store on the Internet if they are connected to personal computers.

The companies also plan to develop a handset that can download iTunes using Softbank’s mobile telecommunications network, the sources said.

Softbank entered the mobile phone business in April with its acquisition of the Japanese unit of British mobile phone giant Vodafone. The acquired firm, Vodafone K.K., is a distant third in the domestic market for mobile phone services.

By tapping into Apple’s strong brand name, Softbank is seeking to catch up with NTT DoCoMo Inc. and KDDI Corp., the sources said.

KDDI’s au mobile phone service has taken the lead in music downloads on its phones. It is boosting its number of subscribers, particularly among young people, due to the popularity of this service.

NTT DoCoMo plans to introduce new cell phones that can download music this summer.

The three operators are beefing up sales efforts ahead of November’s introduction of the “portability service” that will allow subscribers to switch mobile phone operators without changing phone numbers.

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