May, 16 2008

To say people are curious regarding what will be the first Android enabled handset – which many speculate will be the HTC Dream – would be the understatement of the year. Put perhaps a more pressing question for Android enthusiasts is who will be the first Service Provider to carry an Android phone?

Well, the pool of top possibilities in order of size include:

  1. AT&T
  2. Verizon Wireless
  3. Sprint Nextel
  4. T-Mobile
  5. Alltel
  6. U.S. Cellular
  7. The list goes on….

You can be pretty sure that Google will want to launch the first Android Phone on one of the top dogs. To come out of the gate on a puny network would be an incredibly weak introduction to Android, repelling possible converts at the start of what Google hopes will become a dynasty.

Let’s face it: AT&T and Verizon Wireless are far from excited about the prospects of Android. They’re two industry giants who have protected corporate profits by limiting customer access. Since maximizing shareholder value is the top priority, you can’t blame them.

But now here comes Google, a younger and neighboring industry giant attempting to tread on their territory, promising a paradigm shift in the market they helped create. It’s simply not logical for them to jump on the Android boat without taking a wait-and-see approach. Instead, they’ll be sitting safely on land watching the whole thing play out, hoping for a dramatic crash and burn finale that returns their lives to status quo. Then they’ll jump on the LiMo bandwagon and rake in the profit themselves.

Suffice to say it won’t play out like that… but they can hope, can’t they? When the opposite happens, they’ll quickly release an Android phone before the surge of customers hit their exit doors for Android. And the well documented squabbles between Google and Verizon Wireless, which most recently prompted Verizon to snub Google and join LiMo, pretty much solidifies Verizon’s resistance to Android.

So now you’ve got Sprint and T-Mobile, two carriers with a lot to gain and a whole lot of market share to capture. Having the competitive edge of an Android phone could put them in prime position to gain ground on the big two. Not to mention, they are the only two U.S. wireless carriers in the Open Handset Alliance.

While T-Mobile has openly promised an Android Phone and 3G network speeds by the end of the year, it’s looking more and more like Sprint will be the first carrier with an Android Phone. Why? Because Google has a vested interest in the success of Sprint.

Sprint Nextel is a struggling giant that has recently been clawing for it’s life. There were rumors that they were going to be sold to T-Mobile. Then talk about spinning off the ball-and-chain that is Nextel. Instead, relief came in a Joint Venture with Clearwire for Sprint’s up-and-coming XOHM network… their branded project for 4G speeds.

Among investors in Clearwire?

  • Comcast
  • Intel
  • Time Warner Cable
  • and GOOGLE

It might just be a Joint Venture, but Google has no other allegiance or ties to another carrier. While Google is notorious for NOT playing favorites, if they had to choose ONE carrier, Sprint seems like the obvious choice. BEYOND their financial stake in the Clearwire Joint Venture, having a healthy sprint is simply good for the mobile industry.

Think about it… the reason that AT&T and Verizon are “holding out” of the Open Handset Alliance is because they are the 2 largest companies of an oligopoly. Further consolidating the industry, should an existing carrier swallow Sprint, would only push the current mobile conditions further towards a monopoly. This means less options. Android itself is built on the idea of consumers having “options”.

So… if Android is to initially debut on ONE carrier, Sprint seems like the obvious choice. But does Google have different plans?

Obviously, Google would like to launch Android with as much fanfare as possible. An incredibly amount of their ADC Round 1 winners were in the “Social Networking” space. How cool will Social Networking be if you can only communicate with other Sprint Customers who have the exact same phone as you?

Google should be, and probably is, thinking bigger. LiMo, the Open Handset Alliance’s main competitor, announced 18 handsets from 7 different carriers to kick of their LiMo-fest. They’ll likely be released in early 2009. It would likely that Google attempts a similar stunt, launching a wide array of handsets from a number of different manufacturers. And hopefully, all on the same day.

But that brings us back to the same question. Lots of different handsets from many manufacturers but on what carrier? Hopefully, Google is trying to smooth things over with Verizon and AT&T, and if they’re initially flexible with the companies for the pure purpose of getting Android handsets on their network, they’d be doing themselves a huge favor.

But, if Android handsets were going to appear (on the big carriers) sequentially and not all at one time, here is our prediction:

  • Sprint
  • T-Mobile
  • AT&T
  • Verizon Wireless

Google will have to be fair and even in their carrier distribution because afterall, they want to frame the Android initiative as not just coming from Google, but the Open Handset Alliance as a whole. Please, please Verizon and AT&T… swallow your pride and get on board… we REALLY don’t want to have to jump ship.

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