Sprint on Wednesday announced a partnership with Google to offer the Google Apps for Business cloud service, adding that customers of the service won't be required to use Sprint's wireless network or Android devices.
The partnership helps move Sprint well beyond it's role as a basic wireless carrier for businesses to one that will bolster basic Google cloud service and access to Google apps with Sprint's own hands-on professional consulting, much of it free.
The announcement comes amid widespread reports that Sprint is in discussions to buy T-Mobile and just weeks after a six-month study of wireless carrier network performance found Sprint didn't finish first among national carriers in any of 125 U.S. cities.
Sprint's resale of Google Apps for Business kicks off officially on Aug. 18. Sprint will charge businesses the same rate that Google does -- with pricing starting at $5 per month per worker for access to a variety of apps such as Gmail, Google Drive and Google Docs, or $10 a month per user per month for Google Apps access with unlimited cloud storage, and other services.
In addition, Sprint will offer its new Google Apps for Business customers a number of free services, including consulting on mobile deployment strategy, project management and cloud help-desk support (with all cloud servers under the ownership of Google). Sprint will charge for certain professional services, such as creating single sign-on capability or domain services. Pricing for those services, in addition to the standard Google Apps for Business costs, will be announced closer to launch.
Sprint's John Tudhope, director of marketing for enterprise services, said Sprint's Google Apps for Business customers won't need to be Sprint wireless customers to get the new service. Business customers also can deploy the service for workers on either Android, Google's mobile OS, or Apple's iOS devices, whether the devices were sold by Sprint or another carrier. Part of Sprint's rationale is that the carrier sees its role as moving beyond basic network services to helping customers with cloud services and in uses of apps.
"As customers start to focus on apps in the cloud and productivity, their network connectivity is a lesser concern," Tudhope said. "We certainly provide the wireless coverage, but that's an ancillary decision" for businesses that are more concerned about deploying cloud computing to support mobile workers.
"We want to be more valuable to the customer," Tudhope said. "This announcement changes the Sprint conversation with business customers from the traditional pricing and the way you sell wireless endpoints to more of a conversation about how you can make your business more productive and deliver the tools to do so."
Tudhope said Sprint's Google Apps for Business support will be restricted to Android and iOS devices, and will not include Windows Phone or Windows tablets and laptops. He said iOS can capably handle all the Google Apps and that Sprint will pre-load any Google Apps on iOS or Android devices that it sells. "Windows has to find its way in the marketplace," he said in explaining why Windows and its Windows Phone cousin were excluded.
Google Apps for Business actually started in 2006 under the name "Google Apps for your Domain" and has expanded to serve 5 million business customers, according to a Google spokeswoman.
There are 6,000 resellers of Google Apps for Business, according to Google's website, and Sprint will be joining that list as perhaps the largest wireless carrier in the group. Verizon Wireless created a partnership with Google Apps for Business about a year ago, but "it hasn't been a real focus of Verizon," Tudhope said. Nearly all the resellers in the U.S. are smaller companies, he said. "We're the first mobility partner to go hard, all-in, with Google in this announcement."
Tudhope said reselling Google Apps services won't necessarily push Sprint business customers toward Android devices, noting that Sprint will still sell iPads and iPhones. "Google Apps work extremely well across iOS, mainly because of the browser-based access," he said.
Also, he said Google's announcement at its I/O conference in June of broader business support in the next version of Android, called Android L, came well after Sprint was developing its partnership with Google. Sprint already has a beta customer, unnamed, for the service. "Android L's support for business was not an inducement for our decision, but is a benefit," he said.
Tudhope wouldn't comment on whether talks that Sprint might buy T-Mobile could influence business customers when deciding whether to use Sprint for Google Apps support and strategy. Asked whether Sprint was focused on the cloud service because of recent lower rankings in network performance than other carriers, Tudhope defended Sprint's network but said the Google partnership is "not necessarily forcing Sprint wireless connectivity ... You don't necessarily have to be a Sprint wireless customer."
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.