An iPhone for Sprint? Unlikely, but maybe a WebOS device from HP

Gadget watchers focus on a Sprint announcement set for February

LAS VEGAS -- Verizon Wireless is expected to get Apple's iPhone early this year, but what about Sprint Nextel, the nation's third-largest carrier?

On its face, the idea of Sprint offering the iPhone seems unlikely, but at the International Consumer Electronics Show this week, rumors swirled that a Sprint announcement set for February might be about that very subject.

However, it seems more plausible that Sprint's February announcement could involve WebOS devices from Hewlett-Packard, one respected analyst said. HP last year purchased Palm, the maker of the WebOS operating system, and has yet to launch a device on that platform.

Analyst Jack Gold of J.Gold Associates summarized the feelings of several analysts attending CES by saying, "I'd be quite surprised to see a WiMax/Sprint iPhone." Gold added that it is more important for Apple to place the iPhone with Verizon, and for Apple to eventually produce an LTE-based iPhone.

Gold said he was "not sure what Sprint will announce in February exactly," but he noted that HP is also planning a major announcement in early February. "So maybe Sprint will carry WebOS devices," he said.

What makes the iPhone-on-Sprint scenario unlikely is that Sprint is devoted to WiMax and is selling three WiMax-ready smartphones, including the HTC Evo Shift 4G announced Thursday, bringing the total number of WiMax devices on the market to 17.

The coming Research in Motion PlayBook tablet will also run on WiMax when it appears on Sprint this summer.

Clearly, Sprint is solidly committed to WiMax, which is rolled out in 71 U.S. cities. Sprint first launched the technology in Baltimore in October 2008.

It also seems unlikely Apple would want to make an iPhone for WiMax, especially since WiMax will have a much smaller global market share than the next-generation wireless technology, LTE, which Verizon began rolling out in December.

Today, the iPhone is sold exclusively by AT&T in the U.S. The smartphone runs on AT&T's GSM-based network, not on the CDMA-based networks that Sprint and Verizon are using while they upgrade to WiMax and LTE, respectively. AT&T's exclusive contract as the sole wireless carrier for the iPhone is widely expected to expire in the not-too-distant future, possibly before March.

Even though it seems unlikely that Sprint could sell an iPhone, there was mounting speculation among analysts and others at CES that that could happen. Coupled with a rumor of a big Sprint device announcement coming in New York in February, the reports of an iPhone on Sprint seemed tantalizing, if improbable, to some analysts and reporters.

In an interview with reporters from Computerworld and Gizmodo on Thursday, Sprint's vice president of consumer acquisition, David Owens, was asked if the carrier would ever sell an iPhone. He didn't say yes or no.

"I have nothing to say about that," Owens said. "My [public relations] folks won't let me talk about that," he added, gesturing to two Sprint spokeswomen sitting nearby.

Owens conceded that there will be a special new device coming from Sprint, but Sprint wouldn't officially confirm anything further.

Given the Sprint-iPhone rumor, it's probably appropriate that a magician introduced Sprint CEO Dan Hesse at a Thursday dinner party that Sprint hosted for reporters and analysts at the Wynn Resort's Tryst nightclub.

As the nation's third-largest wireless carrier, Sprint is always on the prowl to take on its two larger rivals, AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Hesse didn't offer any comments on the iPhone, but he touted Sprint's growing number of WiMax devices and his assistants showed several other products, including wireless gear for monitoring everything from an individual's fitness level to a company's fleet of trucks.

Hesse also drew attention to a Windows Phone 7 slider smartphone under development at Sprint; the device was passed around to dinner guests, but it hasn't been officially named or announced.

Owens said the wide variety of devices that Sprint sells is helping to boost Sprint's subscriber base and has helped raise confidence within the ranks at Sprint. "We feel we have a lot of momentum," he said.

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 e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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