The arrival of the HTC EVO 4G, Sprint's first 4G phone, means that Sprint has a big lead over rival carriers in releasing 4G-ready devices. But the HTC EVO 4G is also a big gamble for Sprint: The phone will lose traction pretty quickly if 4G coverage is spotty and if its 4G network rollout to new cities is slower than expected.
If Sprint is too early -- in other words, if it overpromises and underdelivers on 4G and the HC EVO 4G phone itself -- it'll give its rivals more than enough incentive to fine-tune their own 4G offerings and capitalize on Sprint's mistakes.
But it appears to be worth the gamble on Sprint's part. Despite attaching its name to a number of promising phones and platforms -- Google's Nexus One among them -- Sprint needs a subscriber jolt and an uptick in its fortunes if it's going to keep pace with mighty rivals like Verizon and AT&T. It has something of a fallback, too: The HTC EVO 4G would be an impressive enough 3G phone as it is and can fall back to Sprint's 3G network when 4G coverage isn't available.
Sprint and HTC officially unveiled the phone earlier this week. The EVO 4G runs on Google Android 2.1, sports a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, and includes not only an 8-megapixel auto-focus camera but also a forward-facing 1.3-megapixel camera.
The display is 4.3 inches, and the phone includes HTC Sense, the customizable phone dashboard that first appeared on the HTC Hero last summer. Sprint and HTC haven't yet announced pricing for the phone, though in a launch event this week they confirmed June as the arrival date.
The advent of 4G technology means competition between two mobile broadband standards: WiMax and Long-Term Evolution (LTE). Both technologies promise unprecedented download speeds that blow current 3G cellular networks out of the water. The major difference is that WiMax is based on the 802.16 IEEE standard and LTE is proprietary.
Is Sprint backing the right 4G horse? Its rivals don't think so. Among the major U.S. carriers, Sprint stands alone in its firm embrace of WiMax; Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have all planned to back LTE. The choice of standards, then, is another gamble: Sprint's failure would add to the argument that LTE is the better choice over WiMax.
Sprint's reasoning, according to CEO Dan Hesse, is that the time for 4G is now -- that is, WiMax-ready phones are ready to roll thanks to the availability of the network. Hesse told audiences at this week's CTIA Wireless show in Las Vegas, as reported by numerous news outlets, that "LTE will be the larger of the two 4G standards" but WiMax was the right call because it was already "proven" and "tried and true."
Sprint has promised to quadruple the amount of WiMax coverage in the U.S. by the end of 2010, saying it will add Cincinnati, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and St. Louis to the list of metropolitan areas it services. It hasn't always made good on promises; Providence and Washington, two of its previously announced cities, have yet to see their WiMax rollouts, for example.
But the gamble is a good one for Sprint. It's in the game -- the 4G game, which will in a few years perhaps be the one that matters -- and with a major product announcement has proven it's not going to sit on the sidelines.