Sprint Adds Nexus S 4G, Becomes Google’s New BFF

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It’s a Google day for Sprint. Earlier today, the company announced it would integrate Google Voice service across all of its handsets and took the covers off the Google Nexus S 4G. The phone is a CDMA version of the Nexus S that launched late last year with the Gingerbread edition of Android and takes advantage of Sprint’s WiMAX network. Sprint says the phone is “coming soon,” with a price tag of $199 after 2-year contract and the Everything Data Plan and Premium Data add-on.

The inclusion of the WiMAX radio is a step up from the original Nexus S. Both the versions for AT&T and T-Mobile use a 7.2 Mbps radio, which limits the mobile broadband speeds. Both carriers are currently boosting their network capabilities, ranging from 14.4 to 42 Mbps theoretical downloads. The new Nexus S 4G won’t see downloads in that range either, but in areas of solid WiMAX, coverage could hit 10 Mbps peak speeds.

Aside from the access to Sprint’s network, the Nexus S 4G is largely unchanged from its GSM counterpart. The device, built by Samsung, uses a 1GHz single-core Hummingbird CPU, 4-inch Super AMOLED display, 16 GB non-expandable internal storage, dual cameras that don’t record high-definition video, and support for reading NFC, or near field communications, which are tags likely to become used for wireless payments. Of course, tight integration with Google’s apps and services are the main draw for the Nexus S line, as are faster access to software updates from Google.

When combined with other recent telecom news, the sudden and prominent partnerships between Google and Sprint raise some interesting thoughts about the future. Now that AT&T is purchasing T-Mobile for $39 billion in cash and stock, Sprint is on the outside looking in as a distant third carrier. And Google may be losing a key Android partner in T-Mobile; a carrier that has arguably supported Google’s Android strategy more than any other.

An eventual Google purchase of Sprint is a long shot at best, but is possible. Such a deal would, of course, face regulatory scrutiny, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume it happens. Google would then not only have a viable software platform, but also could wrest carrier control away by becoming a carrier of its own. At that point, the company could subsidize smartphones with the data and ad revenues it receives by users of its Android operating system.

Of course, the other big issue is one my colleague Stacey pointed out: if Google were to buy Sprint and go down the path I’ve described, it runs the big risk of alienating both its existing hardware partners as well as the other carriers. That’s a fair point, but for handset makers that don’t have an operating system of their own, such as HTC, they have little current choice but to use a platform from either Google or Microsoft. Samsung could rely on its Bada platform, but Android’s growth has made these handset makers somewhat dependent upon the platform. The same momentum would likely keep other carriers from abandoning Android as well. What platform would Motorola, HTC, LG and others turn to?

A year or two ago, I would have been more apt to share Stacey’s concern, but, at this point, consumers, carriers and handset makers have an Android addiction that limits Google’s exposure if it were to acquire Sprint. That doesn’t mean a Sprint buy-out is in the cards for Google, but there’s one less barrier. And if nothing else, I anticipate more partnerships that show Sprint to be Google’s new BFF, mainly due to AT&T’s play for T-Mobile.

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