Sprint has just made the unsurprising announcement that their anticipated Galaxy Nexus variant will launch next Sunday, April 22nd. For American wireless customers, this is a pretty big deal. It marks only the second carrier-sponsored release of the device in the US. The price is pretty good, too, at least compared to Verizon’s current price point: Sprint will sell their version for $199.99 on a two-year contract, beating Big Red’s price by a full Benjamin. On top of that, customers who register for Google Wallet within a week of activating their new Galaxy Nexus will receive a total of $50 in credits to their account.
Those price perks aren’t bad, but that’s not all the new device comes with. In my view, it also includes a generous helping of mediocrity a costly addition that Sprint simply cannot afford.
Sprint’s Galaxy Nexus will offer a nearly identical user experience to the Verizon version, with one very important difference: Sprint’s LTE network covers about 200 million fewer people than Verizon’s. Which is to say, zero people. Because it doesn’t exist yet.
According to Sprint’s website, buyers of their Galaxy Nexus will have to wait until “mid-2012” to experience the advantages of LTE … and then only if they live in one of the six cities targeted for the initial rollout. Everyone else will be stuck using their 4G device on Sprint’s 3G network until coverage matures. Even after that happens, users won’t be able to take full advantage of it: Sprint’s version of the Galaxy Nexus only supports 1900MHz LTE, so when the folks in Overland Park flip the switch on 800MHz 4G (“by 2014,” according to a Fierce Wireless story), Sprint Galaxy Nexus users will be left fending for themselves at the higher, worse-penetrating frequencies.
So when Sprint stores open their doors to customers next Sunday, anyone buying the “new” Galaxy Nexus will be purchasing a minor variant of a four-month-old device. Since most users will be stuck on 3G, the more apt comparison would be to the original Galaxy Nexus, which adds a month to that figure. While Nexus devices tend to age more gracefully than their OEM-skinned counterparts, five months is still a long time in the mobile tech world.
As a point of comparison: Sprint’s other big-name launch device for LTE, the predictably named HTC Evo 4G LTE,
does feature support for 4G in the 800MHz band. It’s also bringing brings some other features to the table, like a higher camera resolution, Beats audio, a slightly larger screen, and the design lineage of the highly praised One line. While it’s anyone’s guess how well HTC will keep up with support for the device, its premium “Evo” branding betrays Sprint’s attitude toward it: they’re going to push it hard.
I’m not throwing the Galaxy Nexus under the bus here. I own the Verizon version and I’m generally satisfied with it. Were I still a Sprint customer, I’d probably prefer it over the new Evo; I value a stock Android experience above all else. But I’m a geek. Average consumers, by and large, don’t care about stock vs. skins, as no carrier or OEM throws any marketing dollars into explaining the difference. Nor will they anytime soon.
Allow me to beat you to the counterpoint: non-geeks also don’t usually care about a device’s age. After all, people still buy the iPhone 4. The original Evo 4G was one of Sprint’s best-selling devices, and was on store shelves for almost two years. And the Galaxy Nexus still offers something unique in its direct-from-Google lineage, so why not offer it if you’re Sprint?
There’s no reason not to; Sprint is doing the right thing. This announcement is no doubt welcome news for Sprint customers who will tolerate 3G speeds and anemic future LTE coverage in exchange for paying lower monthly rates. In that way, the announcement says more about Sprint than it does about the Galaxy Nexus, and what it says isn’t good.
Sprint Nextel is a distant third in the US mobile space for a lot of reasons. Some are complex and others are pretty simple. Today’s release announcement is a little bit of both. It’s a symptom of a problem Sprint has suffered with for a long time: they’re the “me too” network. As a smaller company with a smaller user base, their buying power and leverage with manufacturers is correspondingly lower. Their ability to secure exclusives on hot new devices is thus impaired, making it difficult for them to attract new customers or retain existing ones, further slowing their growth. This chicken-or-egg cycle is comparable to app-count-vs-developer-attraction problem with mobile OSes. In Sprint’s case, the result is a vicious loop of self-reinforcing mediocrity. Just like the RAZR and the iPhone, Sprint is late to the game bringing a hot handset to their network. And it’s a hobbled version of the hotness, thanks to that same network.
Just like I wasn’t tearing down the Galaxy Nexus, I’m not assailing Sprint here: they’re an underdog. My preferred mobile platform for personal use is Windows Phone, and it used to be webOS; I love underdogs. Plus, I’m an ex-Sprint employee. I’ve seen the hard times the company’s been through from the inside, outside, and everywhere in between (being an ex-Nextel employee covers the “in-between,” to justify the cliché). The company has made incredible strides in customer satisfaction and retention in recent years. They’re one of the last companies in the wireless landscape to offer unlimited data for a reasonable price. They have a lot going for them.
Nor am I saying that I would never recommend the Sprint Galaxy Nexus to anyone. In fact, I recently suggested to a friend on Sprint that she wait for just this device. For existing Sprint customers looking for a stock Android experience, it’s a good phone to recommend. As I mentioned before, it’s not a hotrod, and it’s not going to deliver the best experience with LTE going forward, but it’s a solid device.
But “solid devices” aren’t enough. Sprint won’t be able to grow just by stocking phones that keep their existing customers happy. They need to snag hardware that will lure people away from other carriers. They’ve done this in the past with the original Evo 4G and the Palm Pre before that; though the latter was a disaster in the long run, it generated lines outside of Sprint stores and broke then-standing single-day sales records. They need to capture the imagination of the public again. To do that, they’re going to need to do better than the Galaxy Nexus. But to get better than the Galaxy Nexus, they need to be doing better as a company. The cycle continues.
So, Sprint: good for you for securing a popular product. Keep doing that, but do it sooner. Keep on the path to network modernization, but do it faster so you can properly support such popular products. Easier said than done? Absolutely. But it’s also the fastest route to stronger growth.
And Sprint customers: congratulations on having the patience to wait for a stock ICS device, and for a proper 4G network. I ran out of that patience, which is why I’m now a Verizon customer, posting this article via my Galaxy Nexus’ LTE hotspot which I’m paying a very competitive rate for.
Get your mojo back, Sprint. In this time of increasing consolidation and an increasingly vanilla landscape in both carriers and hardware suppliers, we need your powers of agitation.
Maybe you could snag one of those new Lumias everyone’s talking about.
Correction: The Evo 4G LTE does not include 800MHz LTE support. Thanks, Matt Lee and Alan for the correction.
Sprint 800MHz LTE Story Source: Fierce Wireless
Galaxy Nexus Info Source: Sprint