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 the iPhone early this year, but what about Sprint Nextel, the nation's third-largest carrier?

On its face, the idea seems unlikely, although rumors swirled this week at the International Consumer Electronics Show that such a circumstance could happen at a Sprint announcement set for February.

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 platform , and has yet to launch a device on the 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 than Sprint, and for Apple to eventually produce an LTE-based iPhone.

Gold said he was "not sure what Sprint will announce in February exactly," but 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 rumor 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 with the smaller market share that WiMax will have globally compared to 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 the CDMA-based networks that Sprint and Verizon use 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, possibly before March.

Even though it seems unlikely, speculation mounted by analysts and others at CES this week that Sprint could sell an iPhone. Coupled with a rumor of a big Sprint device announcement coming in New York City 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 David Owens, vice president of consumer acquisition, was asked if Sprint 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." Owens gestured to two spokeswomen sitting nearby him as he answered.

Owens conceded that there will be a special new device coming from Sprint, but Sprint wouldn't officially confirm the New York event.

Given the Sprint-iPhone rumor, it is 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 a person's fitness or a company's truck fleet.

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

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

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Tags CEStelecommunicationMobile and WirelessConsumer Electronics Show (CES)PhonesmobileHewlett-PackardVerizon WirelessPalmAppleconsumer electronicssmartphonesMacintoshsprint nextel

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