Sprint's WiMax phone is super awesome, but will anyone care?

Noah Kravitz
 from  Oakland, CA
| March 24, 2010

Are You Ready for the Future? Do You Even Care?

Sprint's new HTC-made, WiMax-compatible, Android-based, super-spec'd Evo 4G phone has stolen the spotlight from all the others at CTIA this week (though Samsung's Galaxy S is no slouch, either). Launched yesterday, Evo 4G will be the carrier's first WiMax phone, and may well be the first 4G phone to ship on a US carrier when it hits stores sometimes this summer. The phone is packed to the gills with cutting-edge mobile tech - Android 2.1 with HTC Sense, EVDO and WiMax, 8MP Camera with HD video capture and front-facing 1.3MP cam, 4.3" capacitive touchscreen... the list goes on and on.

Sprint and HTC did a great job of showing off what all this tech, and all of that WiMax-enabled bandwith, can actually do for end users in terms of connectivity, entertainment, productivity, file sharing, and so on. The media launch centered around nifty demos of use cases like streaming hi-def video from the cloud to the device, and from the device to a plasma display via the phone's HDMI out port, and using the phone's built-in mobile hotspot app to share a 4G connection with up to 8 other devices - laptops, netbooks, iPhones ... yes, they had on iPhone on stage - funcitonality that's very similar to Sprint's Overdrive mobile WiMax router.

All in all, Evo 4G is the highest tech mobile phone yet to be launched by a US carrier. It's a stunning piece of kit, as they say. I got a limited hands-on with the phone at the end of the day yesterday - it's still running very early software, so we were asked not to delve in past the home screens and camera app. Evo is a great device. I flipped out over the HD2 when I first played with it, but wanted one running Android instead of Windows Mobile. And here it is, but also with WiMax and an upgraded camera. WIth it's massive display, sleek profile, and phone/mobile computer/multimedia machine personna, Evo really feels like the future when you hold it in your hand.

But the thing is, will Sprint be able to sell the thing to millions of "average mainstream customers" once it starts shipping this Summer. You know, the ones who've been bowled over by a simple grid of icons, one at a time "apps for that," and charming TV ads? I hope so, but I honestly don't know.

Built for geeks. Marketable to the masses?

Here's the thing: Geeks love specs, geeks love the promise of faster, smaller and better, and a certain subset of geeks (like me) love the new wave of almost tablet-sized mobile phones that are really two parts computer and one part phone. But mainstream America? They're certainly ready for smartphones as legions of iPhone and Droid devotees will attest to, but I'm not so sure they're ready to make the next leap a 4G phone with a 4.3" display. Me? I'd eat it up if WiMax was available in the San Francisco Bay Area - I love the phone's massive display, thin profile, and 100% "from the future" vibe.

But a phone with a 4.3" screen might just be too big for most people to carry around every day. And I'm not sure that consumers are ready - and I define "ready" here as "educated + willing" - to jump carriers for the sake of 4G connectivity when they're not necessarily even sure what they're getting with 3G. 

You and me - the mobile tech enthusiasts, the people who read, write, and talk about tech blogs every day? We know what 4G promises and we can't wait for it, whether it's Sprint's WiMax or other carriers' coming LTE rollouts. The thing is, though, that we're more of the very vocal minority than the massive majority that Sprint needs to get excited enough about 4G to sign two year contracts and start carrying the Evo 4G around with them later this year. A bunch of excited folks commenting and tweeting in the blogosphere and tech media is one thing,  millions of paying customers is quite another.

And so I don't know. Android is great in many ways, but I still contend it's just not simple and pretty enough for "Joe Six Pack" or "Suzy Soccer Mom" to flock to in the way that they've flocked to iPhone. HTC Sense helps with that a great deal, but it's running on Android and Android feels like it was designed by engineers, and not designed by usability folks and built by engineers. There's something to be said for dead simplicity and easy access to entertainment when it comes to selling to consumers. I think Sprint gets this, as they put a lot of emphasis on "What can I actually do with this crazy thing?" during yesterday's launch. But now they have to get consumers interested and excited about 4G and Evo in the same way that Apple got everyone all hyped up about apps and pinch-to-zoom Web and photo browsing on iPhone.

Now it's all about content and marketing

Sprint and Samsung both were talking as much about high def movie watching and mobile e-Reading as they were about screen sizes and processor speeds during yesterday's launch events. They have to be - as one executive put it to me yesterday, "Of course we'll never take phones as far as they can go, tech-wise, but it sort of feels like we're at that point for now. These devices can do so much that now we have to focus on what you can really do with them. So if we're talking about watching movies on our new phone, we have to have movie studios on board with us to get customers movies to watch. Same thing with eReader apps on phones - we need books for you to read. So we're building ecosystems to support our customers with constantly refreshed content after they buy one of our new phones. That's where the industry is now."

Me, I can't wait for Evo 4G to ship later this year - preferably accompanied by Sprint rolling out WiMax in my neck of the woods. And I can't wait for that Samsung Galaxy S and it's stunning Super AMOLED display. And in the meantime, I'm loving Sprint WiMax and T-Mobile's HSDPA+ coverage while I'm here in Vegas for the show. But I live mobile tech for a living. It's my job and it's my geeky passion. Mainstream America? They've taken to cell phones in a huge way, and are now upgrading to smartphones, too. But are they ready (educated + willing) to care about 4G mobile hotspots and streaming HD movies on the go to a phone that may or may not be just too big to carry in a jeans pocket every day? 

Sprint's job now is to make the answer to that question a resounding, "Yes." They've got the device and they've got the network rollout underway. Now it's all about marketing. Can they do it? We'll find out this summer. 

In the meantime, what say you? Are you ready for a 4.3" display and 4G connectivity in your pocket? Sound off in the comments.