Sprint touts exclusive rights to upcoming Essential phone

Sprint said it scored an exclusive deal to sell the first phone from Essential. And that could prove beneficial for Andy Rubin’s new venture in a brutal market of high-end smartphones in the United States.

The nation’s fourth-largest mobile network operator announced it will be the carrier to sell the Essential Phone to consumers in the United States at launch this summer. The phone—which will also be sold unlocked for use on other networks—will be available at Sprint retail stores, through Sprint's online and telemarketing channels, and at Best Buy.

Rubin, who created Android, made headlines two weeks ago when he unveiled his first project since leaving Google in 2014.

The company’s first phone, the Essential PH-1, is a high-end, Android-powered gadget positioned to compete with Google’s Pixel and Samsung’s new Galaxy S8: The $700 modular handset is sold unlocked and features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, 128 GB of internal storage and a 360-degree camera that can shoot spherical UHD images at 30 frames per second.

While Sprint is the smallest of the four major U.S. wireless network operators, the exclusive deal could provide a lift to both the carrier and the handset vendor, according to Cliff Maldonado of BayStreet Research.

“I think carrier distribution certainly helps the Essential phone’s prospects; without carrier support the phone would easily be forgotten,” Maldonado said via email. “Sprint actually sells more postpaid Android devices than AT&T and is the 3rd largest postpaid Android carrier in the U.S. With Verizon securing the exclusive on the Pixel, the Essential phone offers Sprint a similar subscriber switching opportunity. All in all, I like the move from Sprint’s perception and am interested to see what international benefits working closely with SoftBank can bring the Essential phone.”

The new phone is made of titanium and ceramic and notably lacks any logos, and Essential began taking preorders for the device from U.S. buyers two weeks ago. Those materials may make the phone more resistant to drops and scratches than aluminum and other more commonly used elements. And the PH-1’s modular add-ons—which are magnetic—could prove compelling.

But analysts generally agree the new phone will need every advantage it can get as it tries to elbow its way into a market where growth has slowed to a crawl.

“There’s no denying the pedigree behind Essential and its two new devices,” CCS Insight wrote recently. But the challenges of existing business models and large installed bases mean that the company faces an uphill struggle to compete in the current hyper-competitive smartphone market, particularly against heavyweights such as Apple and Samsung. At present, there’s a strong argument to suggest that it’s only Andy Rubin’s involvement that gives pause for thought as to whether consumers will find this an essential smartphone to have.”