Somebody get Apple's legal department on the phone, stat!

Sprint announced the first WiMax smartphone Tuesday, giving the mobile provider a dramatic boost in the increasingly competitive smartphone market. Dubbed the HTC Evo 4G, it's the first smartphone designed to run on the 4G WiMax network being built by Clearwire (CLWR), the fast-growing wireless broadband provider. Sprint is the majority owner in Clearwire.

WiMax promises faster wireless speeds at longer distances, compared to current technology. All of the major mobile companies have fourth-generation wireless, or 4G, plans in the works. Verizon and AT&T are betting on a format known as LTE, or Long Term Evolution, but they're still months away from introducing phones. Sprint and Clearwire have invested billions in WiMax, and now they can claim the first 4G device.

If the Evo catches on, it would be a much-needed boost for Sprint, the third-largest mobile carrier. The company has lost some 9 million customers in the last three years to its larger rivals. The Evo, which Sprint says is designed for video and web-browsing -- it boasts a 30% larger screen than the iPhone -- will be available this summer.

Right Back At Ya Steve

Built by HTC, the Evo will be based on Google's (GOOG) Android mobile operating system. The debut comes three weeks after Apple declared war on both HTC and Google with a 20-count patent lawsuit clearly aimed at hobbling Android. I think it's fair to say this constitutes a clear response from both HTC and Google.

The Evo -- previously codenamed the Supersonic -- debuted Tuesday at CTIA, the wireless association's trade show in Las Vegas. [Check out Engadget's industry-leading coverage from the show.]

"Sprint continues to lead the 4G revolution as we introduce HTC Evo 4G to give our customers an experience that is unlike anything available in wireless to date," Spring CEO Dan Hesse said in a statement. "Not only is this feature-rich device incredible on our Sprint 3G network, but Sprint 4G speeds will take mobile multimedia, including live video streaming, gaming and picture downloads, to a whole new level."

Trip Chowdhry, an analyst at Global Equities Research, said he expects Sprint to release more Android phones that will run on Clearwire's WiMax network in the next few months, built by companies including Motorola and Samsung. "In the second half of this year, Clearwire will have its own phone on Android at 4G speeds, and Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Comcast (CMCSA) will have the opportunity to rebrand their own devices running Android on Clearwire's network," he predicts.

Google's Android early success, which has apparently spooked Apple CEO Steve Jobs, won enthusiasm from Chowdhry. "Android on Samsung, Motorola (MOT) and HTC -- that's a winning formula," he says. Android phones currently run on Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, and now Clearwire, networks.

But the market might well be roomy enough for both Apple and Android. Chowdhry compares Apple iPhone users to drivers who purchase BMWs: they know what they want, they're willing to pay for it and they won't go down market.

Meanwhile, that lower end could be where the biggest opportunity lies for Android, especially in emerging markets. "Motorola and Lenovo are going to sell Android phones in China, Vietnam and South Africa in the next six months," Chowdhry says. "You have everything working in favor of Android. These are the first guys in multiple geographies, the first guys to offer their phones for free in developing countries."

Clearwire Entering the Mobile Mix

Until now, Clearwire has limited its service to netbooks, laptops and broadband to the home. The Evo news would place Clearwire firmly in the mobile-phone fray. It would also set up an unusual situation in which Sprint and Clearwire would cooperate on some issues as corporate brethren, and compete on others, possibly in the branded mobile service space.

Founded by wireless pioneer Craig McCaw in 2003, Clearwire is working to build out a wireless network, branded "Clear," based on 4G WiMax technology and to "populate" it, Clearwire spokesman Mike DiGioia said. Google, Comcast and Time Warner Cable are part of a consortium that owns a minority stake in Clearwire, while Sprint (S) has majority ownership.

DiGioia said the company plans to provide "fourth-play" services to broadband packages offered by Comcast and Time Warner, in which Clearwire would offer WiMax service for mobile devices like netbooks and laptops. In an announcement Tuesday, Clearwire says it plans to offer high-speed wireless service to 120 million people by the end of the year, up from 30 million today.

The company, which already serves 27 U.S. cities, says it plans to expand its wireless broadband coverage to include major new markets, including Los Angeles, Miami, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City, by the end of the year. It previously said it would cover New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Denver and San Francisco by the end of the year.

"Whether customers sign up for 4G service through us, Sprint, Comcast or Time Warner Cable, it is our network and our spectrum making it all possible," Bill Morrow, CEO of Clearwire, said in a statement. "And we continue to look ahead. Today, we announced advancements across markets, devices and our network that we believe will continue to keep Clearwire at the forefront of 4G leadership and innovation."

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