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The Essential Phone is launching as a Sprint exclusive, but will still work on other carriers

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Sprint exclusives don’t have the best track record

Essential Phone Photo by Asa Mathat / Recode

USA Today is reporting that Andy Rubin’s Essential Phone has a launch partner in the US: Sprint. That’s not exactly a surprise, when we asked the four major US carriers whether they’d support the Essential phone, three of them offered tepid statements saying it would operate just fine on their network, but Sprint said that “More specific information will be provided at a later date.” That was a hint, it turns out.

This launch “exclusive” isn’t quite as exclusive as others, because the Essential Phone is packed with enough radios to work across multiple networks — and Essential will be selling the phone unlocked.

Rubin said at the Code conference that he’s trying very hard to not install carrier apps on the Essential Phone when it launches. He didn’t go so far as to flat-out to commit to no “Craplets” (as Walt Mossberg called them at Code), however. That’s not a surprise, either — it’s very difficult for any Android manufacturer to get their phone in stores without carrier apps. If Samsung can’t pull it off, Essential probably can’t either. The good news is that Sprint is actually better than some of its competitor when it comes to lading on unnecessary apps.

Here’s the big question: why Sprint? Here’s what Essential president Niccolo de Masi told Ed Baig: “We like to bet with where we think the market is going as opposed to where the market was ... we are partnering with the network of the future.” That seems... like not a great example of a new companies ability to predict where the market is going.

The decision to partner with Sprint feels off not just becuase it’s fallen on hard times lately, with T-Mobile hard-charging and AT&T and Verizon big-footing. It feels off because it might cause some people to remember another innovative phone that wanted to take on the dominant smartphone players as a new entrant with new software and hardware tricks. That phone was the original Palm Pre, and it didn’t go so well.

Things are very different now. The Essential Phone hopefully won’t have the same launch bugs and performance issues that the Pre had. More importantly, it’ll also be available unlocked for any network, something that wasn’t the case with past exclusives.

This is probably more about advertising than anything else. Sprint is going to put marketing dollars behind the Essential phone. We shouldn’t have long to wait until we see what that campaign looks like, as Rubin has said that the phone should be launching within the month. It will cost $699.