Ina Fried

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like a GeekPhone? Sprint’s Android Makeover

Cellphone carriers have had a relatively easy time marketing Android phones to the early adopters who were looking for a powerful smartphone they could customize to their liking.

That, after all, is what it was built for.

But a looming challenge is how to tailor both the phones and their marketing to make them more appealing to all those mainstream users who are buying their first smartphone.

For Sprint, one step in this process has been the creation of Sprint ID–a system that lets phone buyers customize their device with one or more themed “packs,” which install a series of themes, widgets and applications with a single click.

Sprint launched the effort back at the CTIA show in October, but is now getting up to speed by both adding more devices compatible with Sprint ID and by lining up some brand-name content. This week, Sprint announced a new MTV-themed pack that combines news from MTV, music from Pandora and an app that helps highlight new artists based on social networking trends.

There’s clearly some room here for device makers and carriers. Even Google’s Andy Rubin, the father of Android, concedes that thus far Android has been best suited for techies.

“I would probably characterize Android as it is today as an early adopters’ platform,” Rubin said at last week’s D: Dive Into Mobile. “It’s for the tech enthusiast and people who are married to the tech enthusiast.”

That is quickly changing, though, with Android making up a greater and greater percentage of phone sales at Sprint and elsewhere.

“You are moving to the mass majority,” said David Owens, Sprint’s vice president of consumer marketing. “That’s not a group of people that are going to go in and customize their device.”

Sprint ID allows them to pick an interest and get all kinds of related content. From there, users can uninstall components or add other applications, but Owens said it gives users a starting point and Sprint a way to stand out from the competition.

Initially, Sprint ID packs were offered as options on two Android models, and more recently Sprint added the lower-end Optimus S to the mix. Owens said those who have one of the three phones have downloaded, on average, two of the themed packs. Sprint plans to eventually offer Sprint ID on all its Android devices.

Sprint ID opens the door to some alternative revenue possibilities for advertising or sales of premium content, but currently all the packs are free, and Sprint is not banking on much in the way of additional bucks for now.

So far, it has about 15 of the different packs, each geared to specific topics and identities, ranging from the MTV pack, to one for golf enthusiasts to several targeted specifically to Latinos. (Latino MTV watchers who love to play 18 holes needn’t worry–users can install up to six different packs and switch among them.)

What has been lacking until now is much in the way of brand power, though Owens said Sprint hopes to change this with MTV and other packs in the pipeline. He wouldn’t give any hints, but said there should be more announcements by CES.

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There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of blows.

— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google