Leap plans 'Android feature phone.' Wait, what?

SAN DIEGO--Cricket provider Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP) plans to launch a feature phone that runs Google's Android operating system. The move, said Leap's Sergio Garcia, is intended to reduce the cost of the phone while simultaneously providing users with access to the company's popular Muve Music download service.

The approach is notable since Android is specifically designed to power smartphones. Garcia, Leap's senior director of business and product management, said the carrier plans to use Android as the platform to power its forthcoming feature phone but will strip away much of what makes Android a smartphone platform, including many of Google's services like Gmail, search and access to the Android Market.

"It leverages Android architecture to deliver a feature phone experience," Garcia explained, noting that users won't be able to install Android apps but also won't have to pay the higher monthly fees that Leap's Android smartphone users do.

Garcia offered precious few details on the forthcoming phone, which he said will be released before year-end. (Garcia wouldn't name the vendor and declined to provide any specifications or a selling price.) However, Garcia explained that the phone essentially represents an effort by the company to keep the cost of the phone low by constructing it to run the Android version of the company's Muve Music application. By taking this approach, Leap can install the Android Muve Music application without rewriting the app for a different feature phone operating system, and the carrier can also sell the phone with its less expensive feature phone monthly service plan. Leap's Muve Music costs $55 per month on a feature phone and $65 per month on an Android smartphone.

"We took a novel approach and we'll see how the market accepts it," Garcia said.

Leap introduced its Muve Music service early this year via a feature phone. The company, which now counts more than 200,000 Muve Music users, in September moved the service onto its Android phones. The carrier's forthcoming Muve Music-capable "Android feature phone" essentially represents a refresh to the feature phone side of Leap's Muve Music business.

Separately, Garcia said Leap also "soon" plans to sell the Huawei Mercury, which he described as a high-end Android phone running version 2.3 of Google's smartphone platform. Garcia declined to provide specifications, a price or a release date. However, the company did say that the Mercury will be released before the end of the year.

Garcia also provided a few updates on the prepaid carrier's handset plans. He said Leap is "having discussions with BlackBerry about whether we will take any of their next-generation products. Those discussions continue."

Though Garcia didn't provide details, his comments likely mean Leap is considering selling phones running Research In Motion's new BlackBerry 7 operating system.

Garcia also said Leap is considering selling Windows Phone devices as well as tablets, though he said no decisions have been made. Leap recently discontinued plans to sell a Wi-Fi-only ViewSonic Android tablet with a 7-inch screen.

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