Move over, Palm (NASDAQ:PALM) Pre. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) wants some shelf space in those Sprint-Nextel (NYSE:S) stores you've been anchoring since May.

You'll soon have your choice of high-end smartphones on the Sprint network -- and a choice of networks selling Android phones. The HTC Hero handset will be available through Sprint starting Oct. 11. For a measly $180 and a two-year contract commitment, you'll get 3G high-speed networking, a 5-megapixel camera with auto-zoom, and arguably the most polished Android interface yet.

T-Mobile has been selling Android phones since last fall, and recently launched the spiffy MyTouch phone. The Hero adds an overhauled user interface called HTC Sense that puts social media channels like Twitter, Flickr, and Facebook right at your fingertips. It's slick enough that some intrepid phoneaholics have installed a Sense-like environment on their Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhones. Given Apple's reputation for excellence in user experiences, that act of Apple heresy is mighty high praise.

The European version of the Hero even supports Adobe (NASDAQ:ADBE) Flash right out of the box. While Sprint didn’t explicitly mention Flash in its press release, it’s not a stretch to imagine that this feature should be coming stateside in short order, which could make surfing the Internet on mobile devices a bit more user-friendly. And the phone is coated in Teflon -- not so you can fry eggs on the battery cover, but to avoid unsightly fingerprints and grease marks. Those are features Apple cannot match.

Those Androids are starting to look slick -- and they'll only get better. Google claims it will have at least 18 different models on the market by the end of 2009, and some of them look even more impressive than the Hero. We've known since time immemorial that Sprint would join the bandwagon; I'm left wondering why they waited so long, but at least Sprint is starting its Android support in style.

The Palm Pre's sales haven't exactly impressed, making the Hero look a bit like a Hail Mary from the beleaguered telecom. If Sprint wants Google to save its bacon, it should go all the way and introduce a range of models to cover multiple price points and target markets. Samsung and Motorola (NYSE:MOT) both have several models on the cooker, and HTC has more than just the Hero. If Sprint is smart, it'll shoot out a whole bunch of new product announcements over the coming weeks and months.

It's a race against time, and a battle fought with unconventional and unproven weapons. Will it be enough to pull Sprint out of the fire, or will Verizon (NYSE:VZ) end up buying another also-ran network with Verizon-esque network technology? Only time will tell, but you could share your two cents in the comments below.

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