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AH Primetime: HTC Needs To Build & Market A Champion

February 26, 2016 - Written By David Steele

When the One M8 was released, I upgraded to this device and it’s now approaching two years old. For one reason or another, 2015’s flagship devices left me cold. There simply weren’t enough reasons for me to upgrade my device. And this appears to have been HTC’s problem in 2015: how are they going to improve upon the M9 for 2016 and persuade customers to upgrade?

Let’s take a look at where HTC are and importantly where the industry is. HTC’s flagship handsets have come with a number of known features for the last three generations. We’ve benefited from an aluminum unibody design, BoomSound stereo front facing speakers, and HTC’s Sense overlay complete with BlinkFeed and Zoe. In 2013, relatively few devices had a front facing speaker set up but now things are different and many devices come with this. HTC Sense adds more to Android than it takes away and over the years it’s been pulled closer to Google’s stock interface, but the stock Android experience has also improved in the years. Meanwhile, more and more devices are being made of aluminum and the material is found in mid-range devices too. As a business, HTC has also changed – we’ve seen management and key designer changes and the stock price has suffered from severe falls. HTC remains a fiercely independent company but has been linked with a series of potential suitors. The manufacturer continues to release a number of mid-range and high end handsets but is facing difficult headwinds are is struggling to differentiate its products from the competition.

Not unlike Motorola, many of HTC’s ideas have been “borrowed” by other manufacturers. Apple and Google have adopted the concept of larger pixels for improved low light photography (as per the UltraPixel idea), but took the concept one stage further to use a larger number of megapixels in their cameras. Google, joined by Motorola and Sony, have also introduced front facing speakers in several handsets. HTC’s live photo idea, behind HTC Zoe, has been adopted across the industry. HTC’s devices and software were innovative but quickly became the new norm. And now HTC faces Samsung in one corner, now offering a premium hardware design and software that is (still) being cleaned up. In another corner, we have Apple, producing premium, desirable and expensive devices. And another corner we see a whole range of manufacturers undercutting HTC with devices that are often comparable: Xiaomi and Huawei are building unibody aluminum devices and selling them for much less than HTC. Manufacturers are finding it harder and harder to make money in the smartphone world: sales and profit margins are being squeezed from both sides. HTC are caught between a rock, a hard place, and the ocean with a rising tide.

We’ve seen HTC diversify its product range: the RE Camera and SteamVR-equipped Vive spring to mind. At the time of writing, the business is notably absent from the wearable market although this is arguably sensible given the difficulties of an immature market. The company released the HTC One A9 in late 2015 calling it a “hero device,” which offered a handsome design and middling specification – tellingly, the One A9’s camera scored higher in the DxO Mark camera shootout compared with the flagship One M9. Yes; the One A9 looks like the iPhone, and yes the marketing was bizarre proclaiming that it had a design worth copying, but it does hint at some changes under the skin. HTC promised to keep (some variants of) the One A9’s software updated and the Sense interface is closer to stock Google. These two probably go hand in hand; the further away an interface is from stock, the more effort required to keep the software updated. Google is slowly changing how Android software updates work and we need to see more manufacturers following their lead.

Writing of the One M10: customers will expect a fantastic experience. That means a fast and efficient System-on-Chip, decent battery life, a great camera and screen, and a smooth and fluid software experience. If there is a fingerprint scanner – and surely there will be one – it has to work accurately and quickly. The device needs to improve upon its successor, the One M9, in every respect – which is something the M9 cannot claim. HTC has access to the same hardware components as the competition, which means it must add value through software and design. It is increasingly difficult for a manufacturer to add value through changes in design, which brings us to the software. We have a leaked clue as to the software that the M10 will run: it appears that it will use HTC Sense 8.0_G. To put this into perspective, the One A9 used Sense 7.0_G and this “G” means a closer experience to a stock Google device. HTC may be pulling Sense closer to stock Android. We may see a similar approach to Motorola’s “stock plus” approach, that is HTC could try adding a small, select group of features to enhance and upgrade the stock experience, whilst bringing Google’s software updates to customers shortly after they are released. This could be difficult to execute: we have to hope that Sense 8.0_G is not a lesser version of Sense 7.0 and the stock interface and that HTC have learned from their 2014 Google Nexus 9 experience.

HTC also need strong and effective marketing. Both Apple and Samsung have the marketing genius; HTC needs this too. Unfortunately for HTC, Apple and Samsung have deep pockets and a more recognizable brand image. The device needs to come first, but a brilliant device will not sell well with limited marketing, whereas a mediocre device pushed in front of potential customers with a huge marketing effort will. Thanks, Apple. Ultimately, HTC faces another difficult year. I for one hope that HTC return to greatness, because the Android community needs great devices and new takes on existing software solutions to encourage innovation.