For the Sake of Change: an HTC Story.
The reviews are in, and the consensus is clear: the HTC One M9 is a total letdown.
The only problem is that it isn't - we are.
With the One M9, HTC is doing what most other phone manufacturers should be doing - taking a single industrial design language, and refining upon it with each iteration. Starting with the One X in 2012, before the One M7 came out in 2013, HTC began to take design seriously. Gone were the days of clunky black slabs that didn't differentiate themselves from other black slabs out on the market, and in was the era of thoughtful, ergonomic, industrial phone design.
HTC was one of the first companies to really make an outstanding unibody phone, and despite the 2012 iteration being plastic, they took what they had learned and transformed it into the current One M series that we know today, starting with the One M7 in 2013.
While I absolutely loved, and still love, the design of the HTC One X, the Taiwanese company did the seemingly impossible, and made an even better looking device. The HTC One M7 was so lauded for it's near impeccable industrial design, that it in fact won several awards. In a time where most phone manufacturers were building devices with removable banks and expandable storage, HTC took the plunge into a single seamless, unibody experience. Despite their odd choice of capacitive buttons and a 4MP UltraPixel rear-facing camera, we loved them for what they did, especially with the front-facing BoomSound speakers.
Then came 2014's HTC One M8.
Once again, HTC came out swinging with the One M8. They took the design language first introduced in the M7, and further refined it, although not always for the better. The overly rounded edges and brushed metal back made for a slippery device that often left people's hands unexpectedbly. Returned, however, was the fantastic unibody anodized aluminum build that we had come to love from the M7, as well as the divisive 4MP Ultra Pixel camera, this time with a gimmicky second lens for after focusing Lyrto-esque effects.
Many felt like this phone, while a nice progression, was a bit of a letdown, especially regarding the camera. The "Black Bar", where the HTC logo resides, simply had to go in the M9, for it to really be successful.
Soon the "leaked" renders of the HTC One M9 "Hima" started to, well, leak.
I'll have to admit here, that when I saw this concept render, I fell in love. I so badly wanted HTC to take the design found in the One M series in a new direction, similar to that found in the Nexus 9. It seemed like the perfect evolution for the device - a refinement of an existing design language. Similar, but fresh.
About a month ago, HTC unveiled what the device would actually look like, and while I was a little let down, I was also excited.
HTC had listened to the users (for the most part). Gone was the rear-facing 4MP UltraPixel camera, moved to the front of the device, replaced instead by a 20MP Toshiba sensor. The edges had been slightly squared off slightly, bringing it back more in line with what the M7 had looked like. The power button no longer resided on the top of the device, but rather had been relocated to the right side - a move most phone OEMs have been making for sometime now.
The only issue most people seemed to have with the device was that the HTC Black Bar remained. They compared it to the LG G3, which has a similar sized screen in a much smaller package. What most people failed to take into account however, is that the LG G3 doesn't have front facing speakers, where as the HTC One M9 does. So the display drivers of the G3 can fit nicely into the minimal chin. On the M9, HTC needed to have the black bar in place so that the display drivers had somewhere to go. After all, with those BoomSound speakers everyone loves, where else would they have been able to place the display drivers?
Our expectations did not meet up with the reality, and I believe is why most people aren't into the M9 as much as they had hoped they would be.
And I get it. Yes, in three generations of the One M series, HTC didn't really change much. The devices largely look the same from just about any angle. The issue is that every critic seems to think that this is a terrible thing, when in fact, it's not. What is the point in changing the way a device looks every year if the industrial design has proven itself? It's pointless change just for the sake of it.
If Apple, a company notorious for not updating the industrial design for its hardware, can get away with it, why can't HTC? Look at how the iPhone 3GS looked identical to the previous 3G. Same goes for the 4S to the 4, and the 5S to the 5. Hell, look at their entire MacBook line. Aside from changing the body from a hardened plastic to a unibody aluminum, the design has largely been left unchanged since 2005, and that's because it works, and Apple knows it.
Even the 2014 Moto X is largely an incremental upgrade from its 2013 predecessor.
I think the problem isn't so much with HTC, as it is with our own expectations versus what reality has to offer. If the design works, stick with it. Don't let it get stale, but improve upon it in meaningful ways. Drastic change won't really happen overnight, from one device to the next. It takes time and patience.
Look at Samsung. From the S3-S5, they kept getting complaints about their usage of plastic, faux chrome and faux leather. What did they do? They built a small device called the Alpha, which was arguably their best looking device since the Galaxy S2. They took what they had learned from that and used it to build the S6 and S6 Edge (which I personally think are design disasters).
Before the Nexus 6 was released, almost everyone on r/android wanted a refreshed Nexus 5 - a phone with a slightly better camera and a slighty better battery. That alone proves that the main flagship line of a major phone OEM does not have to keep changing on a year to year basis. As long as there are meaningful tweaks and thoughtful refinements, people will likely be fine.
The M9 will likely continue to be a divisive device, and not the smash hit HTC wanted it to be, mostly because HTC is trying to build a timeless piece of design, and not a device that changes every year or two. While I don't agree with that idea, that a phone has to fundamentally change every two years, I understand why most critics aren't happy with the M9 - it's because they're tech nerds, like myself, and as such, want to have something new for the sake of having something new.
Note: Title image is sourced from The Verge.