For The Sake of Change: an HTC Story Part 2

Back in March of this year, wrote a fairly lengthy post that took a different position on the then newly released HTC One M9. Riding high from the praise of the 2013 and 2014 predecessors, HTC did little to change their newest flagship. I thought that this was an okay move, given the history of companies like Sony, Motorola, and Apple, all three of which do little to change the hardware aesthetics if it's proven to work for them. I thought that this was a good thing.

I was absolutely wrong. 

Since the One M9 was released, HTC has changed CEOs, releasing Peter Chou, who is still active in the process of making HTC's flagship devices, and bringing in Cher Wang, one of HTC co-founders. And since the One M9 was released, little has changed from the days of 2010.

Before HTC introduced the original One flagship phone in 2011, the One X, they had a similar approach as Samsung: flood the market with devices that would cover every possible price range. The corporate culture at HTC has always been about looking only at the short term success, instead of how releasing so many devices that differ only slightly from one another dilutes their brand identity and reduces their long term support. 

What HTC did in 2012 with the One X was remarkable. It seemed like the company had really turned itself around, by acknowledging the confusion around their devices and releasing and focusing on only one flagship device. However, in a matter of months, they released the One S, One V, One SV, One VX, and One X+, and devolved to carrier-specific releases like the HTC One X+ VZW 360°noscope 4GLTE BlazeIt revision 4.20 (2012) with Beats™ by Dre. It harkened back to the awful days of the Samsung Galaxy SII, and that was not a good sign. 

Fast forward to 2015, and not a whole lot has changed. HTC is still releasing different varients on the One M9 in the forms of the One ME9, the E9, and the M9+. I significantly doubt that HTC is making any profit on any of these devices, and are instead wasting R&D resources.

Whoever thought that this monstrosity was okay needs to be fired.

Whoever thought that this monstrosity was okay needs to be fired.

If HTC wants to see any success again, they need to, and I hate using this term, but they need to double down on really simplifying their product lineup. One high end phablet, one high end "mini". One midrange, and one low-end. Think Motorola, but instead have it come out of Taiwan. It doesn't end at the phones though. HTC needs to embrace what's part of their brand identity and loyalty, and what's not. By having effectively four devices, they need to support all of them in a timely manner. This means ditching Sense UI. 

Between 2008-2010, when Windows Phone (Windows Mobile at the time) and Android were butt-ugly and needed UI refinements to even begin to ccompare to iOS, Sense UI made, heh, sense. It was big and beautiful, and stood out. Today, with Google directly focusing on the UI & UX of Android, Sense UI (and TouchWiz, and whatever the crap LG puts on their devices) needs to go. Again, look at Motorola. They realized quickly that their skins weren't making for an enjoyable experience, and because of that, people weren't buying their phones. Sense UI is incredible bulky, and adds an unnecessary amount of weight to an otherwise slick & gorgeous interface. HTC needs to drop it, and do what Motorola is doing: stock Android with small, but meaningful software add-ons. No bloatware, which is what Sense has effectively become. 

I sincerely don't believe that there is any brand loyalty for Sense, and I doubt that anyone is buying an HTC device because of Sense. While Sense may not be nearly as offensive as TouchWiz, it still gets in the way more than Stock Android ever could. Blinkfeed is a poor man's Flipboard, and Zoe is a useless combination of Vine and .gifs that I have not seen used since it was first introduced in 2013 with the One M8. Sense is no more than a gimmick now, much like the Ultrapixel camera was.

What has become a part of HTC's brand identity is the front facing Boomsound speakers. It's a part of the overall aesthetic, and despite having a low end device, HTV should include it. If you buy an HTC, you get the best in class phone speakers. Not everyone wants or needs external speakers, and why need them anyway if you have an HTC with Boomsound? That right there is their first ad. 

When this render for the HTC One M9 Hima was leaked, everyone instantly fell in love. I know I did. I was hoping so hard that this would be the end product. It was the natural evolution of the One's hardware. Boomsound speakers that borrowed the design from the Nexus 9, a larger, higher pixel front facing camera, a reduced bezel size, with the HTC logo moved to the bottom of the glass panel, leaving more space for a larger screen in the same size footprint as the M8. This is what HTC should have gone with, because it would have been the stand out success that the M9 we currently have is not.

It's not just that the Sense UI is incredibly heavy, but by getting rid of it and adopting a Stock Android approach, HTC could effectively guarantee software updates for a minimum of two years. Right now, HTC devices are still on older versions of Lollipop, and will likely only get Android M one year after it is released, right around when Android N is announced. Sense only slows down the update process, as HTC needs to waste precious resources that they simply do not have on taking Android and customizing every aspect of it when it's just not needed any more. 

By using Stock Android, they could also help to improve the fragmented state of Android Security. Google was able to push out a software update for the recent Stage fright exploit, where as companies like Samsung & HTC have promised an update but with no timelines. By having so many hardware and software variants. OEMs are leaving large portions of their userbase vulnerable to attack, and that is just simply not okay in 2015. 

More than anything though, HTC needs to improve and invest in their marketing. Since 2011, the Taiwanese company's shares have fallen 95%, so much so that HTC's stock is worth less than the cash that they have on hand. In other words, to investors, HTC is absolutely worthless, and that is not a good position to be in. Looking at HTC's stock above, you can see that on August 7th, it crashed a full 10%, so much so that all trading needed to be halted. That didn't stop it from continuing to it's free fall three days later.

It's clear that when you look at the hard numbers, HTC as a whole lacks any clear and cohesive vision. They're unable to compete in the high end brackets against the likes of Apple and Samsung, the mid-range is dominated by Motorola & LG, and the low end by Chinese OEMs like Meizu, Huawei and Xiaomi. HTC is being squeezed out on all sides, and there is only one way that they can save themselves from themselves.

Marketing.

HTC needs to make customers love their brand again, and it ties into how they market their devices. The company needs to stop releasing different varients of their flagship worldwide, and have one consistent message. The flagship that you get in North America is the same as the flagship that you will get in China and Europe. One device to rule them all, which, incidentally, was the whole idea of the One series that HTC launched back in 2012. This goes back to my earlier point. Instead of wasting money on ad campaigns featuring Robert Downey Jr. that make absolutely no sense, HTC needs to focus on ad campaigns that actually work. They need to emulate Samsung & Apple, using tried and true methods. Campaigns that actually tell you what the phone is about and makes you want to purchase it. Campaigns that bring back that sense of brand loyalty, that plays off of Google's, Be Together, Not The Same, and says not everyone wants a Galaxy. That you can be different while still being meaningful. 

It just doesn't end with the campaigns though. HTC needs to also make a compelling phone. They need to iterate on the hardware, and not release three versions of the same device over three years as was the case with the M7, M8, and M9. HTC already has the hardware portion down. After the success of the M7 in 2013, every other OEM jumped on the premium feeling bandwagon, a path that HTC paved. Even the iPhone 6 borrowed heavily from the One M8. However, HTC needs to focus on the software side more than ever. They need to get rid of Sense, and embrace Stock Android. They need to promise support for a longer period of time and timely updates like Motorola. 

While HTC may also have other products in its portfolio, like the Vive VR headset and the Re action cam, and the still yet to be released smartwatch, those won't save HTC from completely collapsing in on itself. If there's one lesson that they should take from Microsoft and Nokia, it's that releasing 18 different midrange devices with slightly differing specs is not the way to win the hearts and minds of your consumers. 

It won't happen overnight, but the corporate culture at HTC definitely needs to change. One device, released every 12-18 months in each tier, high, mid, and low, will help bring the Taiwanese company back from the brink. In the end, HTC needs to understand that they are no longer the same company that they were in 2011. A little less trial and error will help them, because in the end, a novel idea won't save you. In fact, often times, it's not worth it.

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.

(Source:  The Verge  )  The 2012 HTC One X. 

(Source: The Verge ) The 2012 HTC One X. 

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.

(Source:  The Unlockr )  2013's HTC One M7 

(Source: The Unlockr2013's HTC One M7 

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.

(Source:  Greenbot )  2014's HTC One M8 

(Source: Greenbot2014'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. 

The M8 even partially inspired the iPhone's antenna breaks on the 6 and 6 Plus (even if Apple's weren't nearly as aesthetically pleasing)

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.

(Source:  Phone Arena )  HTC One M9 Hima Render 

(Source: Phone ArenaHTC One M9 Hima Render 

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.

(Source:  TechRadar )  2015's HTC One M9 

(Source: TechRadar2015's HTC One M9 

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.

(Source:  TechnoBuffalo )  The LG G3 

(Source: TechnoBuffaloThe LG G3 

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.

(Source:  MobileGeeks )  Left M7, Middle M8, Right M9

(Source: MobileGeeks) Left M7, Middle M8, Right M9

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.

Left: 2014 Moto X, Right: 2013 Moto X  (Source:  Phone Arena )

Left: 2014 Moto X, Right: 2013 Moto X (Source: Phone Arena)

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.