Monday, January 21, 2013

HTC's Survival

It's common knowledge in the tech world that HTC is not doing so well.

HTC's Q4 profits shrank by 91% to $34.4 million, the lowest they have been in 9 years, but this is no surprise. HTC have been struggling for quite some time now, although I can only comment past July 2011 as that's when my interest in Android first manifested.

At that time HTC were currently touting the HTC Sensation as their flagship phone, which happens to be the phone I am currently  holding. It was somewhat of a rushed release in my opinion, most likely due to the negatie reception of the HTC Thunderbolt released only months before. While being one of the first 4G capable phones, the Thunderbolt suffered from laughably poor battery life, a 'feature' held by all 4G phones 'back in the day', and I personally value battery life over almost every other feature in a smartphone, especially form factor. HTC hoped that the Sensation would put them back into the Android vs Apple game, which by then was more like Samsung vs Apple and that has unfortunately not changed since. I say unfortunately because variety is important for consumers and therefore having just two companies dominating all competition is not ideal. Obviously as their profits continue to decline exponentially, it is clear the Sensation did not complete this objective.

The Thunderbolt suffered from poor battery life, but why wasn't the Sensation an overwhelming success? HTC phones are known for their excellent build quality, and after witnessing friends breaking their smartphones' screen, I was impressed to find the Sensation could easily survive equal treatment. The screen is curved inwards in such a way that if you were to drop the device on its face it would come away with only a few scratches on the bezel, given it is not dropped from a considerable height. So what's the problem with all this? What's stronger, a brick or a sheet of glass? A brick, obviously. But what's more visually appealing? This is essentially the difference between HTC's phones and virtually all other smartphone manufacturers, namely Samsung. HTC phones have impressive build quality but they just don't look as stylish or sleek, and I understand that that's something you must sacrifice for better build quality but consumers see products before holding them. Therefore if they saw a Galaxy SII and Sensation side-by-side, they would choose to pick up the Galaxy. Or maybe they wouldn't, I don't know for sure. But what I do know is I certainly would. It is simply miles more visually appealing.

HTC continued to go through a slew of phones in 2011 including the Amaze and Rezound, adhering to their business model of releasing an entirely new 'latest and greatest' device approximately every three months. I used to hear that and think it was a hyperbole but it isn't. And I don't know who's idea that was but they should be fired because it simply makes no sense. I believe the logic was more products=more profits but any truly successful company would tell you that's just ridiculous. How many current iPhones are there? 1. How many current high-end Samsung devices are there? 2. The problem is the average consumer would either feel overwhelmed by choice (I mentioned that choice is good for consumers but too much choice is not!) and decide to turn to competing companies, or may decide to hold-off from purchasing a new device because they are fully aware of the fact that it will be obsolete in several months at the latest. In both situations, an HTC phone is not purchased by the consumer.

It finally looked like this trend of constant new HTC phones was to end just over a year ago when HTC began the new year, announcing that it would focus on one particular moniker for all their phones (HTC One), the total amount of which would be reduced to a single digit. So HTC had finally woken up and realised their big mistake. Or so I thought. Out of the flames, three great phones emerged. The HTC One X, HTC One S, and HTC One V. Simplicity: A single high-end, mid-range and low-range device for the masses. The One X in particular was hailed by critics and Android enthusiasts alike and actually outperformed most other 2012 phones including the Galaxy S3. The featured camera was one of the best ever contained in a phone, and the CPU either Tegra 3 (making the One X the first phone to tout a Tegra 3 processor) or Qualcomm S4 for LTE, both of which delivered fairly even performance. The design of the phone itself received a major overhaul from HTC's 2011 template, with a much sleeker unibody design. HTC had managed to preserve build quality while increasing the visual appeal of the device.

HTC had a winner on their hands. Or did they? I was personally disappointed by the lack of expandable storage (one of my favourite features on my Android devices), a non-removable battery, Tegra 3 which I hate for reasons I shall explain at a later time, and lastly, soft-key buttons. HTC, why in the world did you use soft-key buttons? The future of Android is on-screen buttons in my opinion so Samsung and HTC, follow suit. Why was this such a big deal for me? Well, the soft-key buttons were unlike those in previous HTC devices mainly because the search button and more importantly the context button was absent. So when an app required the context button it would display as an on-screen button and take up as much space as all 3 buttons would have. HTC eventually tried to fix this issue but it was still an extremely poor design choice. But that was me, what about everyone else? Answer: Marketing and release. HTC simply never managed to captivate consumers like Apple or Samsung manage to, and also the fact that the phone was not released carrier-wide hurt sales. Why HTC chose to do this I have no idea. Bad move HTC. But perhaps the biggest problem with the marketing was: why would a company of HTC's size (ie. not large) attempt to target three different markets at once? It makes no financial sense.

As 2012 progressed HTC noted that their profits continued falling. So what was the solution? Seemingly to undo all headway made at the start of the year and start flooding the market with devices and names once more. Off the top of my head, HTC phones released in 2012 include the following: One X, One S, One V, Evo 4G LTE, One SV, One X+, Butterfly, Desire C, Desire V, Desire X, Droid DNA and I know there are more. What about when that strategy didn't work? Release two Windows Phones (The 8X to which I offer HTC praise for further attempting to gain visual appeal although perhaps it borrowed a little too much from Lumia). Essentially even more phones, but this time to a much less popular market, already dominated by the Nokia Lumia series. Sure, HTC, that will work (it didn't).

The other major thing holding HTC back, for which it has offered minimal attention, is software. HTC have one of the worst trackrecords when it comes to releasing new Android updates for their phone catalogue and I don't blame them when that catalogue is the size of a phone book. But that needs to change. If removing HTC Sense or at least toning it down from their phones would mean faster updates, then make it happen. In fact, I find HTC Sense to be downright ugly I still believe that it sucks an unecessarily large amount of resources despite what fans of Sense 4+ have claimed. I installed an AOSP rom on my phone within haf an hour of purchasing it. There isn't much more I can say about Sense as it purely comes down to preference.

So what is the key to HTC's Survival? I'm currently struggling to find employment and wish I was hired by HTC because I could give them a lot of suggestions which I fully expect would help the company bounce back. Firstly, pledge to target a specific market and OS and refrain from using many different monikers for devices. When you say Apple I say iPhone. When you say Samsung I say Galaxy. When you say Nokia I say Lumia. When you say HTC I say nothing. HTC, you need to create a recognisable moniker that can be easily associated with your name. Also I would release no more than 3 devices, possibly even 2, per year. Next I would strive to include features that consumers are able to value, making them appreciate the device more such as expandable memory, a removable battery, both of which are becoming a rarity, and also a higher capacity battery. But at the same time I would look into providing features that are unique to that device and therefore make it more prefereable than the competition to consumers, such as a high quality camera which HTC has already delivered on. I would then revisit HTC's design template and look into making it more elegant if possible, without sacrificing build quality. I would definitely rid the design of soft-keys and choose to use on-screen buttons. Finally, I would completely scrap HTC Sense and go AOSP. Please HTC, just murder the beast you so unwisely created. Rid the world of Sense.

Rumours of a new flagship HTC device, the HTC M7, have been floating around for a few weeks and new images have merged today. Quite frankly it shows HTC is doing nothing of what I believe will see them through their financial troubles.

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