Why the HTC “One” Line Is a Big Change

HTC has always held a place of honor in the Android community in general. Since the launch of the Dream, they have grown bigger and stronger and have not looked back. While still holding an extremely influential place in the smartphone industry, they have evolved from their humble beginnings into one of the industry’s largest innovators.

However, at this year’s Mobile World Congress, HTC’s launch of the One series of smartphones signalled a shift in philosophies that had served them well for the past couple of years, but was starting to show signs of weakness. I believe that this change is definitely for the better, and indicates exciting times ahead for HTC, consumers and developers.

A Brief History: Then…

HTC ushered Android into the world with the HTC Dream (better known as the T-Mobile G1 in the USA). Even prior to that phone, they built up quite a reputation as innovators in the industry, having manufactured the first Microsoft smartphone, iPAQ, and the first ever 3G phone as well.

Most of HTC’s initial success was powered by the US smartphone industry. They built strong ties with the Big 4 carriers, more notably Sprint and T-Mobile. They ensured that those two carriers would continue to promote their phones ahead of the other options at that time. They wanted to show that getting a smartphone was an affordable and a viable option – they knew that, if they could show that, they would be able to capture a large part of the early adopters and early majority looking to switch to the next generation technology.

The T-mobile G1, running Android 1.5

This is why the HTC Dream was such a pivotal device; it represented many firsts, both for HTC and the entire mobile industry. It was the first phone released that ran Android, which was the first mobile OS open-sourced and available completely free of charge to manufacturers (as long as they were part of the Open Handset Alliance). It was therefore a very risky (and eventually very successful) first step for HTC, Google and T-Mobile, since no one had any idea what sort of a market existed for such devices and when (if at all) people would take advantage of the open source nature of the OS!

However, this move started HTC’s period of stellar growth and brought Android to the attention of OEMs all over the world. Other highlights of the period include HTC winning the right to manufacture the first Nexus device, the Nexus One, which brought Android 2.1 to the masses; and the launch of Sense, their custom overlay for Android, on the HTC Hero.

At that point in time, especially with Eclair, Sense made the whole UI so much more usable and user-friendly than the stock ROM that it looked like a completely new OS entirely = and that was a good thing. They added many new features and widgets that greatly improved the overall functionality of Android and really made the whole experience feel more integrated. They then continued to manufacture a variety of devices, all differing in their hardware offerings but continuing to sport their trademark Sense UI.

…And Now

When HTC started having problems, many people (including myself) recognized the situation as similar to what Nokia had experienced: marketing (and to a smaller extent allocation of resources) had become a problem.

HTC had started churning out handsets which exhibited only minor differences in terms of the hardware and none in terms of the software. This strategy certainly made sense in the US, since this allowed them to market the same handsets on different carriers while keeping the products differentiated from each other. Internationally, however, this served to confuse customers rather than to give them a choice of handsets.

The HTC Sensation

For example, the Sensation (launched in May 2011) and the Evo 3D (launched in July 2011) released within two months of each other, and yet both were promoted as flagship phones soon after they released. The only major differences between them included the form factor, battery size and the 3D recording and playback feature in the Evo 3D.

The HTC Evo 3D

The Salsa was pretty much the Chacha with a larger screen. The Vivid launched as a flagship in September 2011, and was almost immediately replaced by the Amaze in October at the top of the chain. The Amaze had a slightly smaller screen size with the same resolution (4.3″ qHD compared to 4.5″ qHD), but its advertised killer feature was its new and improved camera – hardly enough to merit a new high-end device.

Enter Samsung

This is where Samsung hit HTC hard, especially in the last couple of quarters. Samsung came out with precisely one high end Android – the Galaxy S II – and they marketed it as such. They put a lot of effort and R&D into that one device, and then they kept it at the top for quite a while. This helped build up a solid reputation for the phone across continents, and that intensive marketing effort paid off with some stellar sales figures all over the world. But in HTC’s case, it was not possible to focus on and market any one device, since there were so many that had similar specs and had launched within months of each other.

Consumers did not take kindly to this behavior for primarily one reason: simply put, consumers like having the latest device. Rolling out a new high end device every second month is definitely not going to keep your customers very happy. Imagine how a customer who has just spent two or three hundred dollars on a smartphone on contract feels when a brand new device comes out soon after, rendering his handset “outdated”! While the older phone will still be functioning perfectly well, it will lose almost all its charm since people will be talking about the new phone simply due to its later release.

Supporting a large fleet of smartphones poses its own set of problems, most notably keeping all of them regularly updated. Even if a device is meant to be updated, Sense will now hinder rather than help the updating process, since integrating Sense into each new version of Android takes significantly longer than simply rolling out an update for the stock interface.

HTC One X: A True Flagship Device

At the recently convened MWC in Barcelona, HTC stole center stage on Day 1 with the announcement of the HTC One series of smartphones. With it, they took a huge step in terms of correcting that strategy that was now starting to give them problems.

Peter Chow, CEO of HTC announcing the One series of smartphones at MWC 2012

The One line of smartphones signals consolidation. As the CEO Peter Chou insinuated during the press conference, this change in philosophy is going to ensure that they stockpile and pool more resources into fewer, higher quality smartphones and put all resources behind marketing those phones correctly.

Looking at the One X itself, it is clear that HTC has put a lot of effort into making this one phone; more importantly, this move also proved that they were taking customer feedback seriously. Sense 4.0, the version that ships on all the One phones, is significantly less intrusive and overpowering than the previous versions of Sense, keeping most of the aesthetics of the stock Ice Cream Sandwich UI intact.

Apart from the visually stunning hardware and the changes to Sense, significant improvements were made to the camera and processor of the One X as well, making it truly worthy of the title of “flagship device”. Hopefully with this new strategy they should be able to put up a good fight against Samsung and any future top of the line models that they happen to release.

I currently own a Sensation, and although I am (still) waiting for my ICS update to hit, I am really excited to see the direction HTC is heading in. They might have convinced me to be their customer for a few more years.