“Help This (F**king) Company”
If you’ve stuck around in the mobile tech scene since 2013, that little quote above is very familiar and it’s still being used today to describe a smartphone OEM called HTC, based in Taiwan and was known as “High Tech Company” back in the day.
HTC started out as an ODM, or Original Design Manufacturer, basically building devices for other companies according to their schematics. It wasn’t until much later that HTC started building their own devices and made a name for themselves in innovation. Well, such times are far behind now, as HTC continues to struggle with financial issues, reaching deeper in the red with every passing fiscal quarter. It’s a watershed moment, but one that won’t seem to be ending in favor of the company in light of some recent decisions.
WHY IS THIS SUCH A BIG DEAL?
If you’re relatively new to the mobile tech scene, you can be forgiven for not knowing that the company exists. Though back in the day, HTC was known as a relentless innovator, coming out with a bunch of new stuff that seemed to bring something new, along with some products which have now achieved legendary status. Some of which include;
HTC HD2 – A Windows phone that is now considered a legend due to its relative ease in loading a different system image, making it one of the easiest devices to load non-official firmware, even ones not designed for the device originally. The HD2 is currently able to run Android Nougat and may well be able to run Android O.
T-Mobile G1 – Known as the HTC Dream internationally, the G1 was the first commercially available Android device, launched in 2008 and although it received mixed reviews due to its design and young software, some noted the potential of the platform. Who knew its openness would soon become Android’s greatest strength (but also its biggest weakness).
HTC Evo 4G – While it runs on WiMAX and not LTE, the Evo 4G was the first commercially available device sold in the United States that had 4G connectivity of any kind. It also had a large-at-the-time 4.3″ display that was one of the earlier devices to kickstart a screen-size expansion before the original Samsung Galaxy Note. It was launched in 2010 as a Sprint-exclusive.
HTC One (M7) – At a time when most flagship Androids were made out of cheap flimsy hard glossy plastic (soft-touch plastic is how it should be done, OEMs), the original HTC One was quite a revelation. Not only did it have an exterior that’s 70% aluminum, it also had a great set of speakers that still sound better than a lot of current phones. The weak battery life and poor (but ambitious) camera let it down somewhat, but it did prove that flagship Androids didn’t need to feel flimsy.
SO, WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG?
Well, remember when HTC used to be the king of Android phones? While Apple was (and still is) the 800-pound gorilla when it came to sales and market share (at least in comparison to Android’s early days), when it came to Android phones, HTC was the undisputed champ in Android-land.
That is until these little guys dropped.
Samsung joined the smartphone leagues in a big way with the Galaxy S in 2010. A little late but better late than never, right? Well, even if we can point to some “inspirations” from a certain fruit-named company, the Korean electronics giant did see success with the original Galaxy S and its successor, the Galaxy S2, with were sleeker than the comparatively bulky and heavy HTC rivals, which seemed better fit for the general consumer.
It wasn’t until 2012 where HTC really felt the pinch.
HTC’s One X was the company’s 2012 flagship, and its chief Android rival was the Samsung Galaxy S3, while they’re both very similar in many key areas, like size, display resolution, raw processor specs and camera resolution, some are keen to call the One X the better overall device owing to its build quality and software.
However, the One X proved to be a bit of a commercial flop. It wasn’t that the phone was outright terrible (although its battery life is pretty poor), but because HTC failed to adequately market the darn thing. On the other hand, Samsung relentlessly pushed commercials and promotions for the Galaxy S3, ultimately culminating in a huge advertising campaign for the 2012 London Summer Olympics. As a result, the S3 was a huge success, with tens of millions of units sold in less than half-a-year.
From that experience, you would expect that HTC would learn from that and make sure that future devices are better prepped for the ever-increasing competition. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The M7 fell into manufacturing issues with led to a staggered release, and while its successor, the HTC One M8 fared much better, since then, the company has kept struggling, seemingly stumbling on its own feet in areas where it shouldn’t have. Some of it include;
HTC One M9 – The successor to the One M8, but unless you flip it to the back, you wouldn’t know it. HTC hasn’t changed much on the device and while it does still look unique, from a consumer standpoint, it looks somewhat dated, especially as its chief Android rival has turned its slowly-sinking ship around in the looks department with the S6. The underwhelming camera, controversial processor and subpar battery life due to that processor also contributed to a somewhat “dead” market response to the device.
The One M9+ did bring a larger QHD display and a fingerprint sensor, but neuters the entire experience with a MediaTek Helio X10. It also didn’t help that a leak from Evan Blass raised expectations to very high levels.
HTC One A9 – As it turned out, the HTC One M9 wasn’t actually HTC’s hero device for 2015. Oh, no no no. That actually was supposed to come later in the year, and it was called the One A9. And yes, you’re forgiven if you thought it looked a lot like an iPhone 6. Sure, Apple had the same antenna-band design, but the A9’s camera lens position (though centralized) and overall shape is a near-dead ringer for an iPhone 6. For fans of the company’s design legacy, this was definitely polarizing. It also didn’t help that the phone had a bit of an anemic battery for its size (2150mAh) and was priced at $499, the same price as a 32GB Nexus 6P, along with Europeans getting a less-appealing variant. Oh, and it actually has a successor, the A9s, which is actually less appealing than the A9. On the plus side, its software is great and performance is top-notch. Worth Nexus 6P money, though? This guy doesn’t think so.
OKAY. WHAT ABOUT NOW?
Well, remember the HTC 10? It was the one phone that should have signalled the comeback of HTC from its rather dismal 2015 (and yes, it was rather dismal, even going down to the company being worth less than the cash it had in the bank), and quite a number of people thought so.
The HTC 10 has managed to successfully right the wrongs of its predecessor in many ways. While it does retain a familiar design, it’s refreshed with capacitive buttons (and a fingerprint sensor) along with large heavy chamfers that give it a fresh but unique look. It also featured a much improved camera featuring a Sony Exmor RS IMX377 1/2.3″ 12.3MP sensor paired with an f/1.8 26mm lens and OIS and a very beefy dedicated DAC and amp combo. Other improvements like USB-C and a QHD display are expected, but no-less welcome and while HTC’s new speaker layout isn’t as beefy or loud as the M9 and its predecessors, it does still sound better than a lot of smartphone speakers, and also packs in a more efficient Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, which rights many wrongs of the 810.
By that account, you’d expect the 10 to bring HTC back on the map with strong sales. But no. It didn’t.
While the phone did help reduce losses later on, sales weren’t meeting expectations, not even close. The phone was $700, and while it did offer quite a bit for that money, its chief Android rival had already launched the Galaxy S7 line, righting many wrongs with both of its predecessors along with its typical heavy marketing. The 10 also launched in the age where $400 phones got really good, meaning that selling just a solid device isn’t enough to warrant a premium price tag. Did HTC learn?
Sadly, no. They still haven’t.
Aside from the HTC Bolt (known as the HTC 10 Evo outside the US), which had the same controversial Snapdragon 810 SoC as the M9 and the loss of the headphone jack and was also priced high up at $600, HTC’s real sin should probably be the U Ultra, HTC’s highest-end device for the first few months of 2017.
The U Ultra is only the second truly huge HTC device in recent memory, the first one being 2013’s 5.9″ One Max. Featuring a 5.7″ QHD IPS main panel plus a 0.2″ secondary ticker, the U Ultra is properly massive, even more so than Huawei’s Mate 9 superphablet. The U Ultra also retails for $749 excluding tax as an unlocked-only device in the United States. With taxes, it can go over $800, depending on state. That is a huge price to pay and you’d expect that what you get in return is a truly compelling handset that packs in everything but the kitchen sink and some unique features to help it stand apart. Well, unfortunately, as I mentioned in one of my earlier articles, HTC has not learnt its lesson yet again and the U Ultra has several shortcomings that really plagued the device’s reputation. Compared to its smaller metal sibling, the HTC 10, the U Ultra has;
- The same 3000mAh capacity battery as its much smaller sibling, but with a much larger display along with a secondary ticker.
- Lack of a dedicated 3.5mm headphone jack along with beefy dedicated hardware. The device strangely and bizarrely does not ship with an adapter and the included USonic earbuds don’t work with non-HTC USB-C devices. This was also the case with the Bolt, so it’s disturbing to see this continue.
- Lack of water-resistance or dust-proofing (which the Bolt had).
- No wireless charging despite the glass back.
- Some machine-learning features that Google Now already does.
- Higher MSRP
Aside from the similar performance and huge camera hump, which don’t matter as much compared to the above, the U Ultra really doesn’t seem to offer much of a compelling reason to pick it up over some of its rival offerings. You can buy the Huawei Mate 9 pictured above, which is actually slightly smaller overall in comparisons but has a similar combined screen size with a much larger 4000mAh battery and arguably more features at a more palatable $599. The OnePlus 3T isn’t as large, but at $440 – $480, it’s an extremely compelling package. LG’s G6 and Samsung’s Galaxy S8 are coming and they’re probably going to offer features not found in the U Ultra for around the same or lower price point.
And what was HTC’s response to all of this? Release a $150 more expensive version of the U Ultra with sapphire and 128GB of storage. *facepalm*
Really, though. The one factor in why HTC is still failing is because they’ve still got their heads high up in the clouds.
HTC doesn’t seem to realize that the smartphone market has changed dramatically since losing to Samsung in 2012 and despite these massive changes, the company still insists on making very solid but also very expensive smartphones, despite falling sales year-over-year.
This isn’t 2012 to 2013 where most of its rivals lack polish or slick software and where sub-$400 phones were trash sandwiches in comparison to flagships. This is 2017, where expensive flagship phones have been very refined and have added some extra-but-useful lifestyle addons like water + dust resistance, enhanced audio, adaptable cameras and long battery life.
Since 2016, the premium-midrange/budget buster market, conceived by the Nexus 4 + 5 and made popular by the OnePlus One, have gotten much more enticing, with OnePlus’ own OnePlus 3 and 3T leading the charge, while being followed by similarly enticing options like the extreme audio of ZTE’s Axon 7 or the beauty and stills performance of the camera bolted on Huawei’s Honor 8. Those phones cost between $400 for the Axon and Honor and $440 – $480 for the 3T depending on storage, and all offer very high-end hardware and come very close to the experience of a proper flagship without the flagship tax penalty.
These market changes mean that selling a phone whose main distinction is being a pretty plus solid handset for a high price isn’t going to cut it anymore as flagships and even mid-priced devices carry that same distinction. If HTC still insists on charging very premium prices, it better come up with a very compelling selling point. The 10 had beefy audio as one of its prime selling points, but the loss of the headphone jack and its accompanying high-end audio chops mean that that’s no longer the case until it is brought back. Good design and slick software isn’t enough in 2017 when even a $400 Honor 8 has the same distinction. HTC needs something seriously compelling, and software that’s branded as an “AI companion” even though it’s not really AI isn’t it.
The HTC 11, HTC’s actual hero smartphone for 2017, needs to make a very strong first impression. The U Ultra barely nails the core smartphone essentials, which makes it a very tough recommendation at its current price tag. The 11 needs to absolutely nail those essentials while adding features that help define the company while also being useful so that they’re not considered gimmicks. The company also needs to properly and adequately market the device so that consumers will know about it and can garner enough interest for it to have a chance. And no, releasing a “special”, more expensive version of a phone that no one seems interested in isn’t the way to do it.
But in light of these recent events, maybe the HTC 11 will just be another expensive HTC that barely edges out a OnePlus without a headphone jack and offers less than the equivalent Samsung or Huawei, and then there’ll be a limited offering that costs even more with new additions that no one asked for.
Please prove me wrong, HTC. You’ll need to.