[Op-Ed]HTC is back to making great phones, so why are they still struggling?

HTC ruled Android phones in 2010.  They started the year off by releasing the Nexus One and then followed that up by releasing the Droid Incredible on Verizon in April and the Evo 4G on Sprint in June.  The Droid Incredible and Evo 4G in particular received significant advertising support from their respective carriers and were massive hits.  It seemed like HTC could do no wrong and the record profits they turned in seemingly every quarter reinforced this notion.

Then 2011 came around and HTC’s fortunes changed dramatically.  HTC starting falling behind the competition in a number of crucial areas.  Performance benchmark scores, battery life, reliability and stability all seemed to lag behind the competition.  The proprietary skin HTC put on Android called “Sense” was continually getting more system intensive and started negatively impacting the speed of the devices it was on.  On top of all that, Samsung released the Galaxy S II and dramatically raised the bar for Android hardware.

(Photo courtesy of almostlikeeverything.com)

Looking back at the phones HTC released in 2011 it’s hard to say that any of them were terrible.  However almost all of them could be described as underwhelming.  The Thunderbolt, Sensation, Sensation XE, EVO 3D, Vivid and mid-range models like the Incredible 2 and female targeted Rhyme all seemed to fade away quickly and quietly (or in the case of the Thunderbolt maybe not so quietly).  Reviewers liked the phones, but complained about bad battery life and noted how HTC had fallen behind in screen quality.  They tried differentiating their phones by adding features like Beats Audio, but features like Beats didn’t seem to resonate with consumers.  The HTC design aesthetic had also grown stale.  Their phones were virtually indistinguishable from one another and were heavier and thicker than the competition.  Can you tell the difference between these three completely separate models on completely different carriers?

(Photos courtesy of htc.com)

At the end of the 2011 HTC released the Rezound on Verizon.  The Rezound got lost under the massive hype of the Galaxy Nexus and the massive marketing behind the Droid Razr, but was an excellent phone in its own right.  It had the best screen and camera of the trio and also had an SD card slot the others lacked.  The battery life was at least equivalent despite having the lowest capacity.  HTC also gave users the ability to unlock the bootloader through their development site.  The phone was still quite a bit thicker than the others, but it was definitely a step in the right direction.  

As 2012 rang in, how would HTC respond to the rise of Samsung and their own sagging market share?  The answer came with the announcement of the HTC One line at the Mobile World Congress in February.  HTC announced a trio of new smartphones: the low-range One V, the mid-range One S, and the flagship One X.  The One S and One X were stunners.  The One S had a super thin body (7.9mm!), a dual-core Krait S4 processor, and a 4.3″ qHD Super AMOLED screen.  The One X featured a super thin (8.9mm) Polycarbonate Unibody with a 4.7″ RGB Super LCD 2 screen, a quad-core Tegra 3 processor (dual-core Krait S4 in the U.S.), and 1GB of ram.  Both phones also featured a dedicated camera chip called ImageChip that HTC claimed greatly improved image quality.  Finally, both phones featured the newest version of Sense (4.0) which was much less of a resource hog and a generally “thinner” skin.  
The designs were a huge departure from what HTC had been doing and both were gorgeous.  Almost a year later the One X is still one of the best looking phones on the market. 
(Photo courtesy of htc.com)
So, HTC learned its lessons from 2011, introduced fantastic products for 2012 and triumphed, right?  Well, not quite.  T-Mobile got the One S in April.  The One X was released by AT&T on May 6, 2012.  Verizon passed on the One X and eventually got a heavily modified One S variant called the Droid Incredible 4G LTE in July.  Sprint got a heavily reworked version of the One X that they called the Evo 4G LTE in June.  The Evo 4G LTE variant added in an SD card slot, a removable battery, and a lot of questionable design choices.  They took one of the most beautiful phones on the market and gave it a bizarre two tone gloss/matte backing with a red kickstand in the middle.  
(Photo courtesy androidguys.com)
While all these different variants were slowly trickling out, Samsung unleashed the Galaxy S III on May 3rd. A single version of the GSIII was released on all major carriers on June 21st and it has sold over 20 million units worldwide.  Meanwhile the One series has been a sales disappointment and is now getting price drops to move inventory.  Obviously the Galaxy S III was a major improvement over the One X and that’s the reason it was so much more successful, right?  Well, actually no.  Both screens are 720p, but the RGB Super LCD-2 unit on the One X is superior to the 720p pentile Super AMOLED unit on the GSIII.  The cameras are both 8mp and are pretty equivalent.  Battery life is similar.  The GSIII has an SD card slot and a removable battery, neither of which the One X has.  The GSIII also has 2GB of ram while the One X has 1GB.  The dimensions are similar.  From a materials perspective the One X makes the GSIII feel and look cheap.  
Both phones are excellent products and choosing between them could easily come down to user preference. So why has the One series disappointed while the Galaxy S III soared?  Distribution.  Samsung was able to get all the carriers to release an identical product a month and a half after it was announced.  HTC announced the One series in February and it took them 5 months to get something on every carrier.  The only stock variants of One series phones on U.S. carriers are the One X on AT&T and the One S on T-Mobile. Verizon and Sprint got heavily messaged variants that were both inferior to the design they were based off of.  
The One X is a fantastic phone and it’s a shame it only made it to one carrier intact.  Under different circumstances it could have (and probably should have) been a massive hit.  
Over the next couple months it looks like HTC will unleash a One X + (featuring a quad-core Tegra 3+ processor) and a 5″ 1080p quad-core monster that may or may not end up being a Nexus phone. Going forward HTC needs to handle releases like Samsung (and Apple) does.  Get one version of their phone released on all carriers within a month or two of announcing it.  If consumers get to compare the new HTC phones against other Android handsets, I believe they compare favorably.  Consumers will buy great products given the chance, and HTC is back to making great products.
(Photo courtesy droid-life.com)
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One thought on “[Op-Ed]HTC is back to making great phones, so why are they still struggling?

  1. As someone who has owned a HTC phone (the Droid Incredible) I loved their products. And I'd happily have considered the One X, if it was available on Verizon. I loved the use of ceramic materials and the inclusion of Beats Audio. But Samsung has been doing great thing. Terrible, yes…but great things.

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