HTC’s double-edged sword: Android, Windows Phone and being a contender

Daniel Bader

September 21, 2012 4:32pm


Mike Woodward looks tired. The new President of HTC North America is experiencing another in, I’m sure, a series of long days. I’m in a small room second-floor room somewhere on 37th St in New York City. It’s cold and crisp outside, an initial flirtation with Fall.

There are eight phones in front of me, a contagiously happy parade of colour in symmetrical opposities. Two hours earlier, HTC’s CEO Peter Chou emerged on stage to a befuddled crowd, unsure of what was in store. He opined of the company’s 15-year relationship with Microsoft, of how HTC has sold more Windows Phones than any other company. A trim, tentative Steve Ballmer spoke swiftly about how excited he was for HTC to be a premier Windows Phone 8 launch partner. He called HTC’s newest Windows Phones “signature devices.” Nokia’s presence loomed like an elephant the entire time.

But when we saw the phones, adhered to metal stands like so many perched birds, they were indeed beautiful. The strangeness of the event waned as we drank Diet Coke from expensive tumblers and allowed Microsoft employees to show us glimpses of the operating system that both Nokia and HTC will use to compete against Apple, and each other. That we haven’t seen the very software that will power these phones is unprecedented in the industry; five phones have now been announced with Windows Phone 8 — Samsung’s ATIV S; Nokia’s Lumia 820 and 920; HTC’s 8X and 8S — and the picture of the software is still unclear.

We know that there will be a new home screen, with live tiles of three customizable sizes. This is the first fact flung at us in the name of differentiation; it’s the most easily-explained evolution from Windows Phone 7. We know of a new NFC-enabled Wallet feature, though how it will affect our daily lives is unclear, especially for those outside the United States. We are excited about faster processors, improved graphics abilities, improved camera speed. We know all these things, and yet we know nothing at all.

Woodward smiles at me. I just asked him about whether the 8X and 8S were products of a design language that began with the One series. It’s an easy question and we both know it. I just want to get him talking about Android, about why HTC is here today. Having only been the President of the company since July, he was working as Vice President of Devices at AT&T when the One X was launched. He knows all about the difficult year HTC has had, how, despite a fantastic hero product, the company lowered its revenue guidance in the last two quarters, and barely squeaked by with a profit. This despite the most solid product line it’s ever had: the One X, One S and One V are, even months later, contenders for the top Android devices in their respective price ranges.

So why the change in fortunes? Three words: Apple and Samsung. While HTC is still a venerable outfit and a (scantly) profitable company, its brand has been somewhat tarnished by being overshadowed; in the Android space by Samsung — “One of the biggest companies in the world,” says Woodward as a qualifier — and Apple, “the most valuable company in the world,” he continues. HTC, he says, is a smartphone company first, and it does the best job at marrying hardware design with the software it opts to use. In the case of Android, Sense UI has always been a step ahead of its competitors in terms of usability, though until this latest version it was hampered by speed and bloat issues. Sense 4.0, which debuted in the One series, is a pared-down and beautiful example of what an OEM can accomplish with Android. It’s still, in my opinion, second best only to Motorola’s latest close-to-stock experience.

And now, Windows Phone 8. “We want to be both a leader in Android and Windows Phone,” says Woodward. I am his last interview of the day, and he seems as close to irritable as an executive can be under these stress-free circumstances. I ask him whether he’s worried Nokia will overshadow HTC when it comes to exclusive apps. He scrunches his face for a moment, obviously perturbed by the insinuation that his company would ever be at a disadvantage. His denial is flecked with abstruse extrapolations of how Microsoft makes Windows Phone the same for all manufacturers. I boil the point down: will HTC be building its own first-party apps to counter Nokia’s location services such as Drive, Maps, Transit, City Lens, Camera Extras and Cinemagraph? He points to examples already seen in Windows Phone 7 such as Photo Enhancer, Flashlight, the Weather Hub. There is tentative assurance that the experience will be identical throughout the Windows Phone 8 ecosystem. He reiterates Microsoft’s trust in HTC and its excitement at working so closely with its longest-standing OEM relationship. There is smugness, a sense of lackadaisical assuredness. I move on.

“We focused on three things in the One series: great camera, authentic sound, amazing design,” he says. I am looking at the eight phones in front of me, taking turns holding them in my hands. The 8X feels like a masterful project, a perfectly-weighted conflation of outstanding materials and pristine thought. I wonder if the various high-end Windows Phone 8 models such as the 8X, Luima 920 and ATIV S are going to be too similar to really differentiate themselves in the market. There’s no question that the 8X is gorgeous, colourful and likely well integrated with the yet-unseen software. More importantly, HTC is committing itself again to Microsoft in a very real way.

I look to the 8S now, hold the Domino model in my hand. It is gorgeous, a true fashion miracle. But it’s also a much less powerful device than the unibody 8X, and will likely not appeal to “flagship” buyers. It’s a shame, because at 4-inches it may be the perfect size for a lot of potential users. I want to ask about why they opted for two models instead of three, but my time with Woodward is waning and I want to talk more about the future.

“The other companies are behemoths,” he sighs. “They use brute force marketing to get what they want.” I asked him how this two-pronged approach to the market — potentially updating its Android line in the spring, and Windows Phone in the fall — will help gain HTC a foothold in the extremely competitive smartphone market. “But we have a competitive advantage: we won’t skimp on design. Those people you saw today,” referring to a short clip of HTC’s Seattle design studio, “are real people working long hours to achieve the impossible.” It’s pure marketing speak from a guy who’s sold the idea of phones to guys like me for years.

Microsoft needs HTC, this is clear. The company has overstated the importance of Nokia in the resurgence of Windows Phone, as both companies have become a calamity of brand recognition in North America. The dearth of Lumias sold last quarter drives home the need for diversity in the Windows Phone space, a reality festooned with the dried scraps of legacy Mango devices. By partnering with multiple well-known, profitable companies to push Windows Phone 8, Microsoft spreads its pressure points and significantly minimizes its chance of failure. Many pundits thought that HTC and Samsung would be reluctant characters in the Nokia + Microsoft love affair, and with the announcement of the 8X and 8S this is clearly no longer true.

HTC is very confident of the 8X’s success. Woodward implies it is all-but assured: the ImageSense camera on the back takes better photos in low light; the 2.1MP front camera has a wide-angle lens for better Skyping; the Super LCD2 display is sharper and richer than any other on the market; its Beats integration, a first for Windows Phone, boosted by a 2.5V internal amplifier, twice the strength of the average phone. On the surface, the 8X is but another smartphone richly manicured by the hype machine. But there is a confidence and a gracefulness in HTC’s movements, its penchant for exquisite design, that almost assures its future success.

For a company reasserting itself as a dominant player, Woodward has reason to be tired. He, and his company, have been running at full speed.

  • X87

    HTC makes great quality devices. Huge fan of there products and design. Truly unique software and user experience. I’m pretty excited for there next line of devices.

    • Darth Paton

      I agree, Htc puts real heart into its devices. Their designs are always really high quality and unique, something you can’t always say about Samsung. I just can’t understand how a mediocre product (iPhone) can sell like hotcakes and the HTC one X cannot.

  • Vengefulspirit99

    hey HTC, you wanna know why you are doing so bad? no sd card slot and non removable battery. People want functionality not looks. If they were basing their choice of phone on looks not functionality, they’d get an iphone. They are trying to be the jack of all trades but it’s the worst thing being “just another phone company”. so how does HTC get back in the game? start listening to what their customers want and not try to be “just good enough”.

    • ASH

      fffwhat???

    • Geoff

      If this was true then HTC would have a greater market share than Apple.
      Personally, I love the ability to swap out the battery and add an SD card. That being said, I haven’t actually added and SD card because I haven’t actually needed to.

      Turns out what people want is not an SD card slot; they want enough space on the phone for their needs. They don’t want to swap out a battery; they want a phone that lasts long enough that they don’t need to worry about their phone dying prematurely. Now, I’m not saying that HTC has actually managed to fulfill these needs, I’m just saying that you’re technically being too specific with your request.

  • Chris

    Maybe if HTC would at least create a line of phones and stick with it. Samsung stuck with Galaxy, HTC just releases phones with random names every month… and with insufficient batteries

  • Hooligan

    these wp8 phones look nice, wish fido had them out already.

    • gwydionjhr

      It would be nice if Fido carried anything Windows Phone.

  • mmathieum

    I like HTC hardware but I’ll only buy a Nexus device.

    (loved my HTC/Google Nexus One)

    (I will choose HTC over Samsung anytime but having a Nexus is the 1st criteria)

  • gwydionjhr

    I’m really excited with the designs of the new WP8 phones by HTC. (although the fit and finish of the USB at the base of the 8X could use a little work) I’m also more than a little curious to see if HTC held back the Zenith to WOW us just a little bit more at the actual launch of WP8.

    This fall is going to be amazing!

  • Keith

    HTC is upping the Windows Phone game but they still trail Nokia by a long shot when it comes to the display, camera, exclusive, apps, design, build quality, support, RAM, GLONASS, OIS and I could go on.

  • ns.dev

    I think it would be awesome instead of having the phones compete against each other, allow the user the option of flashing either WP8 or Android. Or better yet, have a dual boot phone. (of course all this on hardware that is compatible with both OSs)

    • lord E

      HTC HD2 has been using both Windows metro and Android for years…XDA developers….

    • ns.dev

      True, but imagine the marketing ability if it was done officially.

  • Art Vandelay

    Non-user-replaceable battery is just wrong. All Li-Ion batteries age, especially when constantly exposed to heat (caused by charging or processor..etc) Usually after or within 1 year people will start to notice loss of battery life. Apple started this non-replaceable battery trend so they can milk the sheep another 80+ bucks when the battery dies. That’s like 10X to 20X the markup.

  • Shawn Payne

    HTC needs to fire their marketing department. In Canada, the ad campaign was a joke for such great devices like the One X and One S.

    • Tomatoes

      It wasn’t the marketing. It is because their handsets sucked.

  • Miguel

    I honestly think HTC got the short stick here. They make amazing, well designed devices. But as Daniel said it comes down to three words: Apple and Samsung. They were honestly the first companies to make their respective OS’s widely popular (i.e. No one knew a lot about android until Samsung came into the picture). I guarantee if HTC marketed their phones as early and as well as Samsung did, they’d be at the top of the Android heap.

    That being said, I commend HTC for making the market competitive. It’s hard to dethrone the two behemoths when they have such a following already. Their phones are great, they just don’t have the mind share that the market leaders have.

    Just my two cents.

  • zed

    I’d really like to try the 8X, but again no SD card. Granted 32gb internal should be enough, but the 16 (in reality about 12) on my 1S are barely sufficient.

    Honestly, having an SD card is way less of a pain to introduce than replaceable batteries – just put it next to the sim card tray.

  • lord E

    Untl batteries run for two days and apple et al introduce 100 gig cards…I’m sticking with my maps and Galaxy S111

  • Tomatoes

    HTC sucks and after my laundry list of HTC One X issues, I have sworn off of them. Fortunately for them, I might have to eat my own words and get an 8x if the Lumia 920 is as big as it seems.

    I am hoping that the 920 is smaller than it looks though.

    • Lemon

      What issues buddy?

    • Keith

      Actually the 8X is about the same size as the Lumia 920 though it is thinner and lighter. The smallish 4.3″ screen in such a large body as the 8X is its worst attribute.

  • Gestault

    Hey HTC did you by chance even bother to look at the Nokia Lumia. Everything that phone offers is better so tell my why should I buy your phone?

  • Fred

    The content of this article is great but the way it’s written is a little too dramatic for me

  • Nataku

    Sigh I would love to try out this phone and replace my HTC radar for the new phone… But I can’t unless they can make a version that works on wind mobile’s network….>_< Please for once give wind the option to obtain nicer windows phone

  • handheld addict

    After reading the comments by HTCs’ North America boss, I’m worried. He sounds like he doesn’t have a clue. Yes, design quality is very important. But equally, if not more important are features and internal hardware quality, like functional wi-fi, and battery life. When a company messes stuff up like that…. Not good.

  • stylinred

    i really like these offerings by HTC

    granted the designs are awfully familiar….

    but still nice colour choices and the material seems like it has a rubbery feel to it which will be a + if it is

    but atm the lumias seem to have the better offering the only positive the htc has over it is that the htc’s dont weigh a tonne

  • POW

    The sad thing about htc is that even though they were pioneers in the android space (Desire) and one of the first available in Canada, they’ve always suffered from quality issues. I remember when I had an HTC s720 with Windows Mobile 6 on it, and the phone always crashed. Chalking that up to poor software integration with Microsoft I blindly rushed and spent full price on the Desire just to watch it suffer from terrible battery life, not enough memory for even a few apps, and then crashing and power cycling while using basic maps. Ive had two HTC phones, a total of 4 replacement devices on warranty and they will never see another dime from me.