HTC’s saving grace isn’t the One

March 11, 2013
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I have been an avid follower of HTC for a long time, not because they make great phones, but because they are such an interesting brand to observe. It’s three years since the highly acclaimed HTC Desire and HTC Legend launched, and today the Taiwanese company is farther than ever from its glorious days of Android domination.

To a certain extent, the HTC brand is kind of endearing to me. I started my Android journey with an HTC Legend. However, the last few years of horrible brand names and lack of innovation have estranged me from HTC.

Unlike movies and books, in real life Goliath (Samsung) has already triumphed over David (HTC) and will continue to do so. The question is why?

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HTC’s diluted branding is its downfall

Let’s be honest about the last few HTC flagships in the market.

The HTC Desire was brilliant. It was ahead of its time. Everyone who would use one wouldn’t even consider a Samsung. It was, in a way, better than the original Nexus One. As a result, many who had a Nexus One ran their phones with a HTC Sense ROM belonging to the HTC Desire.

After that, came the Sensation. HTC decided to ditch the Desire brand name. After all, they corrupted it themselves with the subpar HTC Desire Z and HTC Desire HD, with its short battery life. But they didn’t stop there. Not long after that, they released the Sensation XE, and practically screwed everyone who had the original Sensation.

htc sensation Credit: Wikimedia

Then the Sensation brand name died, and it was replaced with the One X. It was great for a breezy moment, until Samsung stunned the world with the Galaxy S3. Further down the road, many consumers were complaining about burnt chipsets in the HTC One X. I had a friend here in Malaysia who had to send in his phone four times for service (and for the same problem). This friend, who was an ex-HTC employee, vowed to never purchase HTC again, and quickly switched to another Android brand.

Now we have the HTC One. Honestly, the design of this phone takes my breath away. Nevertheless, I am perfectly sure everyone who intends to buy a phone in the near future is holding their money until the Galaxy S4 is revealed. Samsung, like Apple, has probably the smartest brand-minded people in their offices. What HTC had to learn the hard way over the years, Samsung never had any trouble to begin with.

Who in the right mind would call the successor to the HTC One X  the HTC One? Any non-tech person who doesn’t have a clue about smartphones will always choose the One X over the One (thanks to evil sales personnel who need to clear out old stock). Has anyone in HTC even thought this new name through?

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HTC’s PR practices are frustrating

I’m not sure about you, but I certainly noticed the way Western media (both traditional and online) heavily praised the One X last year. It was amazing how HTC’s global team managed that.

Unfortunately, the opposite can be said of what happened here in Asia. I am not sure about other traditional or online media, but I do sense some sort of silent hostility from HTC. In my two years writing for this site, I have NEVER been asked to do a phone or tablet review. When the HTC One X was released, I had to “beg” for a review set from their PR agency, and until this very day, I have not seen the phone they promised to me. Shouldn’t it be that manufacturers pounce on every opportunity they get phone reviews from eager enthusiasts?

Samsung Malaysia, on the other hand, has very strong relationship with bloggers, media, and online audience. When the Galaxy S3 was launched, their social media and PR arm performed a miraculous feat. Journalists went home with review devices on the same day the device launched, which is something relatively unheard of in Malaysian tech.

Even ASUS Malaysia hasn’t done badly in this area. Their internal PR personnel follow up with review requests and respond quickly with press releases. Although ASUS Malaysia doesn’t employ an external PR agency for its correspondence with journalists, they have done a rather commendable job. HTC could learn something from its Taiwanese counterpart.

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HTC Malaysia and their PR agency here… It’s kind of frustrating dealing with them. They don’t keep you updated with their latest product introduction. From a marketing standpoint, this is bad, because you’re not fully utilizing “free” media. As a writer, I will find it impossible to recommend your device when I have no experience with it. My experience with HTC is that I’m forced to always scout their roadshows for content. Once, in reply to my request to review their phone, they simply answered, “check out our roadshow at this mall…”

As a result, I’ve always recommended a Samsung or ASUS device to peers and my circle of influence, just because I wasn’t sure if a HTC was something they needed.

Underestimating your opinion makers will cost you dearly. But maybe it’s just me. I have been known to be critical towards Android manufacturers… There is no such thing as a perfect phone, and every product out in the market has some of flaw.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if an Android manufacturer showers me with review phones. But the question is, does it matter enough to HTC to offer them to journalists? Perhaps HTC (like Apple) doesn’t take criticisms that well.

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HTC’s launch timing is causing them to lose money

If you consider Apple’s marketing strategy, the last few years, they have targeted the Christmas crowd. It’s during this time that they try to maximize the impact of their money-making iPhone.

Samsung on the other hand, targets the Galaxy S flagship at the start of the year, and the Note flagship towards the end of the year. This is a double win, because you target the Christmas shopper, as well as individuals receiving their bonuses (in Malaysia, bonuses are released in Jan/Feb, during the Chinese New Year season).

HTC has always been the first to launch a flagship phone at the beginning of every year. This means that they lose the Christmas crowd and directly compete with Samsung for mind share towards Chinese New Year. Considering its track record since 2011, HTC has been doing pretty badly against Samsung.

How do you solve this challenge then?

Could I perhaps suggest that HTC keeps this strategy, but swaps the launch around – their mobile flagship before Christmas and their phablet flagship towards the start of the year? This would perhaps help HTC rise from their mind share problem. Although HTC considers Samsung its direct competitor, there is absolutely nothing you can do when your offerings are clashing against a more powerful competitor.

Samsung isn’t stupid. When HTC released the HTC Sensation with 768MB of RAM, Samsung gave the Galaxy S2 1GB of RAM… and that made a big difference in terms of device experience. Even playing games on the Galaxy S2 was smoother thanks to that 1GB of RAM. When the HTC One X came, Samsung gave the world S Beam, Smart Stay, Direct Call, and other delicious add-ons to Ice Cream Sandwich and Jellybean, damaging any chance for HTC to recover. HTC has made few alterations to their OS, clutching too tightly to their precious HTC Sense.

Although it does feel like Samsung is reacting to HTC’s “launch lead”, I’m pretty sure that Samsung has several prototypes in development and simply selects the best device. Because of this, you can mark my words, the Galaxy S4 will most likely arrive with an aluminium unibody and be better than the HTC One in terms of hardware and software. It may be ever prettier than the HTC One, although Samsung might struggle with the build quality.

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HTC isn’t able to spot new market trends accurately

Let’s take a few of HTC products in the last few years. Compared with any other Android manufacturer, HTC has been bolder with their product differentiation but they were unable to pull through their sales.

The HTC Flyer can be considered a ground breaking device. It came with a stylus and was a new product for a completely new market segment. It was going against the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and, in almost every way, it was more innovative.

But HTC lost the lead and after that. The Flyer died. So what went wrong?

Next, the HTC Sensation was a really solid device. I have personally used the Sensation XE for several months, and, on Ice Cream Sandwich, I was really happy with the smoothness of the device. It did lack the hardware to run high-end games, but it wasn’t in any way a deal breaker.

And there’s also the HTC Desire Z (a.k.a. G2), which was a really interesting concept but without proper technological support. It was a great device that didn’t last long in the marketplace. After the Desire Z, HTC hasn’t made any other physical keyboard with a Z hinge was ever made by HTC.

HTC also started well with the aluminum HTC Legend. The phone was recognized with awards for its design. Then, surprisingly, HTC dropped aluminium unibodies, and created the HTC Sensation. Although aluminium, it wasn’t a unibody. The 2012 flagship, the HTC One X was a polycarbonate phone, and it was followed by the HTC One, which saw HTC going back to its aluminum roots. HTC’s initial lead was squandered and it’s not surprising that, with the release of the iPhone 5, HTC was outplayed at their own game.

To wrap up, HTC’s history is riddled by their inability to spot trends (and stick with them).

Conclusion

HTC could still make a return, but it’s doubtful that they will, in anyway, surpass Samsung. Recent rumors suggest that the Galaxy S4 would be made of polycarbonate, and that it will have new software features such as Eye Scroll. Samsung’s dominance is very much ensured by software, and it clearly shows.

At the end of the day, there is little that HTC can do against Samsung. The ball is in Samsung’s court, and the question is, will Samsung hand its hard fought victory to HTC? That’s an answer that we will soon discover, on March 14th.

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