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HTC on the Windows Phone vs Android debate, specs and design DNA

Going beyond specific devices like the Butterfly and the 8X, what's going in the collective minds of HTC's executives when they plan out smartphone (and tablet) designs, business strategies and corporate alliances? Chief product officer Kouji Kodera gives us a peek into how HTC is keeping two platforms -- Android and Windows Phone 8 -- in balance.
December 12, 2012
Sense is here to stay.
“We’re very proud of HTC Sense …”

After difficulties in the market for a year or so, HTC seems to be back on track. But it’s not all Android goodness that’s keeping HTC afloat these days, with the company’s partnership with Microsoft for the flagship Windows Phone 8 devices, as well as HTC’s cross-licensing agreement with Apple. Of course, there’s the flagship HTC Butterfly that’s keeping Android fans excited.

But going beyond specific devices like the Butterfly and the 8X, what’s going in the collective minds of HTC’s executives when they plan out smartphone (and tablet) designs, business strategies and corporate alliances? Jeff Blagdon of The Verge recently had a sit-down with HTC’s chief product officer Kouji Kodera to have a peek at how HTC is keeping the two platforms — Android and Windows Phone 8 — in balance.

Here are a few highlights.

Does the HTC 8X borrow from the Nokia “school of design?” Kodera seems to be aware of the perception that HTC is borrowing from Nokia in terms of their handset designs for Windows Phone. Conveniently, he carries a Lumia 920 around, just to prove a point. And it’s this: much like the fashion industry, the mobile industry will usually follow a certain design DNA, or a few concepts from a common source. In fashion, designs, colors and trends are often decided years in advance (because the industry has to source materials and produce components). It’s similar in the mobile industry, to some extent. This is especially true in the case of both Nokia and HTC, with both companies having worked closely with Microsoft.

But when queried on just how much influence Microsoft exerted on HTC’s design, the answer was “zero.”

On stock Android interface. HTC is one of those mobile companies that have popularized their own skin as their own “brand” across different platforms. HTC Sense is here to stay, Kodera says. “[I]n general, we’re very proud of HTC Sense, and we’d like to continue shipping it on every device.” Those who prefer the vanilla Android look and feel are likely to be disappointed.

Less is more. Samsung seems to be the one company that has profited from selling a broad product line — from low-end to top-ranging device. But not everyone can make a big difference, especially if you’re not selling tens of millions of devices. For HTC, the less number of models sold, the greater exposure for each. According to Kodera, the company prefers to have a small product line to ensure “some real differentiated factors to the market, rather than just bringing many new products.”

Now this might have an implication on HTC’s relationship with carriers, who seem to prefer having a wide product line as possible. But Kodera says carriers are changing, in terms of seeing “different success models.” T-Mobile’s switch to “Value” plans, for instance, is one example I can point out.

On Microsoft’s marketing muscle. Windows Phone 8 is not exactly free, and nominally costs more than Android to license. But Kodera says HTC is looking at its partnership with Microsoft in terms of value. Sure, Android is free, although manufacturers pay royalties to certain software patent owners. “While it’s true that Windows Phone has a license fee and that the core Android OS is free, once you add software your license fees go up accordingly,” says Kodera.

Additionally, Microsoft is actually active in promoting and advertising their platform. “The biggest difference is that Google doesn’t do any advertising for Android, while Microsoft pays to promote Windows Phone on its own,” adds Kodera. He explains that HTC is playing on the strength of the product and “whether or not people will buy them.”

On tablets. Kodera says HTC has experimented with tablets, and the company is still “interested.” HTC has made a lot of concepts — some of which actually ended up as failures in the market. At this point, the product chief says the company will continue focusing on development and building a product that works. “[W]e will re-do it as many times as we need until we get a concept and a product that we feel comfortable with.”

On specs and screen sizes. Smartphones are becoming bigger and bigger, but design seems to have hit the ceiling of 5-inches without sacrificing usability and practicality. Still, it does not mean that screen specs will stagnate. “[P]ixel density is going to keep going up,” says Kodera. It’s a matter of time.

What do you think of HTC’s views on the smartphone industry and development? Will they be able to rise up from the ashes and eventually get out of the doldrums in the next year or so?