HTC unveiled its newest flagship phone, the HTC One at a special press event in NYC and London today, and the drastically different design marks a departure from a strategy of trying to beat other Android OEMs (read: Samsung) at their own game. Instead, HTC looks to be taking cues from Apple to better compete, in more ways than one.
HTC’s newest Android smartphone has a physical design that can’t help but be compared to the iPhone 5. There’s aluminum all over the place (it’s a unibody chassis with chamfered edges), it comes in both white and black, and a rounded rectangle look that’s sure to remind iPhone 5 owners of their own hardware. It even has the iPhone 4’s external wireless, edge-running antenna. And the emphasis this time around wasn’t on specs, speeds and technical details, but on features and software: HTC’s tacit acknowledgement that a fight over who can build the best Android hardware isn’t one it can win against Samsung. Consumers have to perceive these devices as operating in different categories, with HTC doing something Samsung can’t or won’t.
The central piece of the HTC event today was all about what the One is that all other Android phones aren’t. That’s why HTC put its “BoomSound” front-facing speaker system on display, highlighted the Ultrapixel camera with its low-light capabilities, and showed off the Sense 5 UI with its BlinkFeed automatic, live-updating content feeds. That’s why it emphasized content partners, another page out of Apple’s book. In many ways, HTC’s event was more like the introduction of a new mobile OS than an iteration on an Android smartphone design. The company has put a strong focus on software at previous device launches, but here it seemed even more concerned with making this about OS skin updates.
HTC also downplayed the internals, which surprisingly aren’t as leading-edge as they could be. The screen was a big tentpole of the presentation, but that’s another Apple tactic, since it impacts user experience in a much more direct manner than internals. And the quad-core Snapdragon 600 chipset is new, but not the top-of-the-line model. 2GB of RAM is essentially table stakes, and 32 or 64GB of internal flash storage is nothing to write home about. It did bring up design directors, however, to discuss what went into the creation of its software and hardware, and showed videos highlighting technical innovations like the UltraPixel camera sensor and body design, all Apple-style moves.
This isn’t about competing against Apple or Samsung, it’s about fielding a great phone.
It’s pretty clear that HTC’s strategy here isn’t to build a better Android smartphone than Samsung and beat it that way. That’s arguably what the entire HTC One line has been until now: essentially a different but similar approach to the Galaxy strategy. Now, we get a back-to-basics simplified naming scheme, a physical case that better approximates Apple’s high-market industrial design, and an emphasis on user experience and software, instead of crowing loud and long about the spec race that has been popular among Android OEMs int the past.
This is a pivotal launch for HTC: It needs to be seen by consumers in non-relative terms to Samsung in order to stand out, since it hasn’t been able to succeed when lumped in with the general mass of Android OEM device-makers. To accomplish that it has to stand apart, and there’s no better example of a smartphone-maker that’s been able to do that than Apple. But carving out a niche in the face of the ascendant Samsung will prove difficult without Apple’s first-mover advantage, so while HTC’s strategy is arguably bold, by no means does it guarantee success.