It's been a year of doom and gloom for HTC. Despite the One X receiving high praise from critics, the numbers still look bad for the Taiwanese OEM compared to their major competitors, Apple and Samsung. What can the once-King of Android do to turn its fortunes around?
Pundits started to ask the same question last year, when the first signs of a down-turn came to light. Many, like us, blamed the company's enormous and confusing portfolio of products. It announced six smartphones and the ill-fated Flyer tablet at an event in Barcelona, at the beginning of 2011, and would add the same number again to its range by the end of the year. It was playing the odds, and confusing its potential customers in the process.
This year started better, it seemed, with only three Android-based phones announced at the same event, the Mobile World Congress. All fell under the same "One" series branding and represented the traditional thinking around smartphones; you have an expensive one, a cheap one and the piggy in the middle. But even three might have been too many.
"The big question is, on a free contract, why would someone go for a lesser model?" asks Foad Fadaghi, research director and principal analyst for Mobile and Mobility at Telsyte. "When there isn't much difference in the deal, you literally just tick off on the highest spec you can get on your contract, or for a small fee upfront."
"Companies like HTC are getting squeezed from both ends ... They are getting squeezed at the top end by Samsung and other premium Android products, but at the bottom end, they have companies like Huawei nipping at their heels".
Samsung was in a similar situation the year before last. Though it had some success with the first Galaxy S model, it also launched dozens of different models across the world, supporting numerous operating systems, including its own in-house system called Bada. The last two years have been far more focused for the Koreans, with all of its big marketing money thrown behind the weight of only a few high profile releases, the Galaxy S series and the Galaxy Note "phablet" model.
Perhaps more important than a focused marketing strategy, Samsung's phones were also best in class. The Galaxy S phones have outpaced the competition in the last two years, with class leading specs and more flexibility than what is available in HTC's line-up.
"The problem, I think, with [the HTC range] is that there is often one spec which it falls short on, when compared to a Samsung product, for example. If they can fix those types of problems, then I think they could do well," said Fagadhi, "More than half the people on Android are wanting to buy another Android product, so that allows [HTC] to be part of the consideration set, going forward. But, as I said, it's often just one factor that lets them down, like onboard memory or battery life."
We couldn't agree more with this. HTC's decision to not include an expandable memory slot on the flagship One X did seem restricting, despite the handset offering 32GB of onboard memory. But it was battery life that really gave Samsung the edge. While the Galaxy S3 lasted for over 7 hours in our video playback tests, the One X managed only 4 hours. While some of this can be attributed to optimisations in Samsung's software, the bulk of this difference boils down to HTC choosing a smaller and presumably cheaper battery for its handset.
So, from a customer's perspective, here's what we'd like to see HTC do to put them back on top next year:
Own a meaningful feature or function
A large part of the smartphone development process is spent on features that are secondary to the main function of the device. HTC has spent a lot of research and development dollars on big name features, like Beats Audio integration and its dedicated imaging chip for photography, but these features still don't address key smartphone qualms. Battery life could be the answer here. Motorola enjoyed a stack of headlines with its Razr Maxx smartphone last year, and all it did was stick a bigger battery in a phone. If HTC blew away the competition with fantastic battery life, it would answer the prayers of so many smartphone users.
The size of the internal storage in a phone is still, for some strange reason, a ruling factor in the decision making process for many people — they always want the one with the more Gee Bees. The next HTC needs a micro-SD slot. But, what if instead of having different storage SKUs, HTC partnered with someone like SanDisk and had packages with different SD cards included. You could have a standard 16GB in the phone, and choose a 32GB optional extra.
Throw its weight behind Windows Phone
All of the OEMs in the smartphone and tablet space should be watching Windows Phone carefully. For HTC, this is an opportunity to get in front of the curve. Up until now, HTC has played its B-game with Windows Phone, keeping its best designs for Android products. We'd love to see them switch this next year, and have their Windows Phones share the same great designs we shared in this year's One Series. There was a lingering notion that Windows Phone was for business people, and only Nokia really moved passed it. This is HTC's chance to hit the ground running with the major revision of the Microsoft platform.