Moments after finally checking out the long-awaited HTC Rhyme, I sat down with two of the phone's lead designers, Scott Croyle and Nicole Coddington. It probably comes as no surprise to anyone following this story that my first question was, "Do you really think there's a market for a female-focused phone? Do women really want something different in a handset?"
In keeping with the messaging at the event, both of them were very quick to tell me that the Rhyme wasn't just for women – yes, even despite its plum coloring and purse-friendly charm accessory. The slight dodging of the question aside, Coddington said something quite interesting in response: "we at HTC speak to a lot of different audiences. The more technology-focused type [of] people, we’ve been speaking to [them] for awhile. Now is our opportunity to broaden that audience. The people we are trying to speak to with the Rhyme want to have it benefit their life in a way that was more meaningful and thoughtful – it's not all about the technology."
Of course, the fact that the phone only comes in purple and is accompanied by a purple charm for a bag strongly implies that this phone is for women, and thus, women are the ones really in need of a simpler phone, one that isn't as focused on the "technology." Despite the slightly offensive undertone, however, it reveals that HTC thinks the other Android phones out there aren’t simple enough for the average user: the focus isn’t on the end experience, and the marketing is overly focused with speeds, ROMs, and cores. It's great to see the Rhyme and HTC combating that with marketing and a new phone, but much more than a plum-coated Desire S is needed to solve the problem.
There's a line in a recent Xoom commercial: "your wife will love the dual-core processor." It's the perfect example of what Coddington is talking about in reference to other Android phones being marketed solely on the specs. And it's a line you could never imagine being uttered in any Apple commercial, because the truth is your wife won't really love the dual-core processor. Sure, she or anyone you give the tablet to may appreciate the fast performance, but what they'll really notice (or dare I say "love") is the experience of having a portable tablet to surf, video chat with family, and load with apps – things that are all experience-based.
However, the primary message of the Xoom and Droid commercials has always been around the "machine" aspect of the device — tech components, rather than the experience and the way the technology fits into your life. "Droid Does" and the images of robots tearing at metals may appeal to some men and even to some women, but it doesn’t appeal to the mainstream user, regardless of gender. Images of everyday people doing everyday or "lifestyle" things with their phones — driving, working out, laying in bed — is what appeals to a broader market. It’s a market Apple has understood from day one. And it’s a market that’s not just made up of women. That's where the Rhyme and even the HTC Status have attempted to push the barriers and get away from those cyborg and Android connotations. But while the motivations and goals are good and much needed, the problem is that the products don't meet the message.
When I spoke to Verizon's Assistant Marketing Director Cheryl Beach about the Rhyme she said something similar to Coddington. "Regardless of whether you are a male or female, or how techie you are or aren't, everyone can appreciate the ease of use of this phone. We're going for a more seamless experience here." It's good marketing language, but the Rhyme, other than some slight tweaks to Sense, a purple coating, and some extra accessories, hasn't really been altered to provide an "easier" Android experience. Yes, the added widgets on the homescreen are more friendly and the charm seems quite useful, but I'm still not sure the OS is as close to iOS or one of Samsung's TouchWiz devices in terms of ease of operation. My point is that HTC, Verizon, and Google need to match those lifestyle claims with a phone that is genuinely more elegant and simple -- and one that is not just for women but for the mass market. (By the way, there were plenty of men at the event yesterday who expressed interest in a charm-like accessory for their phones -- but HTC is ceding that market by aiming the Rhyme at women, at least with the single color choice.) I hate to make the iPhone comparison, but Apple's one-size-fits-all approach works to a large degree because it runs software that's easy to navigate -- it wasn't tailored to be simpler for a specific user.
Certainly, Android has matured considerably since its introduction; with every passing version the overall operating system has congealed and become more polished. The Rhyme, however wrongly segmented, represents a real push to market an Android phone to regular users rather than robot, Battlestar Galactica-loving people. For some reason or another, HTC believes that starts with focusing on the opposite side of the spectrum – women who love plum -- but there are lots of other demographics in between that could benefit from a similar, simplified product and a more relatable marketing strategy. They just can't all be addressed with a very purple phone, a charm that clips to a purse, and a slightly tweaked software skin.