HTC's new One series of Android smartphones garnered much of the attention and praise at Mobile World Congress this year. That's partially because the One X, One S, and One V are each compelling phones, but mainly the attention came because the One line represents a significant change in strategy for HTC. For the past few months, HTC has been a company adrift, losing marketshare and mindshare to its competitors.
The One series represents HTC’s attempt to get back on course, both in terms of hardware and software. HTC's AVP of User Experience, Drew Bamford, explains that all of HTC is aligned behind the new strategy: "Over the past year there's been a desire across multiple teams to become more focused. [...] That's the result you're seeing in HTC One."
HTC lost at sea
HTC was trying to emulate SamsungFor the past year or so, the company has been attempting to release phones at a clip that made it appear like HTC was trying to emulate Samsung — just considering Android, HTC put at least 14 models on the market in 2011. The phones HTC has been producing lately have been difficult to distinguish from one another and, what's worse, they were too thick (in the case of its LTE offerings), too staid in their design, or simply incoherent in their marketing message.
Most of all, HTC had lost the mindshare it used to have with power users, due in no small part to the heavy and overbearing skin HTC laid on top of Android, a suite of software that HTC calls "Sense," which over the course of three major versions had become bloated, confusing, and slow. It all added up to a dismal third quarter, where HTC's revenue declined year over year and the company admitted that "LTE handsets didn't meet our expectations."
The One series: HTC’s new engine
The One series and the new version of Sense are, together, HTC's attempt to get back on course. It has pared down the number of products it will be pushing in 2012, simplifying its product line along with much of the rest of the industry. Cutting the product line down to just a few phones is a bold move when many other manufacturers are churning out new products as quickly as there are new specs to support them, but it's probably the right one for a company that's both smaller than its competitors and at a disadvantage when it comes to securing massive numbers of components.
The new phones come with innovative materials and a level of hardware quality that HTC hasn't achieved in quite some time. Just as importantly, each phone has a distinctive look that sets it apart from other Android phones and also from HTC's own phone lineup. It used to be that it was difficult to remember where any given HTC phone belonged in the company’s lineup — is the Vivid better than the Sensation XL? Is the Rezound comparable to the Amaze 4G? With the One line it's much clearer: the One X is a spec monster, the One S has great looks, and the One V is the budget offering. Bamford says that there's a coherency around all the elements that have gone into these phones. "It's that kind of focus meme across the culture of HTC that drove both the industrial design strategy, the UX strategy, and the marketing strategy around the One products."
The phones are each called "HTC One," a unified branding strategy that mirrors Samsung's Galaxy line or LG's Optimus line. HTC tells us that it will enforce the "One" branding across all carriers, though that's not to say that it has achieved an Apple-level of control over its carrier partners. The HTC One X, in particular, comes in three different variations with only two different names, showing that some brand confusion isn't going away entirely.
Building a new rudder: the debate behind Sense 4
"There were always some dissenting voices, to be honest, about the role of animation in HTC Sense."
Sense 4 is the other big piece of HTC's attempted comeback. Users, reviewers, and HTC itself all felt that Sense 3 (in all its iterations) had become cluttered and slow. It was and is a reason to avoid an HTC phone instead of a reason to buy one.
In describing how the company changed direction with Sense 4, Bamford wasted no time in telling us that paring it down was priority one: "It was a process of figuring out what to keep and stripping out everything we didn't think was really essential."
What's perhaps most interesting about the simplification in Sense 4 is that it wasn't a sure thing. In fact, Bamford describes an atmosphere in HTC’s design center that’s not unlike any other: one filed with "healthy debate" about where Sense should go. Although HTC has "One" branding for its phones, there is no "one" thing that defines Sense, further complicating the debate:
If you had been here in the design studio as we worked on Sense 4, you would have heard a continuous banter, discussion, and disagreement a lot about what really is the essence of Sense. The best example of what we think is the essence of Sense is what you can see and feel and play with in Sense 4.
Although at the time HTC seemed quite proud of Sense 3’s heavy-handed animations, they weren't universally loved within the company, "there were always some dissenting voices, to be honest, about the role of animation in HTC Sense." In retrospect, the changes in Sense 4 seem obvious and much-needed, and Bamford was candid that feedback from customers played a significant part in helping steer the company towards the new user experience: "Given some of the external feedback, it was easier this time around for that voice of restraint and desire to achieve a more elegant result to win out."
In its last earnings call, HTC said that it had created a new "Studio" division that would be cross-disciplinary and help unify the direction that the various divisions of the company are headed in. However, the One line and HTC Sense 4 seem to have come about before that effort began in earnest. Instead, separate teams had "a lot going on in parallel," and "it all came together in the end because everybody had this idea that we need to focus more and make our efforts count where they're most important to our customers," Bamford told us.
Sense 4: HTC’s newly refined skin
The "stripped down" experience in Sense 4 means that HTC has a much cleaner, simpler look, especially on the home screen. The dock is now a straight row of four customizable icons which are simply mirrored on the lock screen, animations have been cut radically back, and many of the annoying quirks like contact matching have been streamlined and simplified.
"People recognize that weather clock."While much has changed, there are still elements of Sense that remain consistent. One key example that encapsulates both is the weather clock widget. It exemplifies what Sense is for many users: a big, pretty widget that marks a phone as identifiably HTC but also used to be filled with entirely too many graphical flourishes. Nevertheless, some version of it needed to stay in Sense 4: "From a brand-recognition standpoint, that's still part of the essence of Sense. People recognize that weather clock. We felt we needed to retain that in order to have brand continuity for Sense 4."
In Sense 3, the default for the widget was to fill the home screen with a weather animation multiple times per day — when it rained, users would be "treated" to raindrops and a windshield wiper splayed out over their icons. In Sense 4, the option is still there but set to off by default. In Sense 3, when switching screens the widget expanded out in a three dimensional animation that showed the flipping elements of the clock right down to a virtual "gear." In Sense 4, it's a flat clock that's much less intrusive. Bamford told us the changes on the clock are indicative of the "hundreds of thousands of little design decisions" that happened along the way with Sense 4: it was all about focusing on actual user needs instead of showing off what the phone could do:
We added [3D animations] in in Sense 3 thinking "We have all this cool 3D technology, we really wanted to take advantage of it and see what we can do with it." [...] I think what we found after we launched Sense 3 was maybe that level of detail wasn't so relevant to the experience, maybe it was too much, and not really helping our users to understand things like how to navigate the system or do things that they want to do.
Another common complaint about Sense 3 was that it slowed the phone down, but HTC contends that this was more a matter of perception than actual performance issues. Again, it came down to overly-florid animations, which HTC boiled "down to the absolute shortest animation that still communicates the transition."
"It may be months before you discover some of the things that we've included in the experience."
Despite all the simplifications, HTC is still committed to using Sense 4 to innovate on top of the core Android experience, which Bamford called "the amazing foundation for us to build on top of." For example, HTC has decided against using the vertical app switcher in Android 4.0, opting instead of a horizontal list of most-recently-used apps that can be swiped up to quit. Bamford argues that this experience is "totally different and much better" than what stock Android provides:
It's all in that transition, that seamless transition from the full screen experience to the thumbnail experience. The seamlessness of that transition and the three dimensionality of that transition makes it feel so much more immersive and so much more physical than just showing a list of thumbnails.
Android 4.0 also brought performance enhancements — so much so that HTC says that Sense 4 requires it and hasn't announced any plans to bring Sense 4 down to other devices. In fact, devices like the HTC Sensation will be getting Android 4.0, but it will be getting it with the older, heavier Sense 3 skin. It possible that "elements" of Sense 4 could still find their way to older devices with some future Ice Cream Sandwich build, but there are also other hardware requirements to consider. The primary marketing message for HTC's One line is "amazing camera, authentic sound," which is a gesture both to the HTC ImageChip and Beats audio — a phone without that hardware wouldn't get "the same experience."
It will be an uphill battle for HTC to make Sense 4 a primary differentiator for its Android lineup, especially now that it behaves much more like Samsung's TouchWiz. Although the company has "replaced 90-some percent of the apps on the phone," Android phones are still sold more on the basis of hardware than software. Fortunately for HTC, each One series phone delivers in that department. Still, Bamford says that the company will need to "have an innovative approach" to retail sales that may include live demonstrations and other tactics to get its message across.
HTC is trying to be HTC again
HTC is making phones on its own termsHTC still faces significant hurdles. For all the improvements to Sense 4, it has a muddled marketing message once you dig deeper than the "amazing camera, authentic sound" that HTC is touting — to say nothing of what users real-world experiences will be like after weeks and months of owning the phone. And despite the more coherent phone lineup, HTC is still releasing non-One phones like the rumored Droid Incredible 3 with branding that's chosen more by Verizon than HTC. Even the One line itself has some brand confusion, with AT&T choosing to go with the "HTC One X" that matches the non-LTE version, while the rest of the world understands that the LTE version is called the "HTC One XL."
Samsung's rapid rise into Android dominance knocked HTC back on its heels in 2011. For much of last year, HTC's response had apparently been to try emulate Samsung by releasing too many phones too quickly. With the One line, HTC is making phones on its own terms. It's much too early to say if the One line and HTC Sense 4 will be enough to make HTC competitive again, especially with Samsung's Galaxy S III hovering in the wings. Nevertheless, it's clear from talking with Bamford that HTC has learned some hard lessons recently, and is intent on entering the next round of competition with a renewed sense of purpose and a more focused vision. After a year of diversions, it seems HTC is simply trying to be HTC again.