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HTC is lost, and this blind camera isn't helping

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Selling phones is hard, but selling the weird Re Camera will be even harder

"The smartphone is just the overture of HTC’s grand opera."

Phones are now cheaply made commodities, and the company that makes them the sole focus of its business doesn’t survive long in the modern world. Motorola, Nokia, and Palm were all sold off to richer conglomerates, Sony Ericsson was reabsorbed into Sony, and BlackBerry is just hanging on by the resilient thread of its enterprise services. Until yesterday, HTC was the last holdout as an independent smartphone maker, but now it too is embracing the winds of inevitable change.

Having tried and failed to build profitably unique features into its phones, HTC is now moving beyond them with new software and cameras that are compatible with the iPhone as well as Android. The goal with the new Re Camera and the multi-platform Zoe app is to address the widest possible audience with the message that HTC is a leader in mobile photography. Can that strategy work to stabilize HTC’s position as a purveyor of useful and desirable things? Absolutely. But can HTC’s specific implementation of that strategy work? Nope.

Your baby doesn't need a strap-on camera

The Re Camera is silly, both in its price and appearance. It’s waterproof, it’s wearable, it captures high-resolution photos and Full HD video, but at $199.99, it struggles to compete with better GoPro alternatives. HTC’s immediate response is to say that this camera isn’t for the same class of user, but that’s not how people buy their gear. They go on brand recognition first, which the $200 GoPro Hero3 has in spades, plus there’s the basic $129.99 GoPro Hero that lacks only Wi-Fi. HTC’s lunch has pretty much been eaten before it’s been served, but even taking the company’s claim that the Re Camera is different enough to carve out its own niche, how big of a niche is it?

HTC pitches the Re Camera as a way to both experience and record life’s little moments of joy. Strap a Re to your shoulder, head, or baby buggy, and keep your phone neatly tucked away in your pocket and your eyes free to soak up the world around you. Your eyes will definitely be liberated by the Re, because it doesn’t have a viewfinder of any kind. It compensates for that by being remotely controllable via a smartphone app that will turn your phone into the viewfinder — but wasn’t that the entire rigmarole you were trying to avoid in the first place?

The scenarios in which the Re Camera might be preferable to just having a good cameraphone or a pocketable point-and-shoot camera are few, and the ones that present themselves scarcely justify the product’s price. And this is all without discussing the industrial design, which is quirky and different, but has also been the subject of a million jokes already. Is it an inhaler, a pipe, or a periscope on the sinking submarine carrying HTC’s fortunes?

HTC’s Zoe app is wading into similarly perilous waters. Camera apps for the iPhone are as numerous as they are polished, and anyone looking to make a dent in this highly competitive market will have to offer something truly unique and unprecedented. HTC believes its automated mixing of photos and video into shareable clips is that feature, however Zoe has never been enough to convince people to buy HTC phones over the competitors who lacked it in the past, and it’s unlikely to stir much more enthusiasm now that it’s more widely distributed. Still, at least with Zoe, HTC has a clear-eyed strategy of getting more users on its social services, which is the thing that can make them more appealing in the future. The Re Camera, on the other hand, is a classic example of a solution in search of a problem.

Asking the right questions, but coming up with the wrong answers

Ironically enough, for a company trying to move beyond smartphones, the best debut of HTC’s event last night was the new Desire Eye handset. Like the One E8 before it, this new phone has a lot of flagship-tier features crammed into a mid-range budget. HTC’s rate of phone innovation remains strong, but translating it to new product categories and even new mobile platforms will clearly take time.

For HTC’s grand opera to be worth attending, the company will have to come up with devices that solve real problems in people’s lives rather than the imaginary ones of the hyper-attractive models it had up on stage at yesterday’s event. Yes, the road to being unique starts with being different, but it doesn’t end there.