Outside of LG’s G Flex 2, CES has been a desert for major smartphone news. Even Sony’s big Android Lollipop tease this week turned out to be a TV rather than a new flagship handset. HTC used the show to launch the latest entrant in its mid-range Desire series, the Desire 826, but otherwise it's keeping a low profile until Barcelona's Mobile World Congress at the beginning of March — just like everyone else.
That tranquility shouldn't be misinterpreted as idleness. This week, I met with Drew Bamford, HTC's chief of design and user experience, to talk about the company's plans for 2015. Bamford had a whole slide deck prepared. Harkening all the way back to HTC's founding in 1997, Bamford walked me through the company's first two major phases — first as the manufacturer of smartphones for others and then as the producer of its own devices — before pointing to HTC's "next life," which begins this year. "2014 was the pivot to our third act," Bamford said. "The stimulus for that pivot has been a change in the environment."
The commoditization of smartphones and the plateauing of the technology that goes into them has forced HTC to shift its identity. According to Bamford, HTC now wants to be thought of as a personal tech brand rather than just a smartphone manufacturer. Case in point: HTC's partnership with Under Armour to develop wearable technology. "We've been working with Under Armour for six months now quite closely — this isn't just a one-off, product-based collaboration," says Bamford. HTC and Under Armour will address the fitness market with multiple devices, in various categories, and both hope to extend the relationship deep into the future.
"When we think of the word ‘gadget,’ we think of something that people buy and throw away in three months."
HTC's reluctance to introduce wearable gadgets so far has been informed by the company's distaste for that class of device: "At HTC, particularly in the design team, one of our goals is to not create gadgets. When we think of the word ‘gadget,’ we think of something that people buy and throw away in three months," Bamford said. HTC wants to create products essential to people's lives and this year the company feels confident it can live up to that standard.
Though Bamford is quick to reassert HTC's commitment to spearheading smartphone design, most of his slides touched on other ways HTC can connect to our daily lives. There's the connected home, building off HTC's established technology for streaming content from your phone, as well as the connected life and connected self, each represented by tentpole products like the Re camera and whatever the first product of the Under Armour partnership may be. Most exciting for Bamford and company is HTC's entry into the "connected entertainment" category. "Some of the other stuff may feel evolutionary, but this is a totally new space," says Bamford, promising to reveal what that means in the first quarter of this year.
"The goal is not only to transform HTC’s product, but to transform HTC’s whole internal culture."
A new team has been set up inside HTC to deal with the design and engineering challenges these connected devices will pose. It reports directly to Peter Chou and is relatively isolated from Bamford and his Creative Labs group, which is in charge of almost every other design decision. This is intentional: HTC wants to develop new approaches to dealing with a new category of device. Because making smartphones and smart wearables are such profoundly different tasks, a profound structural change is necessary. In Bamford's words, "the goal is not only to transform HTC’s product, but to transform HTC’s whole internal culture."
Staying true to its Quietly Brilliant tagline, HTC isn't disclosing much about its plans, but the company is very much in the process of transforming itself into a more diverse and adaptable business. Making the sleekest metal phone around is still task number one at HTC, but the company's future, its third phase of development, will depend on being able to build the right things to connect to that phone.