Of all the phone manufacturers in all the vast and diverse lands of Android, HTC was the last company I expected to see producing an iPhone clone. Like Nokia (the original one, not the hollowed-out husk that remains today), HTC has been a long-time innovator in smartphone design and engineering. Its habit is to lead, not follow. And yet, just over a week from now, HTC will unveil its next hero phone, expected to be called the Aero, and well… it looks like an iPhone.
To compete with the iPhone, just build your own iPhone
I know what the HTC apologist will say, because I have one within me, expounding on the history of the HTC One M7 preceding Apple’s aluminum unibody design. I also hear the words of HTC’s industrial design chief Claude Zellweger, who introduced the flagship One M9 earlier this year with the subtle note that it achieves a higher metal content in its construction than any other phone. Yes, HTC did aluminum unibody phones first. Yes, the upcoming handset undoubtedly carries on that legacy. But that doesn’t excuse it from the accusation of looking like an iPhone ripoff. There’s just no way to look at this phone — and we’ve now seen it from every angle possible — and not think it looks like an iPhone.
Where previous HTC One devices have featured a curved back and a flat slab of glass at the front, the alleged Aero (also known under the codename of One A9) has a flattened back and its front glass curves at the edges to blend into the phone’s overall shape. Just like the iPhone 6. The radius of the A9’s corners is also reduced, bringing it closer to Apple’s design and further from HTC’s established look. The thing that ultimately sways me, though, is the speaker grille at the bottom: you could design that a million different ways, but HTC opted to go for the same row of distinctive machined holes as on the iPhone.
HTC has nothing left to lose
So yes, I’m in the camp that believes HTC went out of its way to make its latest phone look and feel like Apple’s. The interesting question now is how to feel about that situation. There’s a pervasive high-minded streak among tech fans, which demands that each company must invent its own path to success, and reacts with revulsion to obvious acts of copying. I find that perspective naive, given the abundance of evidence to show that every company copies, and every manufacturer owes a creative debt to others competing in its field.
When everyone’s guilty of the same offense, I just don’t see the point in considering it an offense anymore. Why not accept that copying is an integral part of the tech business?
As a fan of both the Android operating system and the iPhone’s design, I confess the idea of an iPhone running Android has me excited. The first time I made this admission was back in September of last year, and the overwhelmingly positive reaction I received from readers suggests I was far from alone. Let’s just be honest: the iPhone 6 design is worth copying. It’s elegant, beautiful, and refined. So if HTC wants to capitalize on some of the goodwill that Apple has generated for that particular look, then more power to HTC. I consider myself a consumer of technology, not an arbiter on proper business ethics, and so my reaction is just one of agitated anticipation. My ideal phone — and I imagine that of many others — is still a hybrid of the best things from Android and the iPhone. HTC’s Aero could be a version of that phone.
I’m sure HTC has had to swallow a lot of pride to create such an obviously derivative design. But HTC has been struggling for years now, and desperate times call for desperate measures. A company with nothing to lose seems convinced that there’s much to be gained from looking like the iPhone, and history agrees. Samsung built an entire smartphone empire on the back of 2010’s Galaxy S, which is the highest-profile iPhone clone we’ve had to date. HTC is now looking to rebuild its own fiefdom, and it’s decided to lean on the popularity and familiarity of the iPhone for some support. Think of all the people irradiated by Apple’s ads on TV, online, and out on the street. They associate the iPhone’s quality with the recognizable aspects of its design — such as that speaker grille — and when they are in their carrier store deciding on which smartphone to buy next, the HTC Aero could win out simply by being similar yet cheaper than the iPhone. It’s a long shot, but anything HTC tries at this point is a long shot.
A copy need not necessarily be a fake
My biggest fear about HTC’s upcoming device is that too many people are going to dismiss it as an unimaginative iPhone clone. That’s just not how HTC does things. Even when it’s copying, this company will find a way to assert its substantial design and engineering prowess. There’s too much expertise within HTC for it to build some tepid knockoff. And though I still have my disagreements with the company’s Sense UI, HTC’s Android implementation is one of the fastest and most fluid experiences you can get.
HTC’s October 20th launch already promises Marshmallow, the best of Android, and all the leaks ahead of it indicate the new smartphone will look like the best from Apple. As a fan of good technology, I can’t help but be excited by that prospect.
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