What you see pictured above is 99.99 percent certain to be the HTC One M9, a flagship Android smartphone that will steer the fortunes of its maker for the coming year. HTC would have preferred to keep it all a big, enigmatic secret until this Sunday’s grand unveiling, but circumstances have once against conspired against its best-laid plans. The silver-and-gold cat is out of the bag, and it looks an awful lot like its One M8 predecessor. Reactions have swiftly coalesced into two polarized camps: there are those who liked the incumbent design and see the new phone as just more of a good thing, and then there’s the more vocal group that’s already writing off HTC’s chances because of its apparent stagnation and lack of innovation. Both are entirely premature conclusions to draw.
We know what it looks like, but not what it feels like
It may seem like the whole world has now seen this device, but only very few have ever touched or used it. I will soon be among their number. Until I get the new One M9 in my hands, however, I will remain ignorant about exactly how innovative or otherwise this phone is. Sure, the BoomSound speakers look the same, but they’ve added Dolby surround sound this time around. The rear is also thoroughly familiar, but it now has a new 20-megapixel camera as its centerpiece. The UltraPixel camera that was uncompetitive on the back immediately becomes a leader among selfie cameras with its relocation to the front. And who can tell how much of a difference that side-mounted power button will make to the phone’s daily usability?
When I spoke with HTC design chief Drew Bamford at CES last month, he hinted that his company's 2015 flagship will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I was dubious about that approach then, but it’s starting to make more sense with the passage of time. Did HTC really have that many things to fix with the One M8? To my judgment, that phone had three issues: the mediocre camera, the somewhat slippery back that made it easy to drop, and a few undesirable Sense software tweaks. What HTC didn’t need to mess with were the good looks of its hardware. The flagship One series — including the M7 that started the current lineage of unibody aluminum gorgeousness — has been a repeating design award winner because it got most things right. Apple hasn’t messed with the MacBook Air’s shape since 2010 and nobody’s complaining about a shortage of smarts in Cupertino. HTC deserves the same courtesy: it’ll be perfectly fine for the company to keep the good things if it manages to rectify the bad.
HTC already had great design, what it needs now is a camera to match
The thing that will make or break the HTC One M9 is its camera. I recently wrote about how fundamental the camera is to the iPhone’s popularity, and any other company wishing to have a successful smartphone must start with a strong imaging foundation. There are too many people using Snapchat and Instagram, too many video-calling services, and too many picture messages flying across WhatsApp, Line, and WeChat for a great phone to lack a great camera. If the One’s new camera lives up to its inflated megapixel number, HTC’s decision to keep the phone’s design unchanged will be hailed as the bold continuation of a proven pedigree. If the camera is only so-so, the phone’s exterior appearance will be derided as symbolic of the company’s failure to keep pace.
Spec sheets and aesthetics are only means to an end. Beautiful phones attract people to try them, but it’s ergonomic and well-thought-out devices tied to a rich ecosystem that keep us using them over the long term. Unless you’re building a paperweight or a statue, the look is meaningless without the feel. The same is true of specs: HTC has gone for the best possible components it can procure, but if they don’t come together into a fast and responsive user experience, their value would be wasted.
The HTC One M9 has leaked. The stuff that matters has not, because it cannot. Just think about how awesome a One M8 with a great camera and a better grip would be. There’s still a high ceiling for optimism here, even if the initial impression is an overwhelmingly familiar one. I don’t ask that you forgive the One M9’s failures if and when they become apparent. But give this device a chance to impress you with what lies beneath its cold, aluminum skin. I know I will.