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HTC can't get no respect

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Meet the Rodney Dangerfield of the mobile industry

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"Oh, when I was a kid, I got no respect.
I played hide and seek.
They wouldn’t even look for me."

Like the late American comedian Rodney Dangerfield, HTC is a company suffering from a chronic lack of respect. The Taiwanese phone maker has a pedigree of mobile innovation rivaling that of Nokia and Apple, but last week it had to change its CEO amid ambivalent feedback to its latest smartphone and a struggle to generate consistent profits. There are many challenges for new CEO Cher Wang to overcome in the months ahead, but beside the technical issue of just building better cameras, probably the most critical among them will be to reestablish the company’s respectability.

The invisible missing ingredient for HTC in the past few years has been the respect and cooperation of mobile carriers. It’s not a coincidence that the biggest successes of the smartphone era, Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy series, are available on every carrier in almost every country in the world. Those devices are prominently promoted and sold in their native state, exactly as their maker intended. There will never be an iDroid on Verizon, and Samsung’s vast scale has recently helped it escape the silly rebranding and redesign exercises enforced by the brain trusts at AT&T and Big Red. HTC is in precisely the opposite position. It needs carriers, carriers don’t feel like they need it.

The bloatware apps you can’t uninstall on your HTC One? Blame carrier deals. Delays in updating to the latest Android version? Carrier certification is usually what takes the longest (though Google isn’t helping matters, either, with HTC typically getting the latest Android code at roughly the same time as Google announces it). HTC is deeply aware of the things it needs to deliver to make its phones compelling, but it’s habitually tripped up by the partners who are supposed to aid it in that quest.

Some of HTC's wounds have been self-inflicted

The asymmetric relationship with carriers might be a vestige of HTC’s history as a white-label manufacturer whose devices once bore better-known brands. A more likely culprit, though, is the simple fact that the small and mighty HTC is now defined more by its smallness than its mightiness. It’s been a long time since HTC’s 2011 apogee of being the leading smartphone manufacturer in the US, and some of its wounds have been self-inflicted.

Two years ago, the flagship One M7 smartphone was leaked by none other than HTC’s then-CEO, Peter Chou, who waved it excitedly on a stage in front of hundreds. A year later, a teenager on YouTube preempted the One M8 announcement with a 12-minute hands-on overview, and this year’s M9 has been the most comprehensive leak of them all. Pictures, promo videos, and even in-depth impressions of the new phone emerged in the days ahead of its big launch.

HTC’s pursuit of the widest possible coverage — both in terms of press attention and store distribution — is costing it the quality and secrecy of its products. It’s noteworthy that the Vive virtual reality headset, which HTC didn’t have to distribute to carrier and retailer partners ahead of time, managed to remain completely secret until the moment of its announcement. It’s an odd situation, because the factors tripping up HTC tend to reside outside of its control, but it’s the company’s own decisions that have led to its present state of dependency.

The Vive VR headset shows that HTC can still innovate in secret — so long as there are no mobile carriers involved

HTC’s legacy of great design and bold risk taking feels like it’s worth more respect than the company is currently getting. Long before Apple could build an all-metal iPhone, HTC dared to encase an entire phone in aluminum with its 2010 Legend. Before Samsung made the large-screen smartphone category its own, it was the seminal HTC HD2 that had the first 4.3-inch touchscreen. HTC also built the first ever Android phone, the T-Mobile G1, and the first 4G smartphone in the USA, the EVO 4G. But not every risk taken by HTC has been a good one, with its investments in 3D imaging (a gimmick), UltraPixel and DuoCam camera technology (dual gimmicks), and Beats Audio (a branding gimmick) all undermining its status as a reliable technology leader.

Respect is something to be earned rather than demanded. HTC's hardware design team has earned it. Now the rest of the company needs to step up to the same standard.

Verge Video: Reviewing the HTC One M9