- The HTC U11 is the company’s latest flagship smartphone, the first one critics have largely agreed on as great in years.
- Some went as far as saying that this is a comeback device for HTC.
- The company has had significant financial struggles over the past few years.
- No matter how good it is, the HTC U11 can’t do much in terms of “saving” the company.
HTC has been an interesting company to follow over the past few years. The Taiwanese firm was regarded as one of the most compelling Android phone makers for the platform’s first few years, with hits like the HTC Hero and Sensation. It then upped its game with two more spectacular devices, the HTC One X and then the One (M7) in 2013.
In the years that followed, however, the company entered a downward spiral it still hasn’t fully recovered from. Its flagship phones began to look identical, lacking in meaningfully innovative features, and were often overpriced.
This was reflected in the company’s financial results, which continued to be dramatically bad quarter after quarter, with hundreds of millions of dollars lost each time. But HTC’s position was not worsening just due to an internal problem, as competition began to emerge from the top (Samsung, Apple) and the bottom (mostly Chinese manufacturers chipping away at HTC’s marketshare).
The HTC U11 is the manufacturer’s latest attempt to reprise its role as a highly competitive player in the market, and a rave collection of good reviews — including Business Insider’s — will have certainly made executives happy. However, looking at the firm’s past four years in particular, it’s hard to think that the U11 is anything but too little, too late.
The Verge’s Vlad Savov called the U11 a “phoenix phone,” and claimed that HTC is “back.” I am not going to disagree with his assessment of the device itself, but I struggle to think how one good product can bring back a company that has made so many consecutive mistakes.
HTC has had over 3 really rough years
When it came out in 2013, the HTC One (M7) sported a gorgeous, novel 4.7″ Full HD display, great stereo speakers, and possibly the cleanest version of Android that didn’t come directly from Google. Sure, the 4MP “UltraPixel” (a regular shooter with bigger-than-average pixel size) camera left a lot to be desired. But overall — especially thanks to its metal unibody design, rivaled virtually only by Apple’s iPhones — the M7 received a lot of well-deserved praise.
Then 2014 came, and things started to change. For one, competitors started to step up the game significantly. In the second half of the year, Apple introduced the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, its first big-sized iPhones, which sold a previously unimaginable number of units. Samsung quietly unveiled the Galaxy Alpha: A rather understated device that signalled a change for the company, which started using metal in its phones’ design.
HTC put the One M8 on the market that year — a phone that was essentially a spec-bumped version of the M7, which did everything but the one thing everyone asked the firm to do: Fix the camera.
But that was still fine. The real problems came the following year, when Apple started to essentially live in a league of its own and Samsung flexed its design muscle with the beautiful Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge.
HTC had lost more than its upper hand in the aesthetics department, and without anything particularly captivating, it began to lose traction, even among enthusiasts. 2015’s HTC M9 didn’t help, either; it seemed nothing but another attempt to replicate the M7’s success, which failed due to (again) a camera inferior to its competition and a design that looked repetitive and stale at that point.
When the HTC 10 came out last year, it managed to be an ok phone without major flaws. But at the same time, it didn’t make any significant impact in the smartphone world because sitting next to it on the shelves were things such as the better-designed Galaxy S7 (and S7 edge), the cheaper, more innovative, dual-camera wielding Huawei P9, and the immeasurably more popular iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.
Throughout over the past three years, this lack of interesting products was combined with a series of bad decisions like the overpriced HTC A9 (which also looked like an exact iPhone copycat), its even less impressive successor, or more recently the U Play and U Ultra. They were all handsets that signalled a lack of vision inside the company, and that struggled to even play catch up with the ever fiercer competition.
The U11 is no different: It’s a phone that nails all the basics, and one that doesn’t seem to have any particular problem. But the point remains that, unless one falls in love with its admittedly eye-catching coloured back, why buy the U11?
A phone that catches up is not one that springs things forward
This doesn’t mean that the company’s handsets were all necessarily bad; the HTC 10 was an interesting device with very few flaws. What it does mean, however, is that the Taiwanese phone maker slowly lost its allure, and was unable to either create breakthrough products or strike a good balance between price and quality.
It’s now 2017, the smartphone landscape has changed dramatically, and manufacturers are still trying to figure out what’s next. One thing that seems certain, however, is that companies big (Samsung) and small (like Andy Rubin’s Essential) are pushing towards new designs and ideas like modularity (by which smartphones can easily attach to external peripherals and enhance things such as the camera or battery life) to try and set themselves apart.
What is HTC trying to do to set itself apart with the U11? Nothing, if you ask me — unless its “squeezable frame” (which allows you to press on the phone’s touch-sensitive sides to activate software commands) is something that you find particularly compelling.
Samsung is the first manufacturer to have put an almost bezel-less phone on the market while maintaining a lead in display quality thanks to its organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens. The Galaxy S8 and S8+ flagships also feature extra niceties like wireless charging, water resistance, and support for two mobile virtual reality platforms (Google’s Daydream and its own Gear VR).
Apple seems to be ready to announce a special edition iPhone on the occasion of the device’s tenth anniversary, which will reportedly have a radical new design and a series of new features, from wireless charging, to “tap to wake,” to possibly a new face scanning-based biometric identification and support for augmented reality thanks to iOS 11.
HTC, on the other hand, has a “good enough” phone that still has far too big a bezel, doesn’t bring any innovative features on the software side, has a gimmicky squeezable frame, and lacks a headphone jack. On top all of that, it costs a whopping £649, which is a good £100 more than what you can buy a Galaxy S8 for (at least on Amazon).
The OnePlus 5, for instance, doesn’t have what it takes to go head to head against Samsung or Apple. But at least it is priced competitively (it starts at £449), and has proved to be an incredibly fast device, even better than the iPhone.
To be fair, this is not just a problem HTC faces. Other long-running companies like LG, Sony, and Motorola are running into similar issues, with devices — like LG’s G6 and Motorola’s Moto Z2 Force — that make it hard to justify their status of “new,” let alone the price tags that rival the iPhones and Galaxys out there.
However, the companies above all have much stronger financial stability than HTC, and sources of revenue outside of phones.
HTC’s other business instead (represented by the virtual reality push it’s trying to make with the Vive headset) is not mature enough to counter the phone business’ losses yet, which experienced yet another revenue drop last quarter.
The HTC U11 may have no reason to exist
If someone buys an iPhone, chances are that they are either doing it because that device can be seen as a status symbol, or because Apple has a whole ecosystem of devices and software services it can lock its users into.
Samsung’s latest Galaxy phones have repeatedly been crowned the best-designed smartphones out there, and often push the boundaries of mobile technology. Even Google started to make its own smartphones, and they are among the critics’ favourites, thanks to solid hardware and the cleanest, most-supported version of Android around (which keeps winning even long-running iPhone users over).
HTC has none of that, because instead of building a legacy, it spent the past three-plus years trying to come up with devices that have been mostly dismissed by both the critics and a vast sum of its customer base. There are either cheaper or better alternatives to the U11. The U11 was a safe and well-executed move for the Taiwanese company, which may please critics like Savov and other enthusiasts. “Saving” an entire company, however, is another story; one the HTC U11 alone cannot write.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.