If HTC isn’t quite a sinking ship, it is certainly taking on a lot of water. The world’s top smartphone maker as recently as 2011 has lost ground to Samsung, sales of its well-reviewed HTC One flagship phone fell short of expectations due to supply glitches, its much-hyped Facebook phone has been a total dud, and more than a half dozen top executives—including chief product officer Kouji Kodera and, on Thursday May 23rd, Asia CEO Lennard Hoornik—have fled the company.
The mobile phone handset business is notoriously fickle, and it’s clear that co-founder and CEO Peter Chou, who vowed to step down if the HTC One wasn’t a hit, needs to find a way to change course.
A small step, albeit one that is engendering huge enthusiasm among early adopters, is being floated by Geek.com reporter Russell Holly, who reported on Thursday that HTC is preparing to release a “vanilla Android” version of the HTC One—the phone with the sleek metal hardware that has garnered so many positive reviews, but without the heavily modified version of Google’s Android operating system that HTC includes with all of its smartphones, known as HTC Sense.
In other words it’s a top-of the line Android phone just how God—aka Google—intended it. (Gadget site Gizmodo’s ecstatic reaction: “Please be true, please be true, please be true.“)
Like most companies using Google’s free mobile operating system, HTC adds extra software “features”—often referred to by users as “bloatware” for the home screen clutter it creates—in an attempt to differentiate itself and hook users into its own mobile services. An HTC handset fitted with only a basic version of Android is likely to run faster, work more smoothly, and receive seamless updates.
It might also win over some fans from Samsung, which leads the market in Android phones. Except—whoops—Samsung announced the exact same strategy, selling its top of the line Galaxy S 4 as a “stock” phone via the Google Play store. The catch is that Samsung is selling the stock S 4 for a punishing $650, so there is still room for HTC to win some new fans with a more reasonable price.
The conventional wisdom among financial analysts is that handset manufacturers have to modify Android in order to avoid the commoditization trap that has recently gutted the PC industry. Anne Lee, an analyst at Nomura Securities, told Quartz that a non-modified version of Android would be better suited to mid- and low- end products, which would help HTC win market share in a segment less dominated by Apple and Samsung.
But phones aren’t PCs—they come in unique form factors that you carry in your pocket and press up against your face. It’s a much more intimate experience that could reward companies like HTC (and yes, Apple and Samsung and Nokia too) that have the expertise to design lustworthy, sought-after handsets. HTC might want to try concentrating on the phone itself and leave the software to Google—that’s what the hard core smartphone fans want anyway.