The New HTC One: The Disappointing Sexy Beast

sorry htcHTC recently announced the new HTC One their latest flagship android phone. I will not be buying it, and I will have a hard time recommending it. This is disappointing because it is possible one of the best android devices of the year. Why, you may be asking, would I pan the best device of the year? The answer is simple, I have lost faith in the company that makes it and I’m not alone.

The End of a Long Love Affair

Every smartphone I’ve owned has been made by HTC. I’ve owned three and each one has been a great piece of hardware. They build great phones that stand up to my less than gentle treatment of portable devices. Not only that HTC has had some remarkable hits in the phone industry. Here is a brief list of my personal favorites:

O2 XDA – The namesake for XDA-developers
Wizard 100 – My first smart phone
Touch Pro 2- My Second
HD2- Quite possibly the most versatile smartphone ever
The Evo
The Sensation – My current and probably last HTC device

What made all these phones special for me was their ability to get under the hood and really take total control of your device. HTC knew this, HTC even celebrated this. Somewhere along the way though, they lost interest in user control. I believe they tried too hard to become household name brand.

Sense: Loud and Dumb

This obsession for branding has led them to break from their own slogan: Quietly Brilliant. Sense is HTC’s branding effort. They want you to want Sense, they want you to buy their phones because they have Sense on it. Sense is a lot of things but quiet or brilliant isn’t any of them. When I finally removed sense from my sensation I began to realize how much it got in the way of android. The lock screen was incompatible with all the lock screen apps available, it messed with my contact information in gmail when it didn’t have to. Not to mention the delays it causes with updates. The Verizon version of my phone was called the thunderbolt. The thunderbolt just received its update to ice cream sandwich, over a year and a half after ICS was released (though I suspect Verizon is the culprit behind this).  The new One(oh that’s confusing) has a feature called Blinkfeed, it sounds okay if limited, the problem is it takes over your home screen removing one of the key attributes of android the ability to customize your home screen. HTC is so desperate to establish a strong brand that they make it impossible to ignore.

Tin Handcuffs

What HTC is trying to do is control the user experience a la apple. They are trying to craft an experience that is elegant, beautiful, and unique in which HTC serves your every need. Two things: One) Apple can’t be all things to all people (which is why a lot of big name power users are moving away from it). Two) HTC is no Apple. This second point is important. Apple gets away with locking down their user experience in part by fundamentally understanding software design in a way that is useful to most users. More importantly though Apple also has a large community of followers and developers that fill in many of the gaps and blind spots Apple can’t provide. In HTC’s effort to cement its brand it’s managing to push away the very support community it needs to fill in its blind spots. They’ve started locking bootloaders and been slow to release driver information for their devices. Since the new One will have a radically different camera and nonstandard buttons there will be… Ugh fragmentation issues (I feel dirty). Of course average users won’t have to deal with this and 90% of developers don’t have to worry about it either. The thing is the developers who extend the life of your phone are amongst that 10% affected by these issues. This means unless HTC becomes much better at updating their devices (something they’ve made harder for themselves with their design) you’re likely to be stuck with the version of android it ships with. Now as I said before most users don’t care about updates but here’s another reason to care about updates – depreciation. Phones that don’t receive updates lose their resale values dramatically. Unless you’d like to assemble the saddest tech museum selling your old gadgets just makes sense.

Cameras don’t sell phones

The last few years HTC has focused all of its attention on making the cameras on their phone the reason to buy their phones. While I applaud the efforts to improve camera quality a camera alone will not sell a phone. If this were true the Nokia 808 pureview would have been a blockbuster. Sure a lot of people care about cameras and you couldn’t sell a phone without a decent camera these days but it’s one of the last things people consider. If all things were equal then it would be a deciding factor, but all things are not equal, Samsung has greater market share, the nexus phones are better with updates, hell LG is starting to have really compelling design these days. HTC’s key differentiator just isn’t going to lead people to the brand at least not on android. But then again they did just start pushing their windows 8 phones maybe they can survive on that (said no one except Nokia).

Who owns your phone

Andy Ihnatko just did a recent three part write up on why he switched to android from the iOS. He didn’t switch because the iphone was suddenly a bad device, he still thinks it’s a great device. The thing is he essentially grew out of it. What he grew out of was the restrictions that apple arbitrarily imposes on its users in an effort to make sure the user doesn’t feel lost when they pick up the device. This is of course a great thing when you’re starting out, but the more you use your phone the more you should own it, own how it works, decide for yourself what you want it to do for you. Remember these are supposed to be personal digital assistance. If you had an assistant that refused to put things on your calendar because they didn’t like the kind of calendar you used, you’d probably get rid of them and find an assistant that worked better with you. HTC used to understand this, and used to make it a priority. Somewhere along the way they lost this, which is the biggest disappointment of all.

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