2011 was quite the year for HTC. It was the year where their strategy of pumping out device after device began to falter. Apple’s iPhone 4 showed that having one device, with definitive branding/marketing, and with excellent fit and finish could stand the test of time in consumer eyes…the device is still selling well mere months before its replacement. People began noticing chinks in HTC’s software armor as well. The venerable Sense enhancements to Android hit version 3.0 during this time period, and many began to feel like the overwrought animations and special effects were harming the user experience rather than helping it. The result? HTC suffered massive losses in 2011. Clearly some shift in strategy had to be made.
At MWC 2012, HTC revealed this shift. First, HTC would no longer put an emphasis on differentiated devices for super specific market segments or carrier wishes like the HTC Rhyme or Rezound. Instead, HTC would focus on attacking the three tiers of smartphone market segments head on under a unified brand. They would attempt to make the devices best in class in all aspects, not just one like sound or camera. Further, carriers wouldn’t be able to change the design of the devices or the names. Second, Sense 4’s new design would enhance Android 4.0, rather than detract from it. HTC was clear. One would be their focus and plan for the future.
All was right in the world, One X and S were praised by reviewers and customers the world over. A flaw in HTC’s plan was became apparent when it was revealed that the AT&T One X wouldn’t support HTC’s bootloader restriction removal service.
A bit of background: For a few years now, HTC’ followed in Motorola’s footsteps, encrypting the bootloader on their devices in the name of customer security. However, this presents an issue for developers of custom firmware for HTC and Motorola devices. While it’s possible to install custom firmware with the bootloader encrypted on Motorola devices, it’s clearly not preferable and is slightly more complicated. Tech savvy consumers balked at HTC’s decision and they now allow for devices to be decrypted via a web tool.
When it was revealed that the One X on AT&T wouldn’t support the web removal tool, I was somewhat stunned. Here was a device that was clearly going to be AT&T’s top Android phone, a device that was intended to save HTC’s fortunes, and now they were seemingly turning away a sizable power user segment who wanted the device. The boneheadedness of this decision was just shocking. HTC quickly distanced themselves in a somewhat cryptic statement:
“HTC is committed to listening to users and delivering customer satisfaction. Since announcing our commitment to unlockable bootloaders, HTC has worked to enable our customers to unlock the bootloader on more than 45 devices over the past six months,” HTC wrote. “Rest assured, HTC is committed to assisting developers in unlocking bootloaders for HTC devices and we’ll continue to unlock additional devices in the future.
The real question on my mind was why this decision was even allowable? HTC wanted strict control over the hardware and branding, but with this misstep by AT&T they now risk damaging ever so slightly the brand they’ve worked so hard to create. HTC should have put their foot down and said: “Accept the device as is, in its entirety, or we’ll do a “one-off” device for you that doesn’t have any One branding.” A great example is the Evo 4G LTE: It has internals that are similar to the One X, but the device doesn’t contain any One branding both physically and in marketing.
As they expand their bundled services like HTCSense.com, the ability to stand their ground and insist upon the inclusion of their features in their entirety becomes very important. I suspect that the original implementation of HTCSense.com didn’t gain traction due to the lack of adoption by carriers, instead favoring their own services and products.
Will thishave a major effect on One X sales in the US? Probably not. Just looking at Motorola’s sales on Verizon since the bootloader encrypted Droid 2 demonstrates that an encryped bootlaoder does not majorly hinder sales. The segment of the population who will install custom kernels and firmware is still relatively small. Many average people will be enamored by the screen and overall hardware design. But it does alienate many buyers who consider themselves power users, but can’t afford or don’t want to pay the price required for a non carrier branded handset. These users, a vocal minority that has influence on many non techie people, will go elsewhere. As a company, wouldn’t you want to maximize sales and profits by not alienating anyone, regardless of how minor the userbase is?
And HTC have no one to blame but AT&T and themselves.