HTC’s Next Hurdle: Long-Term Support
Depending on your perspective, the HTC One is either the biggest Android success story of 2013, or the most overhyped piece of mobile tech since the iPhone. Debate continues to rage between the two camps across our various comment sections, and fanboys being what they are, a resolution seems unlikely anytime soon. One thing is clear, though: a timely HTC One update is critical to the company’s success.
For our part, we consider the One to be a real home run, both for HTC and for the Android world in general – a fact that will come as no surprise to veteran listeners of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast and viewers of the Pocketnow Live broadcast. In our eyes, its excellent build quality, refined software offering, and innovative camera trump the disadvantages of its embedded battery and nonexpandable storage. In a recent Pocketnow editor poll, seven of eight surveyed indicated that they would choose the One over its direct competitor, the Galaxy S 4. Whether our personal preferences should influence your buying decisions is quite another debate -one being had in the same comment sections mentioned above- but that aside, it’s clear that we’re big fans of the One at Pocketnow.
But we’ve said all that before. The mobile technology space moves incredibly quickly, and the conversation needs to move forward to keep up. The fact is that a wonderful smartphone is only as good as the support it’s given post-launch. And, to paraphrase Top Gun, HTC’s reputation in the support arena “ain’t the best in the Navy.”
The deal is this: HTC has something of a reputation for producing exceptional Android devices, but then offering delayed or little support after release.
Hardcore “smartphoners” understand what I mean by this, but some brief clarification for those new to smart devices is called for. “Support” in this sense doesn’t mean warranty coverage, service and repair, or other areas traditionally associated with the term. It means offering software upgrades to correct bugs, add features, and keep older devices up to date with more-recent Android smartphones.
Timely software upgrades are one of the oldest sticking points in the smartphone conversation. We’ve talked about it time and time again: an OEM will release a hot new piece of smartphone hardware, getting thousands of users excited enough to pull the trigger and invest hundreds in purchasing it. Six months later, a new version of Android rolls out – but because of all the software customization the manufacturer has ladled onto the underlying OS, it takes the company months to implement all the changes necessary to roll the new-and-improved version out to the older devices. That’s not even taking into account carrier testing, which often adds even more time to the process.
HTC isn’t the only one guilty of such a sluggish upgrade record, but it’s definitely one of the prime offenders – and the company knows it. When I brought this issue up during a conversation with an HTC product manager at last year’s AT&T One X launch event, he seemed ready for the question – and also tired of being asked it. His explanation basically centered around the complex problems enumerated above: custom UI layers like HTC Sense extend deep into Android, and when a new version of Android debuts with many significant changes, the layer riding atop it needs a correspondingly heavy overhaul to keep up. The work such an overhaul entails can only begin once Google gives the OEM enough support material surrounding the new Android version – device drivers and such. And how timely that exchange is conducted basically comes down to Google’s relationship with the OEM. So it’s tough, very tough, for a manufacturer to keep all of its older devices updated – a truth that remains despite movements like the flagging Android Update Initiative.
But relying on the old crutch of “sorry, it’s hard” doesn’t work for too long when you’re playing with the big boys. And HTC has recently demonstrated, not for the first time, that it’s willing (and more than able) to tangle with the heavy-hitters. Were that not the case, we wouldn’t have spent the entire introduction to this article burying the One in praise – again. But that device is already a full point-release behind its Galaxy S 4 competitor, and it isn’t going to stay praiseworthy if that version lag persists. HTC has done a fairly good job keeping last year’s One X reasonably up to date, the device having been bumped to 4.1.1 a couple months back – but the HTC ThunderBolt just got an update to Ice Cream Sandwich in February, about the same time Samsung’s similarly-aged Galaxy S II was getting upgraded to Jelly Bean along with the Galaxy S III.
The problem isn’t an easy one to solve, but the world also isn’t what it was last Spring, when I had that conversation with HTC. Since then, the company has shaken up the mobile tech landscape with the revelation that it’s still capable of surprises, and that some of its competitors aren’t necessarily the impregnable fortresses they once seemed. The popularity of the One will almost certainly help HTC address its frightening financial situation, but the new device’s notoriety may ultimately prove the greater payoff – if it motivates Google to forge the closer ties to HTC necessary for more timely Android updates.
HTC has already tied up the high-end flagship game in the hardware arena; it’s now time to see if the company has the stamina to go the extra innings on the software side. For the sake of all those early-adopters who sprang for the One, we hope it does.
Title image via androidspot.ru
Smartphone stethoscope image via Medicalautomation.org