The HTC One/Butterfly S duality: what we should learn

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I didn’t think much of it last year when HTC released the Butterfly alongside the Droid DNA, making up the manufacturer’s first round of hardware featuring 1080p displays. After all, Verizon can be a serious prima donna, and if it had its way, it would probably only carry exclusive phones you couldn’t get with any other carrier. Anyway, my interest was already turning to those HTC M7 rumors (which would eventually become the One), and that sort of arrangement with the Butterfly and Droid DNA was nothing like we hadn’t seen time and time again.

HTC-ButterflyBut this spring, I was surprised to already be hearing rumors of a new Butterfly model, a hardware-refreshed version that would arrive as the Butterfly S. Now, that model has just gone official, confirming those rumors that had suggested that the main goal with this phone was to bring as many HTC One features as possible over to the Butterfly – that includes things like stereo BoomSound speakers, the Snapdragon 600 SoC, and HTC’s UltraPixel camera.

Something about that really struck a chord with me. HTC sure seemed to be going to a lot of effort to copy a phone it already has – sure, we’ve since learned about targeted improvements, like a higher-clocked SoC and larger battery, but feature-for-feature, it’s hard to distinguish the One from the new Butterfly S. Why not just sell more of the One, rather than introduce a plastic One clone? Or even just tweak the One itself and give that model the bigger battery? It’s about knowing your users and giving them better options, and I think it’s something that might be nice to see from more smartphone companies

Identical Cousins

While HTC’s actions caught my eye, this isn’t exactly a unique arrangement. We’re quite familiar with seeing smartphone makers release similar devices, ones sharing much of the same internal hardware, with their differences largely external. A prime example might be the Droid RAZR series and its Maxx editions – same circuitry, screens, and all, with really just the battery size and body dimensions changing. Sure, the battery adds a functional element, but you could easily see this as offering the same phone in two configurations, based on how thick/heavy you like your handsets.

To a certain extent, this is actually a pretty widespread phenomenon – it wouldn’t be a crazy stretch to suggest that entire families of Windows Phone models follow this pattern, and the Lumia 920/925/928 initially seems to fit the criteria. I think the big difference there, compared to this One/Butterfly S business, is that Nokia’s still trying to innovate with each of those, and the similarities are due to what’s not being changed, rather than what is. With the Butterfly S, it feels like HTC is actively trying to feature-for-feature copy the One, and the most important difference between the two are the handset’s bodies themselves.

The Big Deal

Every time we buy a phone we have to decide between a ton of different options, and often choosing one means losing choice when it comes to others – if you’re locked into a carrier, you’re limited to handsets supporting its network, or if you just have to have a phone from a certain manufacturer, you’re limited to the platforms for which it develops. The fascinating thing about the HTC One and the Butterfly S is that we’re getting hints at a future where phone design could be finally entering into that picture as a category largely divorced from all the others.

HTC One_SilverSure, we can already choose between colors, or trick things out with elaborate cases, but imagine what it might be like if HTC didn’t keep things separated by market – if the One and Butterfly S shared the same radios – and you could just walk into a store and choose either a sleek, metallic phone or a durable plastic version – everything else being nearly the same.

Obviously, that’s not what HTC is doing here, and it’s used its market research to make that metal vs. plastic decision for you, but could this be a sign of things to come?

Ideally, we’d be looking at a situation just like the RAZR/Maxx pairing, where the phones don’t even distinguish between their firmware – no barrier at all between choosing one over the other besides which design most strikes your fancy.

Obstacles

Playing a little Devil’s advocate, I can sure come up with a number of reasons why we just don’t see manufacturers delivering multiple design options for the same hardware.

Marketing could be a headache. What do you promote, just one of the options in any given ad, or try and put them all in there, giving less attention to each individually?

What about the logistics of inventory and distribution? Adding a ton of new SKUs is only going to complicate how phones are shipped, stored, and delivered to retailers.

But maybe the biggest reason why not is us: the smartphone-buying public. It’s already hard enough to explain to an uninformed shopper that no, not all Androids are Galaxy phones, so imagine the nightmare of trying to clearly send the message that two phones that look quite different are in actuality essentially the same device.

All that nay-saying aside, wouldn’t a market like that be pretty cool? I realize that’s not really what HTC is going for here, but darn it if I’m not inspired.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!