HTC needs more than a better camera to improve sales

Post a question publicly about how HTC can improve their smartphone sales and you’ll receive a number of replies from people talking about cameras.

Is it really that simple? Is that all HTC needs to do to stop the hemorrhaging and turn this ship around? I wonder if this isn’t a convenient reply delivered by us geeks, which ignores other issues facing this company in the consumer space.

The camera does need work…

To be fair, HTC cameras do still need some improvements. The last truly competitive HTC camera was the one bolted to the back of the One M7, and only if your phone wasn’t affected by purple haze. There might have been some concerns with resolution and clarity, but the M7 was a low light champ, and handily competed against the Lumia 920’s OIS for 1080p video. You couldn’t zoom or crop much, we M7 fans learned to zoom with our feet, but you were treated to a great set of menus and controls.

htc one m7 m8 m9 camerasThe M8 walked away from OIS, a feature which improves the core photography experience, in favor of dual camera sensors, which largely enabled photo gimmicks. The One M9 returned us to a more traditional camera sensor, but still lacked the OIS we really enjoyed two years prior.

If improving the camera is really the issue here, we saw significant progress on the One A9, which brings back OIS and pairs it with a reasonable sensor resolution. While there was a sales spike in November thanks to the A9, overall HTC sales were still down around 30% depending on which analysts you choose to follow.

The camera was improved, but apparently it wasn’t improved enough…

Design and fashion

Another commonly repeated issue facing HTC phones is derivative or repetitive design. From the M7 to the M9, we see very subtle evolution. Aluminum shell, front facing speakers, graceful antenna bands, all hallmarks of HTC build quality. I wouldn’t blame anyone for confusing an M9 for an M8 any more than I would mock someone for confusing an iPhone 6 with a 6S.

htc one m7 m8 a9 speaker grillI’ve also seen intense vitriol over the “black stripe” at the bottom of the display, home to the HTC logo, and how some people intensely dislike the forehead and chin space dedicated to the front firing speakers.

Maybe a design shake up is warranted. Again looking to the A9, we see a dramatic departure from HTC’s previous style. Unfortunately this departure lands HTC smack dab in the middle of iPhone territory. Critics shifted their commentary from “derivative” design to “copycat” design.

htc one a9 m9 iphone 6s comparisonConsumer awareness vs geek criticism

Buying a phone is mostly an emotional decision. I think we gadget geeks are better at justifying our purchases after the fact, but I doubt we’re any much more immune to the “feels” associated with picking up a new piece of tech. We see this a lot in the “worth it” debates lobbed around the internet.

If Gadget X contained features E, F, and G for Y price, then it would be “worth it” for the monies.

htc one m8 a9 phone size comparisonThe problem is that list of features which would solve the equation is not static. That list is incredibly fluid. With competitors announcing and releasing devices as quickly as they are, it’s absurdly easy for someone to keep moving the goal posts on a company. We would like to proclaim that our hard earned dollars are won by merit, but no gadget is perfect, and eventually we need to buy something. Getting to play with a ton of different devices, even I occasionally just need to go with my gut.

We’re watching the victory of technology infiltrating daily lifestyle fashion, but that also means our precious companies are subject to the fickle whims of the consumer fashion market. Some companies are “in” and some companies are “out”. As tech enthusiasts are grossly outnumbered by the general phone buying public, we’re affected by those market forces and trends. We can fight for our favorite brands, but we also know that roughly eight out of every ten people we meet will be carrying either an iPhone or a Galaxy.

Missed opportunities

HTC_youMaybe the most damning indictment of the company isn’t that it makes “bad” devices, but that HTC has done a terrible job lately of communicating with customers. Advertising missteps, halfhearted attempts at reaching out to brand evangelists, and a lack of physical presence outside of carrier stores all contribute to an eroding fan base. Not only are consumers generally unaware of what HTC brings to the table, HTC hasn’t created a much of a club for people who do buy One smartphones.

If phones were languages, it would be easy to find people who “speak” Apple or Samsung. It’s a lot more difficult to find people who “speak” HTC. This doesn’t feel exotic or exclusive, like owning an expensive car. Sometimes it can feel counter-culture or disruptive, fighting the mainstream, but sometimes it just feels lonely.

As we gear up for MWC, HTC continues to track as one of the more compelling stories. The drama surrounding a company’s rise and fall is fascinating. Only a handful of years separate HTC from being a top three manufacturer to falling behind as a distant competitor. Positive momentum is difficult to build, negative momentum is far more difficult to break.

Or maybe I’m wrong and a new camera is all HTC needs to sell a crazy amount of phones this year.

In a mature smartphone market, can a single phone release save a company? What would HTC need to deliver to tempt you away from the brand of phone you’re currently using? Drop us a comment below.

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About The Author
Juan Carlos Bagnell
Juan has been geeking out on personal computing since before PCs had GUIs. After studying Theatre in college, Juan worked with a contractor that supported servers and mobile devices for Department of Energy facilities. After moving to Los Angeles California, and working as a commercial casting director, he now dedicates his time to discussing the tech landscape as a consumer advocate. You’ll often see him pop in local news broadcasts. Passionate about mobile content creation, he recently published his first book on smartphone photography.