Be brilliant — that is HTC’s current catchphrase, one that they are not afraid of uttering at every corner. But as opposed to the old Quietly Brilliant, this slogan sounds more like a reaffirmation than a statement, one that HTC desperately needs to keep people hooked on their future.
It hasn’t been a good year for HTC; shortly after the M9’s release, the company saw its financial situation worsen amidst the less-than-stellar reviews of the company’s supposedly hottest phone. While the M8 was praised for its design and user experience, the M9 was evolutionary in its approach. HTC was famous for its minute attention to smartphone design — one that arguably brought, mastered and popularized premium materials in the Android flagship scene. But the company stagnated on almost everything else, and with their latest phone, it keeps trying to ride the “form over function” strategy that brought it to its knees due to a lack of innovation.
When HTC’s VP of Design Jonah Becker, who had a good influence behind their most acclaimed flagships, left the company, nobody could quite predict HTC would get to this point today. I’ve seen, however, many argue that HTC is copying Apple’s design, and that because it is copying at all, the phone is bad. To me there is nothing intrinsically wrong with HTC drawing inspiration from another phone’s design — after all, many took inspiration from them. But there is arguably more than just inspiration here, and the history, tradition, and pretenses surrounding HTC are the ones that truly invoke disappointment within communities, and for various reasons. We continually attempted to find ways through which HTC could find some solace in this ongoing tragedy, and given the company’s history with Android, we only wanted the best for such a smartphone legend — one that changed the face of mobile through innovation and progress.
HTC found a way to justify it.
But one only needs to look at HTC today to begin doubting that the company can restore its former glory, at least for what it’s known for. The A9 reveal event was brief and substanceless. It began with more celebrity pitching and ego-flaunting than what we are used to (or perhaps, we aren’t used to so much in such a short time). HTC was quick to remind us of many of their achievements, and displayed them as living moments instead of old relics. By the time they presented the phone, my doubts had only gotten bigger. Just like with the M9, the disappointing leaks were correct: the A9 features the derivative design we all feared it would actually have, and with that, the innumerable videos putting the obvious comparison together surfaced all over. I am not sure if you will find a hands-on feature that doesn’t point out the unavoidable.
There is nothing that speaks about an OEM’s inability to take risks like copying an iPhone.
I won’t go deep into the comparison itself, though, nor say that the imitation is intrinsically worrying. What concerns me is the fact that, during their launch, they rode the design as the selling point of the smartphone. No detailed specifications were given, and it’s clear why once you look at the sheets from the press release. Pushing the design as the phone’s main attraction is a vice that HTC needs to quit; in today’s day and age, the call to fame they earned with the M8 is much harder to achieve, as premium materials in flagship phones are not the exception but the rule. But perhaps my biggest issue with HTC, and I assume most people’s too, is how far they fell from their original ethos. Quote HTC’s ex-VP of Design:
“It’s very important for us not to just sit back and play it safe. What we were really trying to do is balance this idea of establishing a strong identity for the One family, building on the success of the design language from last year. … We need to keep pushing ahead, we need to take risks. We know that we want to deliver the best quality product. We’re willing to put in the work, take the risks, and fail throughout the course of the year and learn from those failures until we get things right.”
Like a punch to the gut, those words remind me of an HTC that is simply not there anymore. But rather than rant at them blindly or apologizingly dismiss the change of heart that cost the company its place, I want to argue that the company lost the “One family’s identity” that it tried to establish, for its name has been tarnished by the constant flood of unoriginal and mediocre iterations such as the M8s and the M9+. Rather that build upon the “success of the design language” of previous years, the M9 stagnated it and the A9 scrapped it. Instead of “the best quality product”, we see HTC cutting corners in various places to even launch the phones at competitive prices. And there is nothing that speaks about an OEM’s inability to take risks quite like copying an iPhone.
HTC’s absolutely misguided focus on chasing a design sales pitch is costing it the user experience it desperately needs to preserve and improve. They promise us that the A9 will receive updates for years to come, and only about two weeks after these hit Google’s own Nexus phones. But one only has to look back at their Lollipop release delay to know that they don’t have the best track record with updates nor update promises, especially with their latest statements claiming that quick, frequent updates or patches are “unrealistic” (although, in Mackenzie’s defense, he did blame carriers which are not an issue with the A9) when other companies are tackling the task nevertheless.
And sadly, “quick updates” as a selling point lies on the premise that HTC will remain alive and well in future years, something many would consider a gamble at this point.
Marketing slogans are not enough, not even with all the marketing in the world
And if that’s not enough, the once fan-acclaimed HTC dismissed many of the complaints its followers had for their latest releases. The infamous black bar is gone, but HTC only removed it in essence, as the huge space it took to simply display a logo remains in practice. The complaints about the M9’s processor arguably remain unchallenged as well — the 810 meant a non-flagship level of performance and battery life, and the A9 opts for a Snapdragon 617 (an attempt at correcting the catastrophe that was the 615) and a puny 2150mAh battery — let me say that again, 2,150mAh, arguably the smallest battery of any notable Android flagship release since the Nexus 4.
The company’s reasonable yet time-limited pricing of $399 for an unlocked variant is limited to the United States in a time where HTC should be aiming at a successful global release and focusing on emerging markets. Many have already pointed out the obscene price the phone has on other markets, including the Europe. Which only reinforces my question: who is this phone designed for? With their carrier-agnostic approach to sales, I doubt the average Joe will hear much about it. With their specifications, the most hardcore enthusiasts will likely skip it altogether (even with the unlockable bootloader). And despite its iPhone-like design, I can’t see it earning much love from actual iPhone users or non-Chinese markets.
I want to close this by saying that I do not think the A9 is an awful phone, just an unimpressive one that is certainly no Hero. I think that the design could be much better, yet I have no actual qualms with the imitation game itself, just its shameless execution. This article is not about the A9, but what HTC intends the A9 to be, and how today’s HTC is different from the One that brought unprecedented quality to Android. Whereas the company’s “Quietly Brilliant” was a perfect match for the M7 and M8 sleeper hits, “Be Brilliant” reflects the company’s current need to reaffirm its values and shoot for the stars. But just saying it isn’t enough, perhaps not even with all the marketing in the world (which HTC honestly lacks). It’s time for HTC to go back to its roots before its followers run out of patience — and this likely means sooner rather than later.