Price, not specs will make or break the upcoming HTC One A9.
To put it mildly, 2015 has not been a great year for HTC. Disappointing sales of its flagship One M9 have contributed to financial woes and layoffs, culminating in its recent delisting from the Taiwan 50 Index. And the buzz around genuinely exciting non-phone products like the HTC Vive VR experience and the RE Camera has yet to impact the bottom line. HTC remains primarily a smartphone company at a time when it's increasingly difficult to make money just selling smartphones.
Part of the problem for HTC (and Sony, and many others) is the transformation we've seen in the high-end Android landscape over the past year. The commoditization of smartphone hardware has made it difficult for even big brands to differentiate themselves and justify their higher price tags. When the baseline for a high-end Android phone is "really, really good," it's harder for anyone to stand head and shoulders above the rest and demand the premium prices that were commonplace just a year or two ago.
HTC remains primarily a smartphone company, at a time when it's increasingly difficult to make money just selling smartphones.
HTC was an early pioneer of metal smartphones, but the competition has since caught up. And many smaller, leaner players have managed to pack hardware comparable to the M9 into significantly cheaper devices that are sold directly to consumers. HTC's weaker financial position surely hasn't helped matters either.
Soooooooooo …One of these things is not like the others. Except it is. A lot. pic.twitter.com/PEqKp7SpNU— Phil Nickinson (@philnickinson) September 15, 2015
As former HTC design lead Scott Croyle, now of cloud-phone startup Nextbit, said in a recent interview, "there is a shift happening where the new high-end for Android is $300 to $400." Beyond that point, for most consumers, there are diminishing returns.
It's now possible to buy a phone comparable to last year's high-enders for less than half the price of the latest and greatest — and the functional and aesthetic differences between them are smaller than ever.
This shift towards cheaper high-end phones has had a knock-on effect on the mid-range, too. In Europe, really decent mid-tier handsets like the Moto X Play and Honor 7 sell around the €350 mark after tax. When it's possible to buy a phone comparable to last year's high-enders for less than half the price of the latest and greatest, and when the functional and aesthetic differences between them are smaller than ever, it's no wonder buyers are turning away from higher-cost smartphones.
Increasingly there are only two phone makers able to realistically demand $700-800 off-contract prices — Samsung and Apple. Though Samsung hasn't been immune to the emergence of cheaper Chinese-made rivals, both it and Apple have the marketing and technological oomph required to stay at the top.
So where does that leave a company like HTC? For its next flagship phone — let's call it the HTC One M10 — CEO Cher Wang promises "significant improvements in innovation and design." If HTC plans on charging flagship money for the M10, at a time when many competitors will be living in the $300-400 range, it'll need to do just that. But more interestingly, Wang revealed that a new "hero" product would hit in October 2015. That, we can only assume, is the device codenamed "Hima Aero," and rumored to go to market as the HTC One A9.
The One A9 looks like an inversion of HTC's strategy for the One E9, competing on design instead of hardware muscle.
As more information has leaked out in recent days, it's become clear that the A9 is HTC's answer to competitive new mid-range phones, which makes a lot of sense. This is a space that no serious contender can afford to ignore, and one that represents something of a gap in HTC's present lineup, between the high-specced HTC One E9 and the budget-friendly Desire 826.
In fact, based on the most reliable leaked specs available, the One A9 looks like an inversion of HTC's strategy for the One E9. Whereas the E9 packages high-end internals in a cheaper chassis, the A9 seems like mid-range phone with high-end design chops. And yes, the one reliable image we have of this phone makes it look quite a bit like an iPhone. There's not much to say on that besides the fact that HTC's licensing agreement with Apple explicitly prohibits "clones" of Apple products. The company has to know this, and surely believes the A9 doesn't fall into this category — even though it does kinda look like an iPhone from the back.
According to prominent phone leaker Evan Blass, we're looking at a Snapdragon 617 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 5-inch 1080p AMOLED screen, 16GB of storage, a 13-megapixel rear camera with OIS, 4-megapixel "Ultrapixel" front camera, fingerprint reader and a metal unibody. @LlabTooFeR, a generally reliable source for HTC software rumors, suggests the A9 could also be one of the first phones to run Android 6.0 Marshmallow out of the box.
This isn't an out-of-cycle replacement for the M9 — it's more important than that.
This obviously isn't intended as a replacement for the M9. It's not the Quad HD-toting, 3,500mAh battery-carrying flagship-killer-killer that was briefly rumored online earlier this week. It's not a new flagship phone at all in the traditional sense. But there's a strong case for saying it is the phone HTC needs right now. The company would achieve nothing by rushing out an out-of-cycle standard-bearer to counter flagging demand for the M9. Instead, a strong mid-range product could see HTC through to next year's flagship season.
Indeed, the combination of build quality and specs suggests pricing will be crucially important for the A9. If HTC is saving on internals and spending on materials, it could hit a very competitive price point with its new "hero" phone, allowing it to give the likes of Motorola, Huawei and Xiaomi a run for their money. And with the prospect of an optically-stabilized 13-megapixel camera — perhaps using the same Sony RGBW sensor utilized by Huawei in recent devices — the A9 might well outperform the M9 in low-light photography.
Regardless, a good product can only go so far on its own — the greater challenge for HTC might be effectively marketing the A9 at a time when resources are scarce and competition is fierce. However things play out, it's sure to be an fascinating end to the year for HTC fans, and we'll be watching with interest.