HTC

HTC's 'Advantage' is peace of mind for both nerds and normals — but is it enough?

HTC this morning announced its “Advantage” program for American HTC One customers, a series of promises targeting some of the main pain points of Android smartphone ownership. Timely updates for the One, One Mini and One Max — and presumably whatever comes next. A free screen replacement if you smash your display within six months of purchase. And free cloud storage through Google Drive, which it was already offering on some devices. (Previously HTC had teamed up with Dropbox.)

It’s a package of services that sees HTC, amid declining revenues, looking beyond hardware and software to differentiate itself from the competition at large. In particular, it could give the smaller smartphone maker an opportunity to outmaneuver bigger manufacturers, particularly the dominant Samsung.

The main target of HTC Advantage is consumer anxiety.

The main target of HTC Advantage is consumer anxiety. Offering a six-month immunity to smashing your screen (or even scratching it, according to the fine print) gives new HTC One owners short-term peace of mind, and it’ll be a welcome relief to that one person who juggles their shiny new smartphone right out of the box and onto the sidewalk. After your six months is up, some sort of fee will presumably apply — but by then you’ve likely got a better handle on your phone, and are therefore less likely to drop or damage it.

HTC One

In recent months we've covered the issues surrounding Android updates at length, and in 2013 we found that HTC was ahead of the curve in pushing out new versions of the OS. The Developer Edition HTC One, with Sense 5.5, got KitKat within a month of the open-source code drop. U.S. carrier versions followed a couple of months later. Android 4.4.2 updates are imminent.

HTC wants to position update speed and transparency as a key “feature” for its flagship phones.

What HTC’s promising today is timely updates for the entire HTC One line, and again, presumably the same will apply to its upcoming 2014 flagship. In addition, the manufacturer says it’ll support HTC One series phones with updates for two years after release. And crucially, this promise also extends to updates for HTC’s Sense UI, which we’d argue has way more impact on the user experience than the underlying OS version. Talk is cheap, though, and we've seen HTC have to abandon phones before their time before.

It’s no coincidence that this point resonates strongly with vocal Android enthusiasts, and the language of today’s press release show that HTC wants to position update speed and transparency as a key “feature” for its flagship phones among tech-savvy buyers. What’s slightly problematic is the lack of any real timetables, besides “the coming months” for the One Mini and One Max. Admittedly, as we pointed out in our recent updates piece, that’s more information than many rivals are giving. But nevertheless, it’s a vague promise that provides plenty of wiggle room for HTC and not a whole lot of information for the consumer.

Verizon HTC One

The U.S. carrier approval process is surely the main reason for this. As HTC showed in its recent update infographic, carrier-branded versions of phones need to have operator-approved apps and customizations applied to them, before going through testing to make sure they play nicely with the network. That’s a time-consuming process, as the HTC update status page has shown, and an unavoidable chore for new firmware.

Today’s announcement is a clear sign that HTC America sees speedy updates as an exploitable commercial advantage, at least within the U.S. market. But it's still stuck between a rock and a hard place — users clamoring for the latest firmware, and typically slow-moving and cautious mobile operators. HTC will remain at the mercy of AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon and others in the months ahead — but greater transparency in the update process should mean the company won’t take as much flack when a carrier is the source of a delayed update.

The two-year commitment is also interesting in light of certain HTC phones having recently suffered a premature demise. Most significantly the NVIDIA Tegra 3-powered One X and One X+, and the One S, which in some countries used an older Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 CPU, were put out to pasture. In all three instances the phones fell victim to a lack of chipmaker support, so the fact that HTC is committing ahead of time to two years of support means it must have received (or perhaps negotiated) certain assurances from Qualcomm.

HTC money

Engineers aren’t free, QA testing isn’t free, and replacement displays certainly aren’t free.

All of this costs HTC money at a time when it’s under increasing financial pressure. Engineers aren’t free, QA testing isn’t free, and replacement displays certainly aren’t free. But just like all bundled goodies included with a smartphone, HTC will have run the numbers and weighed the cost against the potential benefits. It’ll know how many people smash their phones in their first six months, and the proportion of users for whom speedy updates is a decider when buying a new device. As such, expect "HTC Advantage" to form part of the company's marketing campaign for its next flagship. This is, after all, about publicity as much as anything.

With HTC Advantage we have a one-two punch of incentives for nerds, in the form of updates, and incentives for normal people through protection from physical damage. It’s also significant that all this is getting announced now, a week ahead of Samsung’s Galaxy S5 event, not a month later at HTC’s new flagship events in London and New York. Clearly HTC wants its promise of replacement screens and fast updates to be in the back of customers' minds as Samsung does its thing in Barcelona.

HTC generatorNo-one's suggesting the “Advantage” program will solve HTC’s problems in a single release cycle. At launch it’s limited to the U.S., for a small portion of HTC’s high-end portfolio at a time when the company is increasingly looking to mid-range handsets and the Chinese market to grow. And news of these offers will be little comfort to HTC customers in other countries, where there’s not such a strong push behind timely updates — and where, yes, people also drop their phones.

Today's announcement a drop in the ocean, but in the short term it's a unique, public commitment to U.S. consumers at a crucial time for HTC. The company is preparing to launch its 2014 flagship, squaring off against a market-leading competitor with vast resources. In early 2013 HTC nailed the product side of the equation with the HTC One. Later in the year it made progress with the timing of software updates, particularly in the U.S. — and HTC Advantage forms part of that. But neither of these has really been the reason for HTC's decline over the past couple of years. Between its hardware, its software and now the unique services offered to American buyers, HTC's products have never been stronger. What's needed now is a kick-ass way to share that message with consumers.

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