We're more than a year removed from the launch of the HTC One M9, which is the third generation in what we'd call HTC's current generation of flagship smartphone. We're edging ever close to what we believe will be called the HTC 10.
While nothing's official yet as to what we'll get in the next version of the company's Android smartphone, it's as good a time as any to take a look back at the past 12 months or so and see where the HTC One M9 met expectations, where it fell short, and what that could mean going forward.
Did you use the M9?
Let's just get this out of the way: Are you actually using the M9? Or did you use it for any length of time?
Phil Nickinson: Nope. It made it through the review process but pretty quickly was replaced by the Galaxy S6 (and then the LG G4). The camera just wasn't up to it. Sense was old and tired. And I'd made a conscious decision in 2015 that I just wasn't going to compromise when it came to my smartphone camera. Both the GS6 and the LG G4 greatly surpassed anything HTC was doing.
Alex Dobie: I used the M9 for a little over a month before picking up the LG G4 full-time. It wasn't a bad phone. I've used far worse as my daily driver over the months and years. And yes, I'm already damning this phone with the faintest of praise. The biggest showstoppers for me were the display and battery life — inexplicably worse than the M8 on both counts — and the 19-megapixel camera that was miserable in low light and not exactly great in brighter conditions either.
Andrew Martonik: I got my One M9 about a month after it was launched, and actually used it for a couple months thereafter. I was interested in seeing how the camera was an improvement over the One (M8), and wanted to keep up with it as the direct competitor to the LG G4 and Galaxy S6.
I probably used the One M9 longer than I used the One (M8), but not nearly as long as I held onto my One (M7) as a daily-use phone. Alas, it was cast back into its box and into a desk drawer for several months, as I was just far too enamored with the new phones from Samsung and eventually the Nexus 6P near the end of the year. There just wasn't enough in the One M9 to keep me coming back to it.
Daniel Bader: I am not using the M9, nor have I for months. This is in contrast to the M7 and M8 which, despite their many issues, were considerably more compelling, and competitive, in the Android market at the time. By the time the M9 debuted, there were just too many other good Android products siphoning attention away from HTC as a brand and a creator of phones.
Russell Holly: I haven't used the HTC One M9 for at least six months. When I did use it, I used it for a couple of months.
Jerry Hildenbrand: No. The M8 design turned me off so much that I had zero interest for the M9. I realize that I should have given the M9 a chance, but I had no desire to. I can look back and see why — I was smitten with the M7's design, and felt like anything else was a move in the wrong direction. That's more a reflection of me than a fault of HTC, and I wish now that I had taken more interest. I can't change that, but I can own up to my mistakes.
My impression from talking to people that did use the M9 is that is was a very capable phone with several drawbacks. Some people were willing to accept the faults, others weren't. Unfortunately, that's not a recipe for success on any level.
The M9: Hardware
Hardware-wise, the M9 was a refinement of the M8, squaring things off a little bit. Did that work?
Phil: It was better, I think. The M8 was just too skinny, with the edges too sharp. It was hard to hold. There was something about the finish on the metal that made it a pretty slippery fish. The M9 has that little lip between the body and the screen section, and that helps some. It's not great, but it's better. Moving the power button to the side helped, too, but I'd have rather seen it above the volume buttons.
Alex: It kinda worked. HTC went to war on slipperiness, giving the back of the M9 a weird, almost plasticky coating, while adding the "shelf" that made it easier to grip onto. But the plastic parts of the M9 were more obvious than any of its immediate predecessors, and as a result it felt more like a weird fusion of silver, gold and gold-colored plastic than a purely metallic creation. HTC addressed the M8's usability concerns, sure, but in doing so it steamrolled over what made that design so special in the first place.
Andrew: Well I'd say it "worked" in that it couldn't have gotten any worse than the One (M8). The so-called "shelf" design that gave a couple sharp edges to grip onto definitely made it easier to use the One M9 in one hand and not feel like it was going to jettison onto the ground.
Unfortunately whatever coating HTC used on the metal in this iteration made it feel a bit cheap. Instead of feeling nice and high-quality, the coating almost made the metal feel like plastic — and that's not a good feeling.
Daniel: It worked: I actually really like the M9's design, and to this day think it is one of the most comfortable-to-hold 5-inch handsets out there. The slotted edges, especially on the black model where they are smoother, are finger-friendly, and the grain on the matte aluminum chassis, are delightful. The criticism leveled against the M9 — that it was too similar to the M8 — was valid, but judged on its own, there was only one major problem with the device. Unfortunately, it was the one thing HTC needed to get right.
Russell: I didn't mind the shape of the M9, but the texture of the metal was something I didn't like with the M8 and didn't feel the need to deal with on this new phone. It was clear HTC was trying to improve upon what they felt worked with the M8, but the end result wasn't my thing.
The M9: Software
And HTC's software — Sense — didn't get much of an overhaul in 2015, save for a new "Sense Home" widget that tried to predict what apps you'd use throughout the day and at different locations. How'd that work out?
Phil: Sense Home was never going to work for me — I'm pretty good at predicting what apps need to be on my home screen, and I need my home screen to be predictable, not jump around depending on where I am and what time I'm there. For a more "normal" user who might not ever change their home screen? Great idea. But the overall look and feel of Sense was just getting old.
Alex: Yeah. No. Removed it and never looked back. It seemed like Sense home, and later additions to BlinkFeed like sponsored content, were more about HTC making a quick buck then adding any real value. By 2015, post-Material Design, Sense needed a more thorough visual overhaul than it got. Italics and an admittedly impressive theming engine simply didn't cut it for me.
Andrew: HTC was always good at offering a cohesive interface that was fast and smooth, but in 2015 Sense started to look a little dated. The small changes to the launcher just got in the way, and showed that HTC was falling behind a bit in keeping its interface up with the times.
The software we ended up seeing later in the year with the One A9 was very refreshing, and while I'm not so sure that was a possibility of being put on the One M9 at launch I surely would have looked upon the phone more favorably if that were the case.
Daniel: In 2015, HTC was clearly desperate to devise additional revenue sources for its smartphone business through software. You could see it in the suggested apps, which were sponsored, and the slow creep of ads inside BlinkFeed. Unfortunately, with a dwindling user base, those revenues never amounted to much
I don't think Sense needed to be dramatically overhauled, but what it received on the more pared-down A9 was pretty satisfying.
Russell:I disagree that HTC didn't do much to their software between the M8 and M9. There wasn't any grand visual shift, but during this time HTC started moving their apps to the Play Store, started using Google's UI for notifications, and opened up the Launcher options a little. It was a bunch of little changes that really felt great for me.
As for the home screen widget, I admit to never really giving it a fair shot. Recommendation engines aren't my thing, and I rarely have more than four apps on my home screen at any given time anyway. I use my launcher like a launcher.
The HTC One A9
HTC has never been shy about having multiple — and sometimes overlapping — product lines. Where did the HTC One A9 fit into things for you?
Phil: I still don't get this phone. Was it supposed to replace the M9 for the time between it and the M10? I get the complaints over how it looks like an iPhone — and still think HTC never should have done anything other than own that fact.
But really it was the flat back that never did it for me. In a world in which every other phone (save for — wait for it — the iPhone) on my desk was using ergonomic curves, the flat A9 was just a nonstarter. And I probably missed out on what many consider to be a perfectly good phone.
Alex: In literal terms, it fits into a micro-USB connector every day around 2pm, when it's dead and needs recharging. This phone was ruined by its terrible battery life, which is my primary reason for not using it more.
At a higher and less silly level, HTC tried to position a mid-ranger — a solid mid-ranger to be sure, but a mid-ranger all the same — at a high-end price point. That was particularly true of the phone's crazy-high European pricing. The whole endeavor wasn't helped by HTC's disingenuous marketing message, which plastered the slogan "design worth imitating" next to a phone many would see as a cynical iPhone clone.
Andrew: Anyone who had been paying attention to the few months following the launch of the One M9 knew that it wasn't exactly flying off shelves. Not being able to wait for the eventual "10" phone nor wanting to solely let the low-end Desire line bring up the sales figures, HTC tried to goose its numbers a bit with a solid mid-to-high-end phone — the One A9.
It still felt a bit random, rushed and not really coherent, but the end result was actually a surprisingly nice little phone. The One A9 offered a really nice bit of hardware, good fingerprint sensor, better camera than the One M9 and cleaner near-stock software experience … but it came out mid-cycle when people were still sour on the One M9 launch, and it commanded a very high price for a small phone with horrible battery life.
Daniel: The One A9 was a good product, certainly, but more importantly it allowed HTC to make a clean break from a legacy line that clearly wasn't working. But the A9 also never felt like the flagship HTC wanted it to be — and, in many markets, replace. Instead, I think the company put it out there to gauge interest in a refreshed design language, an interim solution before this year's model, which looks like it's coming real soon.
Russell: The HTC One A9 made me wonder why HTC bothered with the M9 at all. It was a nice, small phone with a decent camera and a body that felt much better. The whole experience was physically nicer, despite being comparably less powerful.
Aside from not having enough battery for power users — yes, Alex, I'm looking at you — this is a great phone that deserves more attention than it got. Whether it's overpriced is another discussion for another time.
Jerry: I like the A9. In fact, I like it a lot. It looks good, it feels good, and most importantly — it "works" well. Without worrying about what processor or how much RAM was inside, you could visit Google Play and install the apps to have your phone do what you need it to do, as well as the things you want it to do. This is really what most people want when they buy a new phone. While much of the focus was on the appearance and how it resembles a product from Apple, the relatively few people who bought it were likely just using it and being happy with it.
The biggest issue — and I've been pretty vocal about this — was the price. Maybe the phone was worth its premium price tag, but compared against other equally capable models (or phones that appeared as capable at first glance) that were about $100 less, many of us had to justify buying an A9. That's never going to be good for sales.
I really hope the phone wasn't just a one-off, and HTC continues the line.
Do you think HTC's focus on virtual reality has been to the detriment of its phone business?
Phil: I'm torn on this one. HTC's a big company full of really smart people. I know a few of them, but it's not like I really know what's going on there. And it's not not like someone can't manage more than one project at a time. Or that HTC is doing the VR thing along — Valve is a huge part of this thing.
It'll be interesting to see what happens with the M10. No Peter Chou in the picture, at least publicly. Plenty of other projects in the works at HTC. I've got high hopes, but reasonably set expectations.
Alex: HTC sorely needs to diversify. (With the benefit of hindsight, it needed to do this back in 2011 when it actually had the money to spend.) VR is expected to be a huge growth industry this year, and if HTC can establish its VR business (and fitness through Under Armour) as a reliable revenue stream, that's money it can invest in making great phones. The table stakes in the smartphone world are higher than ever — you have to spend a hell of a lot of money to play the high-end Android game. Alternative sources of revenue can only be a good thing.
Andrew: This is always the question any time a company moves into a new business unit, but it's been clear for a few years now that HTC has to find new ways to make money. Rather than putting all of its resources into making flagship phones that historically don't compete in sales to be in even the top 10 of phone manufacturers, HTC chose a partnership with Valve for the Vive virtual reality system.
Sure HTC is spending time, money and personnel resources on the Vive, and it's a pretty big bet on the future of the entire virtual reality segment as a consumer business, but the alternative was continuing to pump out expensive phones that nobody was buying. I'm not sure that HTC's partnership for the Vive is going to end up being fruitful, nor do I think that HTC should throw too much of its weight behind it, but the company is smart to diversify on new projects like this.
Daniel: Absolutely not. It needs the Vive to do well to fund its smartphone business. Look at BlackBerry: it has relegated smartphones to a side business, albeit one that still contributes nearly half of it revenue. HTC is never going to recuperate its Android market share; instead, it may be satisfied to eke a small profit from a more carefully curated product line, while focusing on other core businesses like VR and fitness with partners like Valve and Under Armour.
Does the Xbox suffer because Microsoft focuses on Azure? Exactly. Companies can, and should, diversify, especially when creating consumer products. Times change, and tastes with them.
Russell: Hell no. HTC can be a great smartphone company and a great something else. Whether that something else is working with Under Armor on fitness gear, working with Valve on VR, or even getting into things like home security or kitchen hardware isn't all that relevant. HTC's design team is globally recognized as being some of the best in the business, and applying those skills to other products is a great idea.
Jerry: I think it just might bolster their smartphone business. Ask anyone who has used an HTC Vive, and they'll tell you that it's a pretty compelling experience. That's something folks will remember when they go to buy a new phone, and they may think "premium" when they see the HTC brand.
The people interested in VR enough to spend a lot of money on it aren't looking for the next Google Cardboard replacement. They are looking for something exactly like we see in the Vive. And they also tend to be early adopters with plenty of disposable income. When the same company that made the VR experience you love has a phone for sale, it may very well be good for HTC's bottom line.
What we want from the HTC 10
With the M9 pretty much being a nonstarter for most of us, what does HTC need to do this year to even start turning things around?
Phil: What's changed? HTC has almost always had a problem with message. How many years have we said it's got the product — it just can't tell a compelling story about it. Why should I buy this phone over someone else's? What truly stands out now, especially in a sea of really good $400 devices — and can HTC's high-end play in that sort of price range? Because it won't sell in any real numbers otherwise.
Alex: Great camera. Great battery life. A slick design worthy of the HTC name. (Looks like it might well have that.) HTC may have been scuppered somewhat by Snapdragon 810-related weirdness in 2015, but this year there can be no excuses. As I've said time and again, if you're charging top dollar for a high-end smartphone, you can't screw up anything. For HTC, in its precarious financial position, the stakes couldn't be higher.
Even then, with a longstanding weakness in marketing, HTC will still need to effectively communicate what its brand means in 2016, and why consumers should choose it over the very capable Samsung Galaxy S7.
I've already covered how things went wrong for HTC, and the challenges it faces in 2016 in a recent editorial, which is worth a look for a bit more background.
Andrew: HTC needs to make the phone that actually lives up to the hype it sets out before every flagship phone launch. The company builds absolutely beautiful phones, and offers some of the fastest and most fluid software experiences, but the rest of the phone experience needs to follow. We need a great camera, battery for a full day and all of the little features that get people to walk into stores and buy the phone … not half-assed gimmicks and unfinished features.
For too many years now HTC has made phones that look great in marketing materials and make sense on paper, but fall short when you go to drop $650 on one and find it isn't all that special to use.
Daniel: I don't know that they can do anything, short of releasing the best Android phone out there (which is harder than it sounds) at a considerable loss, in order to spur sales. I'm sure the HTC 10 will be a great product, but there are just too many great products in the Android ecosystem these days.
I have faith in HTC's product department — the HTC 10 will be a competent and perhaps even great smartphone — but in its ability to translate that momentum into sales I have much less.
Russell: Deliver. On. The. Hype. That's it.
HTC can't afford to claim anything at all about their camera, their display tech, their battery life, or their speaker quality and not over deliver on those things this year. It's not enough for HTC to say something is better than the competition and be right by a narrow margin, they have to crush the competition if they're going to brag about it.
The cool thing is, I think they're capable of doing exactly that. If the HTC One A9 is any indicator, the 10 is going to be a great phone.
Jerry: They need to wow me. They've done it before with the G1 and the One M7, so I know they can. I want them to do it again in 2016.
It's going to be a little harder in 2016 than it was in the past, because all the other players have compelling products (many already released and available) but I really think they are capable. I want them to be capable, because the phone industry was made better by having an underdog like HTC turning out products that are beautiful, functional and innovative. Other companies have certainly noticed.
The M7 design inspired Apple the same way products from Sony and Braun have done. That's some pretty serious praise and flattery for any company. HTC has also been able to build software that bridges a gap between bare-bones offerings from Google and the kitchen sink approach from Samsung and LG, and the results have been excellent from a performance and design point of view. I want the HTC 10 to combine both of their strong points and be the best Android phone of 2016, so I can tell anyone willing to listen that it's the best Android phone of 2016.
And if that happens, I most certainly will.
We know that HTC still has quite a few fans, and many of us have used the M9 or the A9 — and are very interested in the HTC 10.
Take a moment and share your thoughts about what we've seen in the past year from HTC as well as what you want to see from HTC on April 12 when they show us the HTC 10. Let's get excited about what's in store together!