Update, 10:50pm ET: HTC has confirmed to AC that the ads were mistakenly included. An HTC spokesperson provided the following statement:
Due to an error, some HTC customers have reported seeing ads on their phone's keyboard. This is absolutely not the experience we intended, and we're working to immediately fix the error and remove the ads as quickly as possible.
Original story: Ads in the stock keyboard app on a flagship smartphone. Added quietly via an app update. Which then asks you to pay to remove them.
You'd be hard pressed to come up with a more comically villainous thing for a phone manufacturer, or app developer, to pull on its users. Yet that's what's been happening to some HTC phone owners over the past day, as spotted first by Reddit user "Azirack" on his HTC 10.
HTC 10 owners seem to be worst affected (we're not seeing it on the newer U11 for what it's worth), with the ad bar taking up a good chunk of screen real estate. There's understandable outrage among HTC owners whose phones have started coughing up ads every time they open the keyboard. The consensus, obviously, is that this is not an OK place for ads to be appearing.
An error by keyboard developer TouchPal is the most likely explanation.
(Update: See statement above.) The company's official Twitter account is telling angry users to uninstall the latest update to TouchPal via the Settings app, suggesting that the appearance of ads in this update is a mistake. Most likely, code from regular (non-HTC) version of TouchPal, which does include an ad-supported trial version alongside a subscription-supported paid option, made its way into the HTC Sense version. (Both variants live on Google Play, but are updated separately.)
Plus, after well over a decade making smartphones, it's hard to believe HTC would be stupid enough to OK something like this.
However, it does demonstrate one major pitfall of outsourcing your stock keyboard to a third-party developer. HTC saves money in doing so, but catches all the flack when things go wrong. Customers seeing ads on their expensive new handsets aren't mad at the relatively unknown TouchPal, they're angry at HTC. As it looks to build on solid momentum around the U11's launch, such a dent in its reputation among existing customers is something it really doesn't need.
TouchPal for HTC Sense had tanked to an average review score of 2.6 stars on Google Play at the time of writing.