In a post-Google-Motorola world, can design save HTC?

In a post-Google-Motorola world, can design save HTC?

Summary: Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC says it's using design as its primary tool to connect with consumers. But as the mobile landscape shifts, is it enough?

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You've got to hand it to HTC for impeccable timing.

Just as the smartphone segment of the mobile phone industry positioned itself to overtake feature phones, the obscure Taiwanese handset manufacturer -- "HTC" once stood for the distinctive "High Tech Computer" -- catapulted itself to the forefront of American tech consciousness by latching itself on Google's half-baked but miles-long mobile coattails.

Now the company is a household name, holding its own among a sea of tech legends: Motorola, Samsung, Sony and others.

Jolie O'Dell has a lovely profile of incoming HTC design chief Scott Croyle on VentureBeat this morning, and it's a brief look into part of the company's strategy.

A few key points summarizing the piece:

  • Innovation chief and design chief were two separate roles at HTC; now they're one.
  • As a result, HTC now has "a major emphasis on design."
  • Croyle came to HTC through the acquisition of his former company One and Co., an industrial design firm based in San Francisco.
  • "User experience" is a phrase that pops up throughout. The company wants to move away from simply being a tech supplier. Croyle's approach seems to be ensuring that users have as many options as possible for customization. The company has a UX team based in Seattle.
  • "Continuity in design" is a top priority, ensuring that packaging, marketing and sales were paid as much attention as hardware and software.

This profile comes at a particularly tumultuous time in the industry. This month, Google scooped up Motorola Mobility, sending shivers down the spines of its other hardware partners; meanwhile, HP's decision to rid of webOS has other handset makers looking.

Straddled between Windows Phone 7 and Google Android, where does that leave HTC? Is design a sturdy enough vessel to carry the company across these choppy waters?

On the one hand, it's great to see a company place emphasis on a strategy that has helped market leader (or not, depending on how you measure) Apple so well.

To quote a Gizmodo screed from just over a week ago (asterisks mine):

I really f**king hate the way you cede so much ground to Apple. You just let them do the sh*t they do. Why couldn't you launch a decent tablet before the iPad? Why are your tablets still sh*ttier than the iPad, for the most part? Why do your laptops still, by and large, look and feel crappier than MacBook Pros? (Exception: ThinkPads.) Why are most of your phones the same f**king way? Does Apple have some secret monopoly on making well designed, well constructed, easy-to-use gadgets? I want to love your products. I really really really do. Just make amazing sh*t. That's the only rule. Make. Amazing. Sh*t.

For all of the desperation, the author's right -- too many companies talk up the concept of design without really embodying it, playing up aesthetics without actually solving problems. Meanwhile, Apple rakes in the revenues by designing products that don't require a manual to enjoy.

In O'Dell's profile, Croyle talks a lot about user experience, but I wonder if he really has the ability to do anything more than produce eye candy. Not in terms of talent, which I'm sure he has oodles of -- rather, in terms of freedom. Sure, the hardware can be nice but with so many parts of the ecosystem outsourced (operating system chief among them) I wonder just how much freedom he has in setting a course.

Our own Jason Perlow previously suggested that HTC look into buying webOS; I won't rehash his opinion here (I did yesterday) but it's a compelling argument from a design perspective. (So is becoming Microsoft's go-to manufacturer for Windows Phone 7, but perhaps Nokia is more likely to occupy this role.)

Owning your own OS not only gives you a competitive hedge against an Android environment that's growing increasingly hostile but also gives you the freedom to design a mobile phone from the inside out, instead of working with an existing foundation. While constraints can be useful in sparking creativity, I wonder if HTC is too bound to its partners to truly innovate on the design front.

Which makes me wonder: if HTC sees design as the best way to put the consumer first, is incremental change enough to ensure its survival in this market?

Related:

Topics: HTC, Hardware, Mobility, Telcos

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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18 comments
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  • RE: In a post-Google-Motorola world, can design save HTC?

    Betteridge's Law of Headlines:

    "Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word 'no' ".
    Samic
    • For many things on the web, yes.

      @Samic But you'll see that I try not to ask rhetorical questions in my headlines.
      andrew.nusca
  • RE: In a post-Google-Motorola world, can design save HTC?

    "In a post-Google-Motorola world" -

    What does that mean? Everybody queuing for a motorolla phone??
    Its only question marks as of now...
    owlnet
    • RE: In a post-Google-Motorola world, can design save HTC?

      @owlnet It means in the time after the Google-Motorola Mobility acquisition.
      andrew.nusca
  • RE: In a post-Google-Motorola world, can design save HTC?

    You obviously aren't a user of HTC, or you would know the answer to your question. Because everyone is scrambling to get their hands on a windows phone right? You keep losing market share and that will not change with mango. Windows phone is a failure. Consumers don't want it, period.
    thehornedone
    • RE: In a post-Google-Motorola world, can design save HTC?

      @thehornedone, just because a minority of people have gotten a Windows Phone, doesn't mean it is a failure. I love mine, and everyone who has seen it, like the interface better than what they currently have (iPhone or Android).
      grayknight-22253692004129760887070084760051
    • RE: In a post-Google-Motorola world, can design save HTC?

      A product is a failure if it has a small market? What about OSX? Desktop Linux?
      Michael Alan Goff
    • RE: In a post-Google-Motorola world, can design save HTC?

      @thehornedone <br><br>Put a HTC WP7 phone down on a table and put any other phone next to it. The iPhone looks heavy, clunky and so fragile it needs a case. iPhone and Android are still stuck in the crowded desktop of static icons and endless apps for bassic functionality, while WP7 is the result of actually thinking about an interface, lots of research and testing and integrating functions into the OS.<br><br>MS should go with " You don't need an app for that - it's built-in"
      tonymcs@...
    • The jury's still out on WinPhone, IMHO.

      @thehornedone I think Microsoft got a late start and that's why its adoption numbers are low. (Compare that to Palm, which never really got going.) But I wouldn't so quickly count out a large company with a compelling OS and a plan to be everywhere Android is.
      andrew.nusca
  • RE: In a post-Google-Motorola world, can design save HTC?

    WebOS is never going to sell without software devlopers on-board and I cannot see that changing any time soon. So lets forget that one.

    Has the author of this article used an HTC Android phone? The UI is largely excellent and is certainly the closest thing to the iPhone for an experience.

    HTC are already doing very well. It's good to see a company starting to think a little like Apple, just as long as they don't go down the Apple route and start restricting their products! They talk of customisation, which is good.
    bradavon
    • Not bashing the HTC UI.

      @bradavon Yes, I've used several HTC Android phones. Not bashing the UI at all -- it's always been interesting, but the bottom line is that you can only do so much when Google calls some of the shots. We must remember that Apple's iOS isn't just pretty, it's fully integrated with the product and the marketing and everything. For all of its faults, Apple's closed approach in this way ensures a consistent product.
      andrew.nusca
  • RE: In a post-Google-Motorola world, can design save HTC?

    To be fair, HP didn't decide to get "rid of webOS" but rather to stop the hardware. They are still behind WebOS (at least as far as they're public statements are concerned).
    friendsip
    • That's true.

      @friendsip Consider it my personal leap of logic.
      andrew.nusca
  • RE: In a post-Google-Motorola world, can design save HTC?

    I traded in my android for a Windows phone, I have worked with some sort of Windows program for over 15yrs so by getting this phone it was easy to understand and to navigate through, to me there is no comparison any one that uses Windows will find this phone very easy to use
    chael07
  • Message has been deleted.

    JakeMathews
  • Errr....

    With Google buying Motorola Mobility, HTC and the other Android manufacturers are scr?wed. You think Google won't tweak Android to favor their own phones? You think they'll be pushing hard to please HTC or the others when there is an issue with the Andoid OS when it doesn't affect their phones?
    Gisabun
  • RE: In a post-Google-Motorola world, can design save HTC?

    Nothing to write about? Yeah, just make up a new phrase and coin it post Google-Moto.<br><br>Well at least it's consistent with you'll android is dead long live <a href="http://news.cnet.com/8301-31322_3-20094766-256/windows-phone-7-challenge-week-2-the-verdict/" target="_blank">WP7</a> narrative.<br><br>PS. What a joke.
    Return_of_the_jedi
    • I have no idea what you're talking about.

      @Return_of_the_jedi I don't follow a script, pal. I just call 'em like I see 'em, and anyone who's familiar with my work on ZDNet from 2+ years ago knows that I was pretty tough on Microsoft's mobile outlook in general and skeptical of Google's laissez faire approach to its partners.

      I've seen Redmond move quickly to catch up and Mountain View remain distracted, but that's not the subject of this post. HTC's design strategy is, and considering that the company supports both operating systems, I'm having a hard time understanding what point you're trying to make.
      andrew.nusca