HTC has a lot to prove in 2012, and already its first major event of the year, Mobile World Congress later this month, is shaping up to be a very interesting show. The first step in what the company has described as its new "Hero Strategy", we're expecting at least two high-end smartphones, the HTC One X and One S, a new tablet and, as of earlier today, the possibility of a streaming music service that could take on Spotify. Certainly ambitious, if it all pans out, but what will it take for HTC to turn around its ailing fortunes?
Last November I wrote that, far from delivering on its actual "Quietly Brilliant" tagline, HTC was quietly blundering around the smartphone segment and risked falling flat on its face. That turned out to be the case, with HTC announcing dire Q4 2011 financial figures and its holiday line-up of devices slumping into irrelevance against the iPhone 4S and Android models from Samsung.
My frustration, which many seemed to share, was that HTC seemed incapable of capitalizing on the advantages it was presented with. It had invested $40m into cloud gaming service Onlive in early 2011, but - beyond preloading a client app onto the overpriced and little-loved HTC Flyer tablet - failed to do much with its high-profile acquisition. That's despite mobile gaming taking off in a huge way, and the sort of high-speed LTE networks cloud-based games could benefit from gaining increasing attention in the US market.
Meanwhile, HTCSense.com, the suite of web-based sync, security and other services HTC had enthusiastically fired up in late 2010 was also left to molder. "No longer is HTC just about putting a phone in your hand" the company had promised at the high-profile launch, before seemingly losing interest and watching from the sidelines as Apple stormed ahead with iCloud and other services.
[aquote]HTC has realized it needs to do more with its investments than push out a press release[/aquote]
Today's news, of a potential Spotify rival, is welcome. The mobile music space is undoubtedly crowded, and has left its fair share of failures broken and weeping in its wake, but it's at least a sign that HTC has woken up to the fact that it needs to do more with its strategic investments than push out an initial press release. Beats Audio on HTC phones was, in 2011 at least, something of an embarrassment: little more than some brightly colored headphones and a custom equalizer profile. However, what it gives the company is a foot in the door with the music industry, in the shape of Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine.
There's more than one way HTC could approach mobile music, and ironically it's another struggling smartphone company - Nokia - that has demonstrate a potential path. Taking on Spotify and other cloud jukebox services would require considerable investment and probably demand HTC require a subscription fee from users. An alternative strategy would be the route Nokia Music takes on the company's Lumia Windows Phones: promising not broad catalog access to an ever growing range of music, but a curated audio experience exclusive to that manufacturers devices.
Nokia Music, if you're not familiar, offers specially created playlists across various genres. There's no registration or subscription involved: just open the app, tap a playlist and start listening. Nokia has promised frequent updates to keep things fresh, and locally-led content to fit into the particular tastes of different markets.
Iovine's connections within the music industry could easily allow HTC to do something similar. The company has already coaxed Dr. Dre on-stage to frown for the cameras with HTC's latest in his hand; it would presumably take little effort to get him to throw together a hand-picked playlist. Enlist the help of Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and other popular musicians who already have connections with Beats, and that's a considerable amount of appeal across a broad range of musical tastes.
[aquote]HTC needs to deliver compelling features that hold up to what Samsung and Apple offer[/aquote]
The "Hero Strategy" is very knowingly named. On the surface, it calls for smartphones and tablets that aren't just "me too" devices trying to cater for every possible sub-segment of the mobile market, but each legitimate heroes in their own right. HTC knows it can't just rely on bulk and brand to carry it any more; it needs to deliver compelling features that hold up to - and preferably exceed - what Samsung and Apple are offering.
However, those with any memory for HTC products will recall the HTC Hero of mid-2009, one of the first Android Sense devices and, in its time, a huge step forward in design, usability and functionality. The "Hero Strategy" of 2012 is an obvious homage to that, a time when the company led the Android pack rather than dawdled somewhere in the middle.
HTC has already shown us it can make a phone, and a tablet, and services. What it needs to prove in 2012 is that it can make a good phone, a credible tablet, and competitive services. This year, the hardware arms-race malaise has already set in: reviewers and users alike are tired of devices that compete solely in tickboxes on the spec sheet while user-experience is ignored. HTC needs to come out at Mobile World Congress with a package that convinces us that it not only has its best hardware prepared, but an all-round ecosystem which puts them into compelling context.