LONDON--Rising mobile phone power HTC began an effort to rise further on Wednesday--and not just with phones.
The Taiwanese company introduced two Android phones, the Desire HD with a large, 4.3-inch screen and the Desire Z with a flip-out hardware keyboard. Both are set to arrive in October in Europe and Asia; the Desire Z will arrive in North America later this year.
Like Apple, Samsung, and many other competitors, HTC is trying to differentiate the products through software and services, though. The phones come with an updated version of HTC's Sense user interface and tie in with the new HTCSense.com Web site designed to augment the phones' abilities.
The HTC approach makes the company's technology a hub of people's use of their phones, potentially elevating HTC from a hardware maker that just sells phones to a service provider with whom customers have an ongoing relationship.
The HTCSense.com site, for example, lets people log in remotely to forward mobile phone calls to their office phone, search text messages, back up photos and videos, and record geographic bookmarks that HTC calls "footprints" for later use on the phone. Also remotely, a person can make a misplaced phone ring and, for phones that are less retrievable, issue a custom lost-and-found message on the screen or wipe the phone's data altogether.
"We are extending the HTC experience beyond the phone," HTC Chief Executive Peter Chou said at the launch event here.
Chou is happy with the prospect of being in the thoughts of his customers. "We want people to view HTC as a global brand," Chou said, adding that research shows awareness of the HTC brand has doubled in the last year.
HTC has been making phones for years, but it was Google's Android operating system that put the company on the map and fulfilled some of its brand-name ambitions.
Other companies have produced increasingly competitive Android phones--Samsung's Galaxy S and Motorola's Droid X being recent examples--but HTC has maintained its position of strength by pumping out a profusion of models. Many are modest variations of a common design, but HTC clearly has pushed ahead as well.
Along with HTC's Android success came a lawsuit from iPhone maker Apple, though. It's something of a replay of Apple's unsuccessful case against Microsoft for the Macintosh's "look and feel" appearing in Windows, but this time alleging patent infringement rather than copyright infringement.
The Desire Z uses a new 800MHz Qualcomm 7230 processor and has a 3.7-inch screen, and the Desire HD as a 1GHz Qualcomm 8255 processor and a 4.3-inch screen. Both screens have 800x480-pixel resolution, Android 2.2, and a fast-boot feature to power up in about 10 seconds, said HTC Chief Marketing Officer John Wang.
As one might expect, the Desire HD can shoot high-definition video with a 720p resolution using its 8-megapixel camera. It also can display that video on an attached TV using the DNLA home-networking technology, including the use of Dolby surround sound.
The Desire Z also can shoot HD video with a 5-megapixel camera. It is designed with a thin screen that flips into a recessed area, moving the physical keyboard closer to the same plane as the touch screen. This eases the difficulties of touching both, HTC argues.
"Some people want that dependable hardware keyboard," said Horace Luke, HTC's chief innovation officer.
New Sense interface
The Sense UI adds a number of features to the stock Android operating system from Google, including an ability to switch more quickly among seven home screens and a graphical contacts list prominently showing people's photos.
New features in Sense include a locations application for finding nearby attractions and using footprints; the ability to apply effects to photos such as fisheye-lens distortion or an aged sepia-tone look; and a built-in e-reader application powered by Kobo's bookstore service.
The new Sense also has navigation improvements. People can cache maps on the phone, which speeds up zooming and panning operations, Wang said. A built-in compass helps people get their bearings when they're trying to figure out which way is which at an unfamiliar location. And when a call comes in while a person is using driving directions, the call notification nudges aside only the bottom portion of the map instead of hiding it altogether.
HTC also tries to centralize communications through its own interface. A unified inbox lets people sort messages by top contacts or unread e-mail, for example. And the FriendStream application offers a multifaceted view of social-network activity form Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Activity here can be sorted by recent status updates from friends and filtered to show just photos, Web links, or updates from various lists.
Vodafone is among those who'll offer the new Android phones--exclusively in the case of Spain, Australia, and Turkey.
"Our partnership over the last two years with HTC has been really productive," said Patrick Chomet, Vodafone's global director of terminals, at the event.
HTC helps Vodafone fulfill its ambition to spread smartphones far and wide--models that command premium rate plans with data access. Use of online map service has increased 88 percent in the last year, and use of social-network sites has doubled, Choumet said.
"The smartphone era we saw coming for a few years is now very real," he said.
Updated at 7:18 a.m. PDT Sept. 19 to correct the name spelling of Patrick Chomet, Vodafone's global director of terminals.