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Google's $1 billion HTC deal is too much for my emotions

Commentary: I’ve spent years hoping HTC would bounce back. Its deal with Google makes me nervous.

Josh Miller

It isn't fun watching an old love suffer.

On Wednesday, Google announced it's casually dropping $1.1 billion on a deal with HTC that will allow it to hire some of the beleaguered company's staff, as well as license some of its intellectual property. Rumours of a tie-up had circulated for a while, but the deal turned out to be different than what we expected. Many thought Google would acquire HTC, giving the brand new life but putting the innovative Taiwanese company to rest. Not so.

The partnership says a lot about Google and its hardware aspirations. What it means for HTC is less clear. The last phone company Google bought was Motorola in 2012 -- a brand it sold for a quarter of the price two years later. Every deal is different, so it isn't wise to read too much into the latest transaction. Still, I wonder if HTC would have agreed to it were it healthier. Is it a good sign for HTC? If I were a betting man, I'd put my money on no.

Also, I actually am a betting man. Any takers?

HTC is in a rough way with its popularity steadily decreasing over the last five years. It hasn't been pretty, especially if you, like me, have been rooting for the company.

My first Android phone was the HTC One X in 2012. I was an iPhone user, like everyone around me. I also wanted to rebel because I was 20 and that's what 20-year-olds do. I decided contrarian smartphone preference was the method by which I would bring the system down. 

#20YearOldLogic. 

The HTC One X: The first phone I owned that wasn't previously owned by my parents.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I still don't know if a change was actually needed or if I just wanted people to see me as the guy who didn't use an iPhone. Either way, that was the period that awakened my nerdom for smartphones. My research brought me to the HTC One X, the first phone I owned that wasn't previously owned by my parents.

It had a 4.7-inch screen, much bigger than the 3.5-inch iPhone 4S, and in my estimation had a much slicker design. But it wasn't hardware that got me so much as the refreshing customisability of Android, at least compared to the rigidity of iOS. "In many respects," CNET's 2012 review read, "the HTC One X is among the best smartphones we've ever seen."

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Click for more Boom With a View.

Then, two months later, the Samsung Galaxy SIII came out. It was a better phone.

That pattern would follow for years. HTC would release a phone early in the year and reviewers would heap praise on it. Samsung would follow a month later with its next Galaxy S, which would get even more accolades and sell millions more units.

I eventually moved away from HTC. I bought the Google Nexus 4 in November 2012 because I had shattered my One X's screen and the shiny new Nexus was just $100 more than the repair cost. The Nexus line was my new love, but I never forgot HTC. It was like the partner you break up with but genuinely still want the best for.

Sadly for me, and even more sadly for HTC, that was the year the company began its decline.

HTC's global market share in 2012 was 4.2 percent, according to Counterpoint Research, roughly half of the 8.6 percent it had the year prior. 

I eventually got back together with HTC in 2014 with the One M8. It wasn't as good as my previous phone, the Nexus 5, despite being more costly. (Yes, justifying a new Nexus phone because it's slightly more expensive than repairing a previous phone was a pattern in my life.) That's when I lost faith and knew the brand was truly no longer for me. After the One M8, I went back to iPhones. 

Funny, how life works.

Evidently I wasn't the only one who lost hope for HTC. The company has a market share of just 0.4 percent so far this year, according to Counterpoint. It's why rumours that Google would acquire the company, clearly struggling, were so easy to believe.

HTC still makes excellent phones. It was responsible for the hardware in last year's Google Pixel, and this year's U11 is, like most of the company's hits, a quiet underachiever. These phones are great for HTC's reputation among the tech savvy but haven't helped the company carve out a niche. Most people looking for a premium device will go for a Samsung Galaxy or iPhone, while the more budget-conscious buyers will opt for a mid-range device from Moto or a Chinese company, like OnePlus.

Deep inside, I still want HTC to thrive -- just as I'm sure some of you have a tinge of hope that Nokia's new phones will be the phenomenon they once were. HTC's new partnership with Google could be a beautiful thing.

But right now it just looks like another nail in the coffin.  

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