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Should HTC blow up Sense?

HTC's iconic user interface has helped it sell a boatload of Android smartphones and tablets. But it's starting to feel stale.

HTC's iconic retro clock is on nearly all of its Android phones. But does it need to go? Sarah Tew

commentary This may sound like sacrilege to the throngs of faithful HTC fans out there, but it's time for a massive overhaul of the company's iconic Sense user interface.

Sense, instantly recognizable by its retro flip-clock widget, is starting to feel a little long in the tooth. If HTC is really going to shake things up with its planned "product transition," what better way to demonstrate its commitment to progress than with a radical change in the look and feel of its mobile devices?

While HTC had a remarkable year overall, the company ended with a stumble as Samsung Electronics and Apple surged. Today, it reported disappointing fourth-quarter results and warned that its first-quarter results weren't going to be much better. The company is in the middle of retooling its lineup and, like Motorola Mobility, is hoping to streamline its product portfolio.

"To expand its brand preference and value, HTC will work at a global level to build emotional connections with consumers, putting more of its marketing resources behind fewer products and driving value in those product brands," the company said in a statement.

Now, I've long been a fan of Sense, and consider HTC's Android software overlay the best in the industry. Heck, I even got my mom an HTC Incredible because it felt like one of the easiest devices to give to a first-time smartphone user. The little-known features and tricks embedded in the software--which customers were supposed to learn over time with use--added some nice touches.

Sense has been one of the key drivers of HTC's rapid ascent in the smartphone business, allowing it to stand out in a sea of similar-looking Android devices. Even Android purists who insist upon the stock software show a begrudging respect for what HTC has been able to accomplish.

But what once seemed fresh and innovative is starting to feel stale and played out. Every great bit of software or user interface needs a shake-up once in a while, and Sense is due for one. More importantly, consumers, investors, and the industry need a reminder that HTC can still pull off some eye-catching products.

With seemingly every major Android vendor struggling to some extent--Samsung being the only real exception--and competition only getting stiffer, the pressure is on to impress sooner than later.

HTC should heed the lessons learned from companies that didn't change and paid for it. Microsoft is still struggling to get out of niche player status after finally scrapping Windows Mobile in favor of its current Windows Phone Metro-based operating system. Palm waited too long to jump to WebOS, and disappeared. Research in Motion risks a similar problem with a long gap between its current BlackBerry 7 platform and its next-generation BlackBerry 10 operating system.

On the other hand, Google has kept Android fresh with major changes in each version of its platform. Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich, offers many new features and marks a dramatic departure from prior versions. Ice Cream Sandwich has generally been well received, and HTC will need to go the extra mile to ensure Sense is a worthy upgrade over the stock version.

I've had a few conversations with HTC executives, and they acknowledge there's a tenuous balance between changing Sense and destroying what has made it work so well. HTC has certainly improved upon Sense over the years, but many of those changes are incremental. A lock screen that can jump to specific apps is great, but isn't going to get someone to rush out and upgrade his or her phone.

I'm not calling for a wholesale dumping of all the great little features and details that make Sense work. But companies tend to fall in love with what works and ride that winning concept or product straight into the ground. HTC needs to take a sober look at Sense and realize that change is needed if it wants to avoid that fate.

While the company believes the retro clock is part of HTC's identity now, I would argue its brand--along with its "quietly brilliant" tagline--is engrained enough in the consumers' minds that they would accept change fairly readily.

The retro clock, by the way, first showed up in 2008 as part of the Touch Diamond's TouchFlo 3D user interface.

At the time, HTC was a little known, but hungry company looking to break out in the consumer market. It was a company that wasn't afraid to take risks and mess with the established Windows Mobile operating system. HTC needs to show us it's still that same fearless company.