HTC One reboots Sense and hopes for a comeback

The company is taking bigger risks and radically redesigned its trademark Android skin in an effort to attract new customers.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
6 min read
The HTC One's Blinkfeed and new Sense 5.0 features in video
Watch this: The HTC One's BlinkFeed and new Sense 5.0 features in video

Nothing sums up the HTC One's new look better than its revamped clock-and-weather widget.

Gone is the trademark retro flip clock, which has been a fixture on marquee HTC Android phones since the Hero debuted more than three years ago, and in its place is a simpler, more digital-looking virtual time display. Next to it is a modern icon to represent the weather, a far cry from the colorful graphics found in previous phones.

As the clock is so intimately tied to HTC's identity, it was not an easy decision, nor one that was universally supported. HTC's designers took painstaking effort to revamp the widget without completely ignoring the company's heritage. That meant creating hundreds of versions of the clocks, with ten designers each creating their own versions. Of those, 25 animated clocks were tested before one was chosen.

The dramatic change in the clock underscores the broader transformation in the look and feel of the HTC One, part of an effort to inject new life into its latest smartphone, as well as for the company as a whole. With the new look, the company hopes to appeal both to longtime HTC fans, as well as turn some heads with new customers. HTC's willingness to break from tradition isn't without impetus; the company is feeling the heat from competition that has clamped down on its revenue and profit and felt compelled to shake things up.

"Do we hold on to our existing brand image or do we go out on a limb and try to radically change it?" said Drew Bamford, who leads the company's user experience design team. "Of course there was some trepidation. But I think it just felt like the right thing to do at this point."

The company actually had hoped that last year's One series of phones, led off by its flagship One X, would spur its turnaround. That didn't happen, as the critically praised but commercially ignored smartphones were shunned in favor of Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S III and Apple's iPhone 4S and iPhone 5.

So let's call it take two of HTC's comeback story -- one where the company takes a few more chances with its products.

"HTC's in a position in the market where we can take some bigger risks," he said.

That position, unfortunately, is one in retreat as the market slowly gets swallowed up by a virtual duopoly made up of Samsung and Apple. HTC's share of the smartphone market in 2012 was 4.7 percent, or roughly half of its market share from 2011, according to Gartner.

In January, HTC posted a 90 percent freefall in its fourth-quarter profit, down to 1 billion Taiwanese dollars ($34 million), in its worst result in eight years. Revenue, meanwhile, fell roughly 40 percent.

Long gone are the days when HTC was seen as a pioneer in the smartphone business, creating the first Android smartphone in the G1 and the first 4G smartphone in the original WiMax-powered Evo 4G. And while the carriers continue to offer its phones and critics lavish praise on its products, consumers have increasingly turned their backs on the company.

Sense rebooted
Almost a year ago, I called for HTC to blow up Sense and massively overhaul the skin, which sits on top of the Android operating system. I called the once much-loved retro flip clock stale and in desperate need of an update.

Bamford specifically called out that story when talking about the update. "You're going to be happy with the new Sense," he said.

Indeed, HTC is taking an entirely new approach with the One, from changing up the beloved clock-and-weather widget (which is still available for old-school fans) to moving away from the traditional grid of apps.

While key apps such as the phone, text message, and apps icons remain at the bottom, the rest of the home page is dominated by HTC's BlinkFeed, which is a Flipboard-like interface that shows the latest news, social network updates, pictures, and other information and images from apps loaded on the phone in an attractive graphical layout that scrolls down.

There's a second screen that users can swipe to that acts more like the traditional Android home screen, but HTC is banking that people -- particularly younger ones coined "Generation Feed" -- would be drawn to BlinkFeed instead rather than rows of apps and widgets.

HTC One in the concept phase (pictures)

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"It's the idea of snacking on information from feed-based services," Bamford said. "The idea is each time you power on your phone you're presented with fresh content."

Bamford said he believes the downward scroll and magazine-like layout of images and stories mimic how people get their information on the go and argued it is more efficient than the desktop-inspired app grid that dominates most smartphones. The graphical feed is somewhat similar to Microsoft's use of live tiles in Windows Phone, but Bamford said it isn't quite as radical.

HTC, however, risks alienating Android users with the radical shake-up. But given the company's dire position, it figures it has to do something different at this point, a perspective that came down from CEO Peter Chou.

"He's always been something of a risk taker," Bamford said. "The willingness to take bets has always characterized HTC."

A streamlined strategy
The changes go beyond the phone and extend to the direction and strategy of HTC. Last year, the company attempted to simplify its product lineup from the dizzying array of products it tested out in 2011. While the intent was there, the execution fell short, particularly in the U.S. While Samsung could hold up its Galaxy S3 at virtually every major carrier, HTC only managed to get its One X flagship to AT&T, with Sprint Nextel getting the Evo 4G LTE, and Verizon Wireless getting the Droid DNA much later in the year. In the mean time, there were dozens of variations on the One series, from the One S to the One V and One X+.

The HTC One comes in black and white. HTC

This time around, HTC is launching only one smartphone, the simply named One, which will sell at AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile (HTC executives would only say that they were planning something else for Verizon). Most importantly, the carriers wouldn't fiddle around too much with the One, so the phone will live or die by its own virtues.

HTC is taking a page out of Samsung and Apple's playbooks and getting the phone to as many carriers at once. Globally, it will hit store shelves with 150 wireless carriers in March, making it the largest launch for the company.

HTC will be more proactive in marketing its own product than before, relying less on its carrier partners, according to a company executive. The One will launch with a new marketing campaign that will address some of the big changes in the phone.

The company will need to exert more marketing muscle, because it was totally overshadowed last year by Samsung. Despite the positive feedback on the One X, it was largely ignored for Samsung's flagship phone. This year, HTC has improved the design with a unique all-aluminum body, improved camera, and dual front speakers. But the company already had a good product and couldn't sell it. This time around, it will need to make sure its marketing and carrier support step up.

Otherwise, there is little else that will get HTC out of the ditch it finds itself in.