HTC One: The Software/Hardware Divide, and the Birth of the Non-Android Android Flagship

HTC unveiled their new flagship smartphone today. The HTC One (not to be confused with the One X, One V, or One VX – good luck on that) appears to raise the bar yet again for Android phones. With a 1080p display, all-metal encasing, and an entirely re-skinned HTC Sense on top of Android Jelly Bean, the One looks set to battle with Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S4 for dominance of the non-Nexus, highly commoditized Android market.

The One’s industrial design is sleek if uninspired, if such a thing is even possible. With chamfered edges and a preference for metal over glass and/or plastic, the One draws more than a few lessons from the iPhone 5. The Beats Audio branding and new speaker setup give it some cool hardware flair.

But I’m more concerned about how HTC has approached software with the One, more specifically how it has integrated Jelly Bean with its new hardware. If the iPhonesque body weren’t enough of a hint, then the software experience evines that HTC is really trying to create a non-Android Android flagship device. The word “Android” itself wasn’t mentioned, and instead HTC trumpeted the “New Sense,” the fifth version of its Android skin. Particular attention was given to New Sense features like a new hub/live feed called BlinkFeed and a default dock of Gingerbread-esque icons backed up by two capacitive buttons: home and back, with the multitasking key strangely axed.

The tiles in BlinkFeed may recall Windows 8 or Flipboard, but they’re really closest in spirit to the Android 4.2x Google Currents Daydream – a “Daydream” is the screensaver-like feature that is by default activated when you charge your Nexus device without firsts hitting the power button. The Currents Daydream creates a beautiful cascade of stories from your Currents subscriptions, and lets you tap stories as they go by to open them individually in the Currents app. My take is that this feature is cool, but not the type of huge “wow” innovation that market stragglers really need in order to overtake their betters. 

But let’s get back to that business about capacitive buttons in particular. The lack of a multitasking key is baffling – if there’s one thing that Android unequivocally does better than iOS or Windows Phone, it’s multitasking. HTC has opted to hide multitasking behind a double-tap of the home button. Meanwhile, Google Now, one of the hallmark features of Jelly Bean, is buried beneath a long-tap of the home button. John Gruber astutely notes that both long-tap-for-voice and double-tap-to-multitask are iPhone hallmarks, and I think that they feed the narrative of HTC trying to make a non-Android Android blockbuster. But I think that they are depriving users of some of the best features of Jelly Bean.

During a Twitter exchange with The Verge’s Chris Ziegler, another person and I agreed that we basically had forsworn most non-Nexus Android devices. But I think it’s not just because we want timely updates (something that HTC has struggled with, as evinced by the HTC Thunderbolt only now getting ICS); it’s because Google has gotten astonishingly good at design, such that the stock Android experience has far outstripped what any OEM can do with their custom skins.

HTC thrived back when Sense filled in the gaping holes in Android 1.x and even 2.x, when it was barely a proper OS and need real character. We may be getting to the point at which Google is so confident in its design chops, and so intent on selling things directly to customers via a long-touch retail experience, that its stock Holo vision of Android becomes more and more distanced from whatever the likes of HTC and Samsung want to do with their flagships. They’ll either have to diverge from Google’s brand to keep their own brands alive, or adopt Google’s Nexus-like take on Android for the sake of unity (the latter doesn’t seem commercially viable at this point, however).

-The ScreenGrab Team

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