The HTC First may have drawn its last breath. AT&T has reportedly discontinued the product just weeks after its release due to lackluster sales and a poor reception from its salespeople, thus ending the life of the first — but certainly not the last — “Facebook phone.” (AT&T denies the report, though Business Insider corroborates that the First is seen as a flop.) Though HTC will likely be frustrated by the financial burden of dealing with unsold inventory and its failure to capitalize on being the first device equipped with Facebook Home, the Taiwan-based phone company should consider this a blessing in disguise.
HTC was poised to become the one of the world’s most influential smartphone makers just a few years ago. It popularized the concept of large-screen smartphones, shipped the first device with support for LTE networks, and shipped the first Android-powered smartphone. Today, however, the company’s products account for just 9.3 percent of US smartphone subscribers, according to comScore. Like Motorola, LG, and every other smartphone manufacturer, HTC has been pushed out of the market by Apple and Samsung.
The company’s newest flagship smartphone, the HTC One, is meant to change that. Instead of releasing a flood of devices all at once — as the company did with the other One models, the One X, One S, and One V — HTC developed a single high-end smartphone that showcases its ability to create premium products. The One, combined with an increased marketing budget, is HTC’s latest attempt at a turnaround.
The HTC First is emblematic of the old HTC, which developed mid-range products for other companies (the MyTouch series for T-Mobile, the Nexus One for Google, among others) and variations of a few other products. Many HTC smartphones, particularly the less innovative models that didn’t break the mold so much as tweak their branding, were commodity devices purchased because they were sold and branded by other companies, not because they were developed by HTC.
HTC can either commit to the One and its decision to release a single, high-end smartphone at a time or develop products meant to capitalize on another company’s branding and support. Trying to do both hasn’t worked out so well for the company, which recently posted record-low profits and has suffered from delays to the One stemming from suppliers’ growing impatience with HTC’s tumultuous record and the perception that the company is “no longer a tier-one customer.”
Releasing mid-range devices based on an unproven software probably isn’t going to change that perception. The new HTC, or at least the HTC that the company wants to be, should focus instead on fostering premium products like the One, marketing those products like there’s no tomorrow, and dispelling the notion that it’s merely an also-ran.
If Nokia is a “low-end smartphone maker that happens to have built some of the best-designed high-end smartphones on any platform,” as I argued after the announcement of the Asha 501, HTC is a premium smartphone maker that happens to ship some of the best mid-range devices on the market. HTC has bet that its future lies in products like the One; the sooner it stops developing products like the First, the better.