Unlocking yourself from your mobile operator
A couple of complex examples of how fragmented things have become
It's a tough time to be in the smartphone business. Those who follow the mobile industry are familiar with the estimates and predictions from Gartner and IDC etc where the lion's share of sales and more importantly the profits are currently being controlled by Apple with iOS and Samsung with Google Android. Harry McCracken from Time has published an overview of the current situation.
The other smartphone manufacturers like Nokia, Blackberry, HTC, Sony, ZTE and Huawei etc in terms of marketshare are grouped in the category of "Other" and for many of those companies ending up there has led to drastic changes internally in the hope of turning things around. That doesn't mean that those dominating the market can rest easy, as said it's a tough time to be in the smartphone business. Many are hopeful that for example that some of the recent changes in management at Apple will allow it to continue announcing the innovative products it is famous for. As Horace Dediu of asymco.com who also hosts the excellent Critical Path podcast stated while discussing the current state of the automotive industry, "if you don't innovate, the consumption just evaporates" which is true for many industries.
HTC currently finds itself in the Other category and things are not looking good however many are saying the HTC One is possibly the best Android smartphone available. I noted one reviewer stating the placement of the power/unlock button at the top of the device makes one-handed use a bit difficult and another stating that the device can get very hot, due to the use of aluminium I guess. And with a 4 megapixel "Ultrapixel" primary camera HTC have made a brave move to focus more on camera performance rather than the megapixel count, for example the 13 megapixel primary camera of the Samsung Galaxy S4. From those reviews I've read it seems the camera performance isn't stellar so hence the reference to possibly the best. I guess people have gotten tired of high-end smartphones which although powerful internally on the exterior look and feel cheap so when looking for a high-end Android smartphone with superior build quality right now the HTC One pictured below would appear to be the best candidate.
HTC have also made a brave move in focusing all their efforts on the HTC One as their single high-end Android smartphone as opposed to the previous One S and One X and variants with the One VX, One X+ and One SV. I recall one reviewer requesting a sample HTC One for review, "the latest One" he said, not the older One X or X+ as confusion abounds which is understandable when you take a look at HTC's current North American product range.
Which brings us to one of the points of this discussion a post at theverge.com entitled "HTC does what Google wouldn't: sell an LTE phone that sidesteps AT&T". In the post Chris Ziegler advises anyone looking to purchase the new HTC One from AT&T not to do so, rather purchase it directly from HTC and then put in an AT&T SIM. And if you have an AT&T LTE plan even better plus since the device is unlocked you'll get device firmware updates directly from the manufacturer and it will work with a SIM from the T- Mobile USA network as well.
Those who are following the latest and greatest in smartphones will be comparing the Samsung Galaxy S4, the iPhone 5 and HTC One and most likely not the new HTC First which is considered to be a mid-tier device. However as the first device to ship with the new Facebook Home software for Android the HTC First has come under the radar of those recommending the HTC One. And in North America the HTC First is currently is available only from AT&T. And something the guys at the Verge realised while reviewing the new HTC First, the fact that if you're not a big user of Facebook that you can simply turn Facebook Home off giving you an Android 4.1 Jelly Bean experience. The same experience which ships with Google's own Nexus devices, commonly referred to as stock Android. So the ability to disable the Facebook Home interface allowing for a stock Android experience for a device running on AT&T's LTE network seems like a nice option.
An Android smartphone without a user interface skin such as Samsung TouchWiz or HTC Sense, the latter being included with the HTC One is unique. And the lack of any other customisations for example those added by the mobile operator given that the HTC First is an an operator branded device is unique. The video below from 18:54 onwards explains the point, if you want to learn more about Facebook Home check out the complete video.
Of course those consumers the mid-tier AT&T HTC First will be targeted at may just purchase it for what it's designed to be, a Facebook Phone and never realising or perhaps even caring that behind it is a stock Android 4.1 Jelly Bean phone with LTE.
Above on the left the HTC One, on the right the HTC First. Ironically the smaller form factor with a 4.3-inch 720p display has made some consider it perhaps the best screen size in terms of general usage. As opposed to the bigger 4.7-inch and 5-inch 1080p displays of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 a topic I discuss in another post.
The scenarios presented here show two examples of just how complex things have become and the reasons for it are many and complex. On one hand, no pun intended, is HTC currently experiencing some difficult times but still producing great products running Google Android and who in producing an LTE enabled HTC One available to purchase unlocked in North America apparently are doing something Google itself could not or would not do. And Facebook which finally announces the much rumoured "Facebook Phone" which the HTC First is not exactly since it's just an application running on top of Android. However given how popular Android devices are and the fact that Facebook could technically achieve what they had planned to do, given the openness of Android the approach makes sense.
Google's Google Now service for Android (rumoured to be coming for the web as well) is available on both the HTC One and First. And given that Google has continued to develop it's Google+ product in response to Facebook who are introducing their new Graph Search product who may also introduce ads into Facebook Home things are busy on both sides with the device manufacturers and mobile operators in the middle and in the middle of all those is the consumer.
The scenarios outlined above require the consumer to take the initiative as they're something neither the manufacturer nor the operator may be willing to promote. T-Mobile USA has brought on some changes with it's "Uncarrier" initiative, is finally offering the iPhone and now LTE as well. So slowly but surely things may well be improving for smartphone users in North America and perhaps for HTC as well.
Update: To add to the complexity of purchasing an Android phone from your mobile network provider versus purchasing it unlocked directly from the manufacturer Google made available "Google Play edition" unlocked GSM variants of the HTC One and Samsung's Galaxy S4 both running a stock version of Google Android. A full review of both is available on theverge.com