You Have HTC to Thank for Android's Current Success

By Gerald Lynch on at

In a few short weeks, technology journalists, inventors, PRs and investors from around the globe will descend on Barcelona for 2015's Mobile World Congress. Over the past half-decade or so, it's supplanted Las Vegas's CES as the most important of the major, multi-manufacturer gadget showcases, and it's all down to one software line -- Google's Android.

Open for all to use and flexible enough to be found in TVs, cars, desktop PCs and even fridges (not to mention tablets, watches and smartphones, of course), the mobile operating system will be at the heart of the majority of devices on show at MWC 2015.

In an age where it only has Apple's iOS as a true blow-for-blow rival, it's hard to think of a time where the core Android experience was anything other than roundly excellent. In fact, vanilla Android is now so refined that we bemoan the inclusion of so-called bloatware that manufacturers lay on top, be that Samsung's TouchWiz, Huawei's EmotionĀ or HTC's Sense UI, and actively praise any suggestion that they will leave their own-brand tinkerings at the door.

But it wasn't always this cut-and-dry. When Android first appeared on the scene, it was a far clunkier affair. Ugly blue-and-black or green-and-white contacts lists, varying button styles, clunky web browsing. A mish-mash of ideas, it was inconsistent at best. With Android so cloud-reliant, it's not easy to go back and test the earliest versions of the operating system effectively, but I guarantee that unless you polish up those rose-tinted specs, it wouldn't be a very pleasant experience.

Which is a long-winded way of bringing me to my point. I'm of the opinion that any success Android currently enjoys is in no small part thanks to HTC. And I'm not just talking its hardware, I'm talking about its Sense UI too.

Controversial, I know.

Even in some of HTC's earliest Android devices, like the HTC Hero, Sense offered interface tricks that we now take for granted -- real-time updating Twitter and Facebook widgets, integrated merged social network and phonebook contacts, smart diallers, spelling correction in messaging, a browser with auto-flowing text, smooth pinch-to-zoom multi-touch controls. By building these features into its UI by default, we were given an out-of-the-box idea of just how powerful and flexible Android could be, even if sometimes the software was throwing ideas around at a pace the hardware couldn't match.

Admittedly, HTC wasn't always the first to invent or implement these features, but when it came to Android devices, in my opinion it was the first to package them all together in an attractive way -- Sense was far prettier than the dogs-dinner that Android circa Cupcake through to Eclair was. We look at manufacturer UIs today as egregious, even hubristic, and HTC's latest UI builds, pushing Blinkfeed to the fore, could be accused of falling foul to these traits. But HTC's early efforts laid the bedrock for core Android features to come.

HTC was also the Android trailblazer when it came to hardware too -- remember, its HTC Dream (otherwise known as the T-Mobile G1, Stateside), was the first commercially available Android phone. Its hardware looks archaic by today's standards, with its multitude of physical buttons and slide-out keyboard. But HTC quickly refined this -- the HTC Hero, with its lip and trackball, was an early Android-must-have, while HTC's Nexus One was a collaboration with Google that would create the groundwork for the Nexus line (that's arguably become the most important of all Android ranges, given it's the device line on which all-new Android builds debut). Note that, with Google's help, the Nexus One was a pioneer when it came to implementing voice-to-text input and turn-by-turn navigation, advancements that were critical on the road to core features like voice search and to the entire workings of the Android Wear experience.

And then there's the upwards crawl towards the phablet-sized phones that are so popular today. Taking its cues from the Windows Mobile-based HD2, the HTC Desire HD proved that Android could be...ahem...desirable on screens larger than the iPhone's then gold-standard 3.5-inch "sweetspot". It's 4.3-inch display was one of the largest Android phones out there when it crept into our stores back in October of 2010, and while Samsung's Galaxy Note would go on to become arguably the "first" phablet, it was HTC that had dared to dream that little bit bigger early on.

Go back through all the major junctions in Android history, and it's been HTC that has made the most attractive devices: 2009's HTC Hero; 2010's HTC Desire, 2013's HTC One M7, last year's HTC One M8. All stunners of their time.

Which is why, as we approach the likely March 1st unveiling of the HTC One M9, I find it difficult to comprehend why we're having to talk about HTC like the relative underdog. Despite topping numerous "Best Android Phone" end-of-year lists for the HTC One M7 and One M8, HTC's handsets are still struggling to find homes in as many pockets as they should do. Samsung's most recent output has been a vast improvement over earlier efforts, admittedly, but still in my opinion pale in comparison to that put out by HTC. And yet its flagships, amongst hundreds of different cookie cutter SKUs, still vastly outsell HTC's wares.

HTC has, for its last two flagship generations at least, gone out on a limb with brand new premium designs. But it seems this year it's taking a cue from its rivals -- the One M9 seems only a modest, iterative upgrade on last year's model, if the early leaks prove true. It's a shame if that's the case, but if following in the less-adventurous footsteps of its more successful competition sees it sell a few more phones, it's a safe play well earned.