Once, HTC (NASDAQOTH: HTCXF) was a top handset vendor. Times have certainly changed.
Lately, the Taiwanese firm has struggled with declining sales and persistent quarterly losses. In August, the value of its shares fell below its cash on hand.
Now, however, it seems HTC is taking a page out of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) book in its efforts to turn its fortunes around. Its latest handset, the HTC One A9, is a mid-range Android smartphone that bears an uncanny resemblance to the iPhone 6s. Given Apple's smartphone successes, it's obvious why HTC would want to mimic the Cupertino tech giant, yet the A9 does not seem like the device HTC needs to revive its business.
Can you spot the difference?
Android phone manufacturers are often accused of copying Apple's designs, but the HTC One A9 is particularly egregious. HTC was an early pioneer of aluminum smartphones with horizontal antenna bands, but its flagships maintained a distinctive look.
HTC released the One M7 (pictured above) in 2013 to almost universal praise. In particular, reviewers were smitten by its design. HTC stuck with the look in recent years -- the One M7's successors, the One M8 and One M9, are almost identical.
But HTC has decided to finally change it up. The One A9 keeps the horizontal banding and aluminium body, but drops the rounded back for a more flat look, and shifts the camera lens to the top of the handset. The result is a phone that one might, at first glance, confuse for the iPhone 6s.
The design may certainly influence some buyers, but demand for the iPhone is driven more by its unique operating system and robust app ecosystem than its exterior. Apple changes the look of the iPhone every two years, yet iPhone customers remain fiercely loyal. The record demand for the iPhone 6 certainly had more to do with its larger display than its aluminum backing. In fact, the look of the iPhone 6 was one area where critics commonly found fault -- many considered Apple's prior iPhones more visually appealing.
HTC's uncertain future
But the One A9 isn't an iPhone. Like HTCs other handsets, the device is powered by the Android operating system. Competition from the many other Android handset vendors has been too much for HTC in recent years, and I don't believe this new phone will change that.
The One A9 isn't a new flagship -- it's a decidedly mid-range phone with mid-range specs. It packs a mid-level Snapdragon 617 processor, a full-HD display, and a 13-megapixel camera. At $399, it's much less expensive than the iPhone 6s, but there are many Android handsets priced similarly. The Moto X Pure Edition and Nexus 5X, for example, also retail for around $400. Also worth noting: That $399 figure is listed as an early "promotional" price for those who pre-order -- the standard retail price could be significantly higher.
Unfortunately for HTC, the One A9 doesn't offer any particularly compelling features that would encourage buyers to choose its handset over those offered by its rivals. In recent years, Android vendors have used various strategies to make their devices distinctive and blunt the effects of ever-increasing competition. Samsung has turned to curved displays, virtual reality, and mobile payment systems. Motorola has championed unlocked handsets and customizable designs. LG's latest smartphone packs two displays.
There's nothing distinctive about the One A9, and I can't see any compelling reasons for a smartphone buyer to choose it over the many other capable, mid-range Android phones currently available. If this is the best HTC can offer, then its demise appears inevitable.