HTC One & Samsung Galaxy S4

Is this enough to save HTC?

HTC builds great phones, but nobody seems to notice. For its last quarter, the company reported a massive revenue fall of 98 percent compared to the same quarter last year. Indeed, HTC has fallen far from its position as the top Android phone maker in 2010.

For the most part, it was blindsided by Samsung’s strategic efforts with the Galaxy S series, which debuted simultaneously across all U.S. carriers and were backed by massive marketing efforts. Last year HTC tried to change things up by focusing on just a few flagship devices, the One S and One X, but it couldn’t compete with the hype from the Galaxy S3 and iPhone 5.

HTC was so eager to differentiate itself from the Android pack that it invested an insane $300 million in Beats Electronics in 2011, which granted it exclusive access to Beats technology for its phones. But despite the hype around audio gear right now, Beats didn’t help HTC ship phones. HTC ended up rebuying $150 million worth of shares from Beats a year ago (though it’s still the largest shareholder).

You can feel HTC’s desperation in the One. That metal case and obsessive design doesn’t come from a company that’s sitting pretty with success. Plenty of gadget geeks I know can’t wait to get their hands on it. And as I described above, it simply mesmerizes anyone who sees it.

The real tragedy is that, to a certain degree, it doesn’t matter if the One is the best smartphone ever made. HTC still doesn’t have the marketing muscle to take on Apple and Samsung, which means it’s going to have a hell of a time trying to make general consumers aware of the One.

Peter Chou, HTC’s CEO, promised during the company’s most recent earnings call that it will focus more on marketing this time around. But HTC will need more than just a big marketing budget to make an impact — it also needs an interesting way to make consumers pay attention.

If you want to see just how screwed HTC is, walk into one of the 1,400 Best Buy stores that feature Samsung’s Experience Centers. Like miniaturized Apple stores, Samsung’s ministores are staffed with people who are trained in its products and ready to convince people to buy them. They also take up quite a bit of floorspace. In New York City, I’ve sometimes had trouble finding other Android smartphones amid the Samsung marketing bonanza.

What’s worse is that Best Buy has actually gone on record supporting the One, we’re just not seeing that reflected in stores. Best Buy marketing head Allister Jones went so far as to say the company “needed HTC back in the market” during the One’s unveiling.

At this point, it’s too early to read much into HTC’s One sales. But things may be getting better: HTC is projecting that it will earn $1 billion more this quarter than it did in the last, likely based on estimated sales of the One. If HTC fails to meet its own projections, though, the One could end up being its last great phone.

The verdict: Just buy it already!

There’s a good chance we’ll look back at the HTC One as a turning point for Android. It’s the first time build quality for an Android phone has reached Apple levels of obsession, and it also shows off just how far Android and HTC have come over the past few years.

The HTC One is currently available on AT&T and Sprint starting at $200 with a two-year contract, as well as on T-Mobile for $100 (plus $2o a month for 24 months).

With the iPhone 5, Galaxy S4, and HTC One on the market, it’s a good time to be looking for a smartphone. They’re all solid choices — but if I had to pick just one, I’d recommend the One wholeheartedly. It’s not just a great phone, it’s a rare piece of technology that instantly makes everything before it seem less interesting.

If this is HTC’s swan song, it sure is a memorable one.

Photos: Devindra Hardawar/VentureBeat

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