HTC still exists! The company has somehow scraped together enough cash and resources to release two new smartphones. The HTC U20 5G and HTC Desire 20 Pro were announced today, with the U20 5G being the company’s first 5G smartphone.
The U20 5G is the most interesting device, a Snapdragon 765G phone that runs NT$18,990 (~$640). If you can’t tell from the currency, the phone is going up for pre-order in HTC’s home country of Taiwan first, on July 1, with the company promising availability in “other markets” in the future.
On the front, we’ve got a generic-looking design with a hole-punch camera in the top left corner, a 6.8-inch, 2400×1080 display, and a bit of a chin on the bottom of the phone. The display is actually an LCD, which means that instead of the usual in-screen fingerprint reader, you get an old-school capacitive reader on the back. In-screen fingerprint readers usually live under OLED displays, which are translucent. It’s not impossible to put an in-screen fingerprint reader in an LCD, but there are no commercial solutions on the market yet. Also on the back are four cameras, a 48MP main camera, an 8MP wide-angle camera, a 2MP depth cam, and a 2MP macro lens.
The phone has 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, USB-C, NFC, MicroSD, and no headphone jack. The phone only supports sub-6GHz 5G, not the faster mmWave 5G that all the carriers hype up. Like all 5G smartphones, the HTC U20 is extra big, with dimensions of 171.2 × 78.1 × 9.4 mm. It’s actually bigger than a Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra in every direction (166.9×76×8.8 mm), but somehow packing a 0.1-inch smaller display. The big body means you at least get a big battery: 5,000mAh.
HTC’s $1.1 billion retirement fund
In the run-up to the launch of these phones, there was a lot of surprise out there that HTC 1) still existed and 2) still wants to make phones. While the company can’t really say it’s relevant in any single market, it does seem financially solvent for the future.
HTC got a new lease on life in 2018 thanks to a $1.1 billion deal it struck with Google. Before the deal, the Pixel 1, 1 XL, and Pixel 2 were actually a collaboration between HTC and Google. The deal saw Google bring HTC’s “Pixel Team,” some 2,000 employees, in-house. Apparently, this was a white label engineering group that was separate from HTC’s self-branded smartphone engineers, allowing the company to continue with devices like the U20.
In addition to the huge cash infusion, the deal also effectively let HTC cut 2,000 people from its struggling smartphone division. HTC has been aggressively shedding employees since 2017, when it had 10,000 employees according to the company’s financial report. As of March 2020, the headcount is down to 3,500.
HTC’s monthly revenue page continues to be a gruesome depiction of a company in free fall. Since about 2015, it’s been normal to see a roughly 50 percent year-over-year drop in revenue each month. For Q1 2020, the company posted a net loss of about $57 million, but with $1.1 billion in cash-on-hand listed in the report (what a coincidence!), it doesn’t sound like HTC is going to run out of money anytime soon. If nothing changes, the company can continue coasting along like this for years!
According to HTC’s new CEO, Yves Maitre, what’s left of HTC is mostly focused on “XR and 5G.” “XR” means the company’s Vive VR division, which seems to be the main focus for the company now. HTC’s biggest splash in the VR market was a one-time collaboration with Valve on the original HTC Vive. This was back in 2016, and since then Valve has moved on to compete with HTC, releasing the best-in-class Valve Index VR headset last year. HTC has continued to quietly pump out PC VR headsets by itself, releasing the HTC Vive Pro in 2018 and the Vive Cosmos in 2019. The company also has the standalone HTC Focus Plus headset (an Android device).
Without Valve, none of these self-designed headsets achieved the (relative, for VR) success of the original HTC Vive, which holds a 25 percent market share in Steam’s hardware survey. The Pro is only at 3 percent, while the Cosmos is at 1 percent. The original Vive probably got a big boost from being the first of the modern wave of VR headsets, so maybe it’s not a great comparison point, but Valve’s own Index HMD is sitting pretty at almost 12 percent market share and, as the flagship hardware for Half-Life: Alyx, has been on a two-month backorder for most of the year.
I maintain my stance from back in 2016: Valve was the driving force behind the HTC Vive’s original technology and success. HTC isn’t a VR research and development leader like Valve and Oculus, and it’s not clear what advantages HTC has in the VR market by itself. And yes, let’s not forget Oculus: HTC also has the privilege of competing with one of the world’s biggest tech companies, Facebook, whose Oculus VR division has a 45 percent market share on the Steam hardware survey.
No one is really doing “well” in VR, though, and companies on the edges are starting to drop out. In an interview with Bloomberg, HTC’s CEO admitted, “The VR market is not going at the speed we were expecting.” Samsung killed its Gear VR headset line for Galaxy smartphones, and Google killed Daydream VR, a similar phone-based headset, for the rest of the Android ecosystem.
As for HTC’s other big focus, 5G, the company’s first 5G product was a $600 5G “hotspot” with a Snapdragon 855, a 5-inch 720p touchscreen, and Android 9 with the Google apps. It would basically be a smartphone if it weren’t a 1.7-inch thick unpocketable monster with a 7,660mAh battery. As for actual phones, The U20 is the company’s first 5G device. It’s unclear how HTC thinks it can compete in the 5G smartphone market when it couldn’t compete in the 4G smartphone market, but if HTC’s business decisions made sense, it wouldn’t be HTC.
Listing image by HTC