Everyone’s Trying to Kill the iPhone by Copying It
When Catherine Kim, the lead designer for HTC’s new One A9, introduced a small group of journalists to her new creation, she began with a slide. It featured two headlines, both published a few days earlier after photos of the A9 leaked to the Internet, and both said almost the same thing in the same words: Wow, HTC’s phone looks a lot like the iPhone.
It does indeed. But what was most remarkable about Kim’s presentation was that she mentioned the iPhone at all. Like Voldemort or a perfect game, the iPhone always has just been something you didn’t speak of. Executives and PR people find unimaginative ways of alluding to Apple—“one of our competitors,” or “a company in Cupertino,” or my favorite, “a certain fruit company.”
For years, only a few companies who were bold enough to take potshots in public. The “Here’s what we have that the iPhone doesn’t” ad is among Samsung’s favorites, and the Windows team at Microsoft has borrowed it before too. Companies like Meizu seemingly exist to make a business of flagrantly copying the iPhone.
There’s been a subtle shift recently, though. In virtually every meeting I’ve taken with a manufacturer during the last six months, people have spoken openly about how they’re competing with, and improving upon, Apple’s stuff. Rather than offering gimmicky eye-tracking features or touting their removable batteries, they’re talking about cameras, about design, and about delighting users. They’re taking on Apple’s products on Apple’s terms.
Whether they want to do this is beside the point. They have to. “Right now, everyone has woken up to the realities of competition in the market, and have realized that Apple is now stealing everyone’s business,” says Avi Greengart, a research director at Current Analysis. “If you can’t steal some share away from Apple, there’s not much share left.”
There’s a huge market, but no money, in making unlocked phones for $200. There’s also a huge market, and lots of money, in making phones people will spend $600 for. In between those two things is nothing. “The $200 to $600 range has been decimated,” Greengart says, “because if you’re buying it on an installment plan, then the difference between a $300 phone and a $600 phone is a few dollars per month.”
The fight is no longer among Android manufacturers, but between Android manufacturers and the iPhone. HTC is not the only example of like-to-like competition with the iPhone, just the most obvious one. Of course, if you’re going to so directly take on the iPhone, you have to withstand a head-to-head comparison.
The back of the fence
There’s a lot to like about the A9’s design. It’s simple and elegant. It’s light and thin. It’s a nice middle ground between the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus—the 5-inch screen doesn’t feel tiny and the phone doesn’t feel unwieldy. It’s not a terribly exciting design, but then again, neither is the iPhone.
But take a closer look. There are four elements on the bottom of the A9: a speaker, a Micro USB charging port, a small microphone hole, and a headphone jack. (The iPhone has the same four, but in a different order.) Where the iPhone’s ports are perfectly aligned, the A9’s look like they were machined by a drunk 6-year-old with a jackhammer. The headphone jack curls around the back edge. The charging port is off-center horizontally and vertically. And none of the holes is quite the same size or shape.
HTC would love it if you’d notice how much nicer the A9’s camera lens looks because it’s mounted in the center. They’d like you to talk about the phone’s seamless edges and the fact it has fewer antenna lines in its metallic back than the iPhone. But HTC presumably doesn’t want you to notice that the front-facing camera doesn’t align with the speaker, or that the proximity sensor appears to have been thrown on there randomly. HTC certainly doesn’t want you wondering why it felt the need to put a big logo on the front of the phone when there’s already a huge one on the back.
It isn’t fair to limit such criticism to HTC and the A9. There’s long been a slapdashery to most phones that claim to compete with the iPhone. None of it impacts performance, but it impacts how I feel about them in a way I can’t quite describe. Side by side, the iPhone feels like it’s worth a few extra bucks a month.
Apple would argue, “We just care more.” Microsoft’s Panos Panay, tasked with competing with Apple, would say something similar. Either way, Apple’s proven itself really hard to compete with and really hard to convincingly ignore. It took too long for Android manufacturers to realize that people care deeply about design, and about cameras. Now, “If you compete on design and camera,” Greengart says, “you’re competing on Apple’s turf, and Apple’s going to win. So you need to be competitive on design and camera, and then offer something extra.”
The same, only different
The good news for everyone not in Cupertino is that there is room in the premium market for devices that aren’t the iPhone. This might sound strange, but that’s why the BlackBerry Priv is an interesting device. “It’s the only QWERTY Android phone on the market,” Greengart says. “And it’s one of the few phones that is touting privacy and security that comes from a brand you’ve heard of.”
Granted, there was a resounding chorus of “What are you thinking?” when BlackBerry announced the $699 price, but what choice did the company have? “Lowering the price so that it appears to be a slightly better buy,” Greengart says, “without changing the overall value proposition, isn’t going to change anything.” Like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 or the S6 Edge+, the Priv is at least going after people who want something the iPhone doesn’t already have.
In the A9’s case, that’s Android Marshmallow.
As he introduced the new device, Nigel Newby-House, HTC’s head of product, spent much of his time discussing the traditional differences between Apple and Android products. “When you get an iPhone out of the box,” he told a roomful of journalists, “and you get an Android phone out of the box, there’s certainly a very different experience. And there’s a lot of ambiguity, a lot of choices, a lot of questions that get asked of an Android user when you start an Android phone.” The A9’s goal was to simplify that, he said. Fewer mail clients, fewer system-default choices, all of it. Marshmallow does a lot of this work too, and HTC wanted to take it even further.
As with the design, the A9’s software feels like a good idea only half-finished. There’s one email app, but two home buttons—the on-screen button and the fingerprint sensor. When you first sign in, the first thing you’re supposed to do is customize HTC’s homescreen widget. By default, the widget shows you a bunch of apps without explaining why, then offers a folder full of apps HTC thinks you might like. Ease of use is about simplicity and helpful guidance, not removing steps and just dropping users on a screen someone else populated. Oh, and even as HTC talks about scaling it back, its Sense skin is alive and well on the A9.
But the biggest problem with this phone, and those like it, may well be the timing of it. Even if HTC had nailed the A9, it needed to do so yesterday. To make money, premium phone makers have to put everything the know into building a better iPhone. And time’s a-wasting, because the real strength of the iPhone is the ecosystem of apps, services, and other devices. Once buyers go Apple, they don’t often switch.
The Android ecosystem has flourished recently—from the new Nexus devices to Samsung’s currently lineup, Google phones are the best they’ve ever been. Maybe, just maybe, the market will shift to the point where those inexpensive devices are more compelling than the iPhone. But for now, the only position of strength in the market is Apple’s. “Going up against Apple is, on the one hand, foolish,” Greengart says. Apple’s been making and improving the iPhone for a long time. “On the other hand, if Apple’s game is the only game there is, you either play it or you find a different game to play.”