A funny thing happened on my way home this past Wednesday. Around midday I decided to stop at my local Starbucks and grab a cup of coffee while taking in all the pomp and spectacle that HTC had to offer in the form of the new Windows Phone 8S and Windows Phone 8X devices.

There were the usual themes that we’ve come to know from any briefing involving Windows Phone. HTC executives went on record about how close their partnership with Microsoft had become. The audience heard –or rather was reputedly informed of, how the guys in Taiwan’s new devices took Windows Phone in a whole new direction. (Including a very interesting moment, where the audience was told that HTC “designed these phones for people”. You know, as opposed to apes carrying credit cards and armed with thumbs.)

I watched for updates via Engadget’s live blog as HTC engineers discussed the fruits of their labor. They seem to have gone on for minutes about how “designing these devices for Windows Phone from the ground up” made them the premiere devices to run the operating system. Even Steve Ballmer was on hand to talk about how Microsoft’s strategic partnership with HTC was going to be able to bring the most advanced smartphones for interested consumers. The transcripts of what was going on in New York City at that press conference made me believe I’d been kidnapped and left in some kind of foreign reality where people took what HTC and Microsoft were saying seriously and hippies actually thought that ordering double-shot espressos plus random coffee drinks entitled them to make fun of my using a computer on a patio to read. It was strange, nutty even.

“Then the show was over and for a brief second I had hope…”

Then the show was over and for a brief second I had hope. Hope that people would see HTC’s moves for what they were, a cheap ploy to shore up their support for an ecosystem they’d taken for granted. I expected, – hell knew for a fact that those that were in the know could see through HTC’s dual colored smartphone glasses. But nothing of the sort happened. Instead I began to hear talk that Microsoft had somehow managed to position HTC as another huge strategic partner, that by bestowing the Windows Phone branding on HTC’s devices specially Microsoft was proving a point, that these devices were in fact the best Windows Phones you could buy this coming fall.

I’ll have whatever these guys are having.

Anyone who tells you that you should consider these devices over the Nokia Lumia 920 or 820 is –in my opinion about as stable as any potential Lindsay Lohan offspring could hope to be, that is to say completely and utterly unhinged. I’ve heard talk from just about every talking head this week and the consensus seems to be that the Windows Phone 8X and 8S by HTC are wonderful devices that bring Nokia some well needed competition. I’ve no argument against that, HTC smartphones have historically been the crème of the crop. Hell, my HD7 still dutifully gets me through my hectic schedule. So than what’s my problem? Saying the Windows Phone 8X and 8S are on the same level as a Nokia device is pretty much a giant red flag that someone doesn’t understand why people buy the most successful smartphone to date: Apple’s iPhone.  These people don’t understand that it isn’t just about the device in your hand when you walk out of your local T-Mobile.

No, people properly following along in this space know that having a great device doesn’t mean crap if you don’t have the ecosystem to support those users. At no point during Wednesday’s briefing did I see any mention of exclusive first-party applications. At no time did any HTC executive talk to us about an exclusive software experience that can only be had on one of their phones, and I suspect it’s because there isn’t much behind either of those curtains. And if my theory is correct that’s really too bad because it really does mean there are no OEMs as dedicated to Windows Phone (apparently we’ve decided to collectively call this state of mind “all in”), as Nokia. How do we know this? We’ve all heard of, and at some point wanted Nokia’s exclusive software. Nokia City Lens, Nokia Drive, Nokia Maps, Nokia Music, and Nokia Transport? All top applications in their respective fields. All terrific apps designed to improve your everyday experiences with Nokia’s phones. There is also the matter of the third-party applications that Nokia has had some part in developing for the platform and are therefore limited-time exclusives for Nokia. I’m talking things like Bloomberg, E*TRADE, Instagram, and an enhanced version of Vimeo. Now imagine giving all that up in exchange for HTC Watch, the HTC Hub, and if you are so moved –Flashlight. Yes, Beats Audio is a step in the right direction but let’s not give it more credit than it deserves.

“Soft-touch plastic backing just doesn’t have the same pizazz as standards-compliant wireless charging. (Do a poll, I dare you.)”

Accessories also heavily factor into this equation. Nokia devices not only have Near Field Communication functionality for things like connecting to first-party Bluetooth accessories easily, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg here. Soft-touch plastic backing just doesn’t have the same pizazz as standards-compliant wireless charging. (Do a poll, I dare you.)

Hell it isn’t just about software or accessories either. Nokia consistently pushes phone updates when necessary. Their applications are equally well maintained, I can’t remember the last time HTC’s Dock Mode application received an update, functional or otherwise.

I’m not saying HTC’s new lineup isn’t made up of impressive devices. They are amazing, for a brief second I thought about buying a Windows Phone 8X, Day One. Then, as if I’d walked outside during a late night house party, I began to approach my impending Windows Phone crossroads with a level of clarity only fresh air and alcohol poisoning can bring. Do we as users desire a great device or a great ecosystem? Do we support the guys who breathe life into our beloved mobile platform with new exclusive applications from top-tier services and developers, deliver well integrated unique accessories to extend our experience, serve such interesting differentiating software as HTC Love? Or do we go with the guys who continuously replace other operating systems on their devices with the Windows Phone OS, and deliver one off accessories with absolutely no follow up? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying HTC didn’t show up to the party with a cool nickname and clothes that look remarkably similar to what the cool kids are wearing these days. I’m saying they did both of those things, managed to bring nice tasting punch but forgot the cups.

4 Comments on “One Crazy Night; the Windows Phone 8X and Windows Phone 8S”

  1. You and I will part ways a bit on this one. I agree, that those saying this recent HTC takes top honors from Nokia are overstating things, these phones still bring much to the table, just in a different flavor.

    First, a disclaimer. As you know, I am a happy HTC Titan owner. So it is to my advantage if I wish to remain in that particular line to take a good look at these offerings. That is not to say I am happy. The 8X could have completely won me over just by doing one of 2 things: either put 32gb on board now, or provide MicroSD support out of the box. They did neither. But, they did not fail to deliver more. Saying they did not provide the exact same features as the 920 is not entirely fair or realistic. Here is what they did bring:

    – The HTC Titan has one of the best cameras out there, even besting Lumias of the same ilk (800). In the 8X they have bumped to 1020p, improved optics, beefed up the front-facing camera to much higher specs and wide-angle, and added features through WP8 to upgrade the experience.

    – Added Beats audio to the Windows Phone line, on the 8X put in a decent amplifier to improve sound both through Line Out, Headphones and the internal speaker.

    – Improved, if only slightly, the HTC-Sense like Hub, making more information, including a full-sized clock in the Hub tile, but also allowing the WP8 resizing.

    – Completely redesigned the form factor of the phone, providing color, lightweight form, and excitement to the line. It is not just a warmed over One-X. While influenced by Nokia’s success with the Lumia, it is not the same and those not needing the bells and whistlsd of the higher-end phones still have a uniquely stylish phone in the 8S. The color coordination of the ear speaker grill with the case of both phones is interesting and subtle. It is obvious they did take the “live tile” bit and attempt to pass that to the phone, while still avoiding the typical Cyan/Magenta in favor of more coordinated and “original” colors. No more “HTC Green?”

    It does still leave me curious and wondering if there is more on the way. The HTC Radar was a beautiful device for the lower end, and the Titan and Titan II staked out the higher and larger form. I am still wondering if there is in fact a Zenith just around the corner. Rumors had that at a larger screen, more on-board memory. But many features were still along old line. I am wondering if the introduction of the Lumia 920 drove HTC back to the drawing board with their flagship larger phone. So for the time being, they put out what you rightfully identify as a mid-level, moderate (4.3″) phone and their low-end entry model. Remember, the fabled Lumia 900 did not hit shelves until the end of Q1 early Q2. The 800 and 610 did not sport front-facing cameras, full sensors, and the legendary optics disappointed. It would not shock me to see HTC introduce a beefed up, redesigned Zenith in 2013 Q2.

    Finally, we must remember that not all carriers will have access to all phones. There are really few solid announcemenst, though leaked photos show Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile on track for some devices. Internationally, it is the same, with some carriers getting the 820 and others getting both. HTC is positioned to pick up a lot of sales from devoted HTC users, and in carriers that may not see a Lumia cross their catalogs for a long time, if ever. HTC has been producing iPAQs, Windows Mobile devices for a long time. They probably have the deepest catalog of Windows Phone devices stretching clear back to the initial launch. Don’t count them out quite yet and remember there is room for all of these in the pantheon of WP devices. This is what separates WP from Apple, who have only 2 phones: an old one, and an older one (couldn’t resist).

    • PS – I am not a big fan of the exclusive apps on the Lumias. When they are dedicated, such as Nokia Drive, etc. I agree with the ecosystem bit. However, when 3rd party developers and companies, such as Viber are sending apps to the Nokia only side, I think it harms, not helps the eco system. One take is that Microsoft also recognizes this and while they are close to Nokia, they are loath to allow them to take full control of the Windows Phone 8 ecosystem, which is very much tied wit the Win8/Xbox environment.

    • To be fair, my argument was never that they couldn’t exist while the other one thrived. My argument was really that, the HTC One devices are absolutely awesome smartphones but just that, awesome smartphones. Don’t get me wrong. I have an HTC HD7 that I once loved but for my next device I personally want something that at least ticks off most of the check boxes of which first-party accessories is a big, BIG one.

      Also don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying they should have had the exact same features as Nokia’s devices. What I’m after is a differentiating hardware feature, the likes of which I’m not sure Beats holds up to since they aren’t allowed to tamper with the internal boards and chipsets for Windows Phone it means it’s purely a software solution aside from the amp on the 8X.

      Now as far as the exclusive applications bit, the jury is still out on that one. While I think the idea is strategically brilliant for Nokia I remain unsure of it’s impact on the larger Windows Phone community since most of the Windows Phone fans I come in daily contact with are either currently Lumia owners or potential Lumia owners come this fall. Either why they, and I are completely biased on the subject.

      I love the push back though Mark, every time I serve up some grandiose jerk comment you are right there to call me on it. It’s why I got into the business.

  2. I didn’t consider yours a “jerk” comment by any means, and your take on the Lumia ecosystem is well taken. I am concerned about that though. For example, Nokia left Japan. Completely. Web site telling them as much in late 2009. There has been no announcement, to my knowledge, that they are coming back. This is true of many countries they have left. Thus far, Microsoft’s commitment to Japan has ranged from tepid to downright reluctant. Much of this is Microsoft Japan, and the MS employee I saw in my building sporting a Fujitsu, when pressed about when other carriers might get on board here, showed that by replying, “People seem to like Android.”

    So the news that a Lumia is coming to NTT Docomo (not my carrier) is welcome. It might signal a thawing of the environment here. It is truly depressing walking into any carrier or electronics store here. Rows and rows of Android devices, all sporting different screens, some 3d, some colorful. Craziness.

    I have my Titan because I paid a premium price to purchase it sim free. I basically had the choice between various flavors of original Windows 7 devices (year-old), and the Radar, Titan, and Lumia phones. I chose the Titan because it had the right combination of best hardware and the Lumias at that time had no front-facing camera. I will seriously consider the 920. I believe, as I think you do, it is the best phone out there (barring the Samsung Ativ S). If there is a viable Windows Phone 8 that comes to Softbank, I’ll be all over that like white on rice. The more who do, the more likely there will be bigger choices in the future.

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