HTC EVO, 4G & Motorola’s ‘Droid Blues

I’ve had the EVO for about 10 days. I was testing the Incredible, on loan from Verizon, before that. Once I got the EVO at the Google Developer event on May 20 I immediately stopped using the Incredible. The wider screen and better (because it’s larger) keyboard on the EVO made it the superior device. I suppose the iPad’s large screen has spoiled me in some sense. 

HTC is the maker of both devices. The one complaint I have about the EVO vs. the Incredible is that the screen on the larger device seems to be somewhat “duller” and less crisp in terms of its resolution and color. 

As improved as they are, the Incredible, EVO and all the other Android devices I’ve used and held in my hands remain “second best” to the iPhone 3G in terms of overall user experience. Individual features here and there are superior but overall the devices and software still lag, notwithstanding the partisan claims of Android developers and enthusiasts. 

However the EVO is a very reasonable (or as I like to say “good enough”) substitute for the iPhone. Accordingly I plan to use it as my personal device — at least for the time being. Its best feature, beyond the large screen, is arguably the fact that the EVO can operate as an eight-way hotspot, for an additional $30 per month.

The EVO’s 4G speed, which has been getting very mixed reviews (drains battery, not as fast as advertised) is not yet available in the SF Bay Area so I haven’t been able to test it. Video is the area in which 4G should make an obvious difference. The EVO also promises video chat/calling but that capability will cost an addition $5 per month on top of a mandatory EVO surcharge of $10 per month. Sprint is really “nickle and diming” people with this device and it may limit the EVO’s penetration and success accordingly. 

The primary virtue of 4G as it rolls out may not be its speed per se but the additional bandwidth that it provides networks. For example, all the “iPhone congestion” that has killed the reputation of AT&T’s network could be alleviated by 4G. 

HTC and Motorola are the leading Android “shops.” And Motorola seems poised to ride Android’s coattails. An article several weeks ago in the NY Times contrasted Palm’s fate (acquired by HP) vs. Motorola:

On Wednesday, Hewlett-Packard, the PC giant, announced it would buy the loss-ridden Palm and use its technology across a range of H.P. devices. On Thursday, the similarly loss-ridden Motorola, however, announced it made an unexpected profit during its first quarter, beating Wall Street expectations.

The reason for the different outcomes, in a word, may be Android, Google’s operating system for mobile devices. 

The article pronounces Motorola’s Android strategy a qualified success. Not so fast. 

In the Android world there’s a new handset practically every month. Many of the handsets look the same and are difficult for consumers to tell apart. This benefits Google directly and indirectly in several ways, but it represents a problem for individual hardware makers.

According to an article in the WSJ, Motorola is trying to get its main US partner Verizon to do lots of marketing on its behalf, as it did for the original “Droid” device. But the Droid brand encompasses other OEM Android devices and the original Motorola Droid is already old news: 

[Motorola co-Chief Executive Sanjay] Jha has bet heavily on phones powered by Google Inc.’s Android software and sold by Verizon Wireless, such as last fall’s Motorola Droid.

Verizon Wireless, which plans to add two Motorola smartphones in July, spent $100 million marketing the original Droid, helping to boost Motorola’s sales in the first quarter.

Mr. Jha’s strategy leaves Motorola dependent on larger partners who are also working with Motorola’s rivals. The Droid brand is owned by Verizon, not Motorola, and the carrier picked Taiwan’s HTC Corp. to make its current high-end champion, Droid Incredible. Google, for its part, launched its own phone right after the Droid appeared.

Even as Android’s “shelf space” continues to grow, the shelf life of any of these individual Android devices is relatively short, a year or less. Within a few months that cool Android handset you bought has been superseded by the next one. The ambitions of Android the platform and its individual OEMs are thus somewhat at odds.

To succeed, Motorola will have to market very aggressively in a variety of global markets. The company will also need to put out more devices than its Android rivals, HTC and Samsung, to capture mindshare. HTC is probably actually winning the Android race, however.

Motorola will also have to try and create or incorporate some exclusive user-experience dimension in its Android devices vs. competitors. HTC has its “Sense” interface which adds limited value in my opinion. Semi-analogously Motorola offers “Motoblur,” its social software. But that so far has failed to provide meaningful differentiation for the “Cliq.”

Motorola will probably embrace Windows (Mobile) 7 when it comes out — if it’s any good — as a kind of “hedge” against total dependence on Android. (HTC will do the same.) But the quality and viability of the new Microsoft OS very much remain to be determined. And right now Microsoft’s smartphone share is dropping faster than the mercury in a thermometer on a cold day. 

Android OEMs will increasingly have to compete with one another on non-Android hardware and software features: camera, battery life and so on. The fact that EVO operates as a hotspot is unique but Android broadly is going to support tethering in Android 2.2 (Froyo). I really like the idea of the KIN Studio online backup feature of the Microsoft KIN handsets. I would guess we’ll see one or more of the Android OEMs copy that capability. 

In the end, Android handset competition will probably result in innovative and interesting non-Android hardware and software features for consumers and Android overall will continue to gain in the market. However it will be very difficult for any individual OEM (i.e., Motorola) to build a sustainable, winning strategy on the platform.