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Switched On: HTC goes back to the feature


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Motorola's Droid RAZR takes enough pages out of the classic textbook of smartphone differentiation to assemble its own chapter. It sets a new standard for thinness in LTE devices, uses leading-edge display technology, resists flexing, glass breakage and water damage, has a striking design and thoughtfully selected materials, stretches battery life, matches with a bevy of optimized accessories, and enables remote file and media access via Motocast software . Who's it for? Just about any Verizon customer willing to pony up.

Its rival HTC has also long played the one-upsmanship game. It has invested in a software layer designed to have populist appeal. Moreover, it has catered to US carriers' priorities by being first out of the gate to support T-Mobile's 3G network (with the first Android phone, the G1) and Sprint's and Verizon's 4G efforts, as well as one of two to initially support AT&T's LTE network.

And the work has paid off. At its recent introduction of the Rezound, the company crowed that it had been named the best-selling smartphone brand in the US in Q3 and that it was the leader in 4G smartphones. (The NPD Group, my employer, supports the second claim but not the first.) HTC also noted that it had cracked the Interbrand 100 list of best global brands after only five years of brand promotion. The company's "partner" Beats Audio, in which the handset maker has invested hundreds of millions of dollars, also drenched its benefactor in praise. This was followed by expected statements of support from Verizon and Best Buy, which will sell the Rezound.

HTC may thus be losing the battle to be "quietly brilliant." However, one aspect of its marketing campaign on which it seems to be overdelivering on is the focus on "you," a word that merited its own slide early in the Rezound's unveiling. Unlike the tour de force of the Droid RAZR, the Rezound is the second recent HTC smartphone to have a loosely defined yet thoughtfully targeted user or specialty. Whereas the plum-coated HTC Rhyme was aimed toward fashion-forward consumers looking for a lifestyle-management handset, the Rezound -- with its Beats Audio tuning, bundled Beats headphones and high-definition display -- is focusing on a multimedia entertainment experience, one clearly anchored in music.

In some ways, this approach recalls the heyday of feature phones, ironic given that HTC has the least history in those devices among major smartphone OS licensees. In contrast, Sony Ericsson, for example, long emphasized "imaging phones" borrowing the Cyber-shot brand and "music phones" with the Walkman label. Smartphones raised the bar for these and many more tasks, apparently rendering such focus irrelevant since apps could make any smartphone capable jacks-of-many-trades.

But like all retro phenomena, the nod to the past does not exactly recapture it. HTC's approach is not as strictly defined by features. Even the music-centric Rezound has continued an emphasis on higher-quality imaging features recently extolled by Apple and Nokia. The targeted smartphone is more about persuasion than purpose, with HTC's crafted customers a hybrid of specific demographics, behaviors and personality.

HTC's tailoring may not be noticed or appreciated by its intended audience and, in any case, two phones do not a strategy make. Yet, as smartphone saturation continues to grow in the US and app libraries clear a baseline of selection and quality, many of these devices have become rungs of specifications in manufacturers' chosen ladders of operating systems. In an age when more people than ever can afford a smartphone, new opportunities may lie in recognizing that it's no longer just about how much smartphone one can afford.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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