Company / division: HTC
Google and HTC finally announced the deal that’s been rumored for a while and for which many details leaked yesterday. Google is in the end only acquiring 2000 employees and some non-exclusive intellectual property, for $1.1 billion, an amount over half of HTC’s market cap before the deal was announced. The 2000 are around half the research and design team at HTC (and a fifth of the total workforce), while the other half will remain and work on a streamlined portfolio of first-party HTC hardware including a new flagship already in the works. Google’s blog post about the deal is remarkably vague and unhelpful, and it’s equally remarkable that there’s no SEC filing or press release on Alphabet’s investor relations site about the deal given its magnitude. It’s almost as if Google doesn’t want to talk about the deal or its details, but HTC very much wants to, emphasizing both the financial boon – the money to be paid in cash once the deal closes in early 2018 – and its ongoing commitment to making smartphones and VR devices.
The deal has echoes of Microsoft’s bailout acquisition of Nokia a few years back – HTC is a far less important strategic partner to Google, but this very much feels like Google offering a financial lifeline to the very unprofitable and shrinking HTC in return for some assets it needs. Those assets are IP necessary to make Pixel phones without being sued by HTC or anyone else but also the research and design skills necessary to build those phones exactly to Google’s specifications and needs rather than having to work off HTC’s foundation and platform, originally built for other devices. That optimization and the integration with Android it should enable are going to be critical for Google to squeeze the most out of its hardware efforts, though it also needs to go deeper on the chips side, something it’s been reported to be doing separately.
One of the things I’ve been asked about by reporters over the last 24 hours or so is what effect this will have on other Android OEMs. The simple answer is that it clearly strengthens Google’s first party hardware capabilities, which for now aren’t much of a threat. But it’s not as if those OEMs can do anything about it – Android is the only viable open smartphone platform out there today, and if OEMs aren’t producing top-notch, differentiated hardware, Google’s efforts in the space are far from their only problem. One thing is notable: Android engineering head Dave Burke is apparently in Taipei – which is interesting because Google hardware has been said to run at arm’s length from Android team, like any other OEM, so there’s no real reason why Dave Burke would need to be involved in this transaction, and yet there he is in HTC’s home city as this deal is announced.
From HTC’s perspective, the cash infusion will give it breathing room to continue working on a strategy that can again provide sustainable profits in the long run, presumably with its Vive VR business at its core, given that even a shrunken smartphone team isn’t likely to be profitable at its current (or smaller, Pixel-less) scale. I do wonder why Google didn’t just buy the whole company – at under $2 billion market cap, Google could presumably have paid roughly double what it is and had the whole thing, taking what it needed, including manufacturing capability, VR hardware expertise, and other useful pieces, and shut the rest down. This deal is certainly simpler and less painful from an integration perspective, but I’m still not sure I see a viable future for HTC even with this investment and the attendant changes.
HTC has formally announced that its shares will halt trading for a material announcement tomorrow, and Bloomberg is reporting that it will be that Google is acquiring at least part of the company’s smartphone operations. Other sources – including Taiwanese site Apple Daily and as I understand it shortly also the Wall Street Journal – are saying that it’s the smartphone design operations specifically that Google will acquire, for a relatively small sum in the hundreds of millions of dollars. As I’ve said before, there’s a strong logic to this acquisition despite the history with Motorola. The biggest change since that earlier acquisition is that Google is now far more clearly serious about hardware, with a consolidated division about to announce a second generation of major products at an October 4th launch event. In addition, acquiring a very focused slice of HTC would be a very different proposition from buying what was at the time a much larger and more diverse Motorola business, which was subsequently run largely at arm’s length inside Google. I would expect Google to bring the HTC assets deeply into its own hardware division and to use the new capabilities to drive much more optimized and integrated hardware design relative to the ODM approach used for Pixel hardware, which likely relied heavily on existing designs and platforms from HTC.
All of this is, of course, further validation along with Microsoft’s Surface push of the approach Apple has long taken to tightly integrating hardware and software. It’s increasingly clear that the best results in hardware are achieved by those who can combine hardware and software in such a way, preferably with tight control of the whole process, and Google would get a lot closer to that goal through this acquisition. The big question still remains what happens to whatever’s left of HTC, which presumably will abandon making smartphones and focus on its Vive VR efforts, something that’s going to be a tough proposition in an increasingly competitive market. I’m still surprised that Google isn’t taking over the whole thing, because it could clearly benefit from the Vive assets as it seeks to deepen its own Daydream VR capabilities.
Users of some of HTC’s devices, apparently mostly the HTC 10, are seeing ads popping up above the on-screen keyboard. Apparently, the issue was created by the company which provides the keyboard on a white-label basis to HTC (and apparently quite a few other Android manufacturers) and which offers a version with ads as well. Though it’s not directly HTC’s fault (or its intention to show ads, contrary to what some seem to have assumed), it’s definitely a sign of poor quality control that something like this could have slipped through the cracks. And it’s also indicative of a broader issue, which is Android vendors installing and setting as default alternatives to the default features and apps on their devices, even when those features and apps add very little value for the user (and in some cases, such as this, actively detract from it). Google’s own default keyboard on Android is fine, and avoiding it for the sake of having something custom does very little to help users while exposing HTC to risks like this mishap.
Amazon’s Alexa assistant has come to a couple of smartphones at this point, debuting on the Huawei Mate 9, but on those devices, it couldn’t respond to a voice command in the way the Echo devices can – invoking Alexa required opening the app. The HTC U11 changes that, by bringing an always-listening version of Alexa to a smartphone for the first time, but this review from the Verge makes clear just how big a challenge Amazon and Alexa still have in front of them in breaking out of the home. The biggest issue is that Alexa doesn’t work until the screen is unlocked, meaning that the always-on feature has a huge handicap. Beyond that, many of the features available in Echo devices are missing, and it’s added nothing to allow Alexa to provide functions people typically use voice assistants on the phone for, such as sending messages or making calls. All of this just confirms what I’ve been saying for some time now about Alexa, which is that it does fine in the home with a limited set of tasks and highly optimized hardware, but is useless out of the home and will struggle to compete with truly integrated assistants like Siri and the Google Assistant, which are baked into phones and their operating systems. It was theoretically possible that Amazon would get some Android vendors to give Alexa true first-party status and phenomenal performance on a phone, but that certainly doesn’t seem to be happening yet, which means that as Google and Apple enter and take share in the voice speaker market, their assistants will start to seem a lot more compelling, because they can be used both at home and out and about, eroding Echo’s two-year head start and the advantages that’s conveyed.
via The Verge
Though Google spent much of its I/O keynote talking about apps and features like Photos and the Assistant, it did devote a few minutes to the topic of AR and VR, which will have a second deeper-dive keynote of their own tomorrow. On the VR side, the key announcement is that Google is extending the Daydream platform beyond mobile VR to standalone headsets, which in the first instance will be built by partners Lenovo and HTC and supported with chips from Qualcomm. Daydream so far has been limited by the fact that the biggest Android smartphone vendor has its own competing platform, so the news that Samsung’s Galaxy S8 phones will support Daydream through a software update in the summer is a big deal. My guess is that Samsung will still favor its own Gear VR system with its usual bundling and discounting deals, but the fact that Daydream View and other compatible headsets will now work with Samsung devices should increase its appeal. Daydream’s system is better than Samsung’s in a number of ways, though the recent Gear VR update closes the gap a bit, so the playing field should be a leveled a little going forward. Also worth noting are a couple of AR announcements, including a new “Tango phone” to support Google’s indoor mapping technology, and VPS, an indoor equivalent of GPS which will enable precise directions within large stores and the like. Neither of those feels remotely mass market yet, which means Google’s AR efforts are far more marginal than the phone-based efforts from Facebook and Snapchat (and likely soon Apple too). Interestingly, VR head Clay Bavor outlined his vision for the space in a blog post today too, and it’s remarkably similar to Microsoft’s in that it envisions a continuum or spectrum that includes both VR and AR, though Bavor’s favored term is immersive computing rather than mixed reality and he’s less pejorative about the VR and AR terms everyone is already using.
Google has today announced a patent licensing alliance which is intended to provide cover to member companies using each other’s patents. The idea is that any member can use any other member’s patents without fear of being sued, something that’s actually been quite common between members of the broader ecosystem over the last few years. The alliance has only nine members to start with, about half of which are smaller smartphone brands, but the members do include Samsung, LG, and of course Google itself, as well as Foxconn. Those members alone apparently have 230,000 patents between them which will now be freely available to other members within the context of Android devices. This is a fascinating move, and it’s impressive that Google was able to get Samsung and LG in particular on board without also having some of the other big Android vendors. Of course, none of this will stop these companies from suing those outside the Android ecosystem (or this alliance), but it might help temper some of the animosity that has sometimes characterized competition between Android OEMs.
HTC is making several announcements at the GDC gaming conference, but to my mind the most interesting is its installment plan for paying for a Vive headset. Instead of paying a lump sump of $799, would-be buyers can now pay $66 per month for 12 months, much as many of us now pay for our phones. One of the criticisms (and limitations) of early high-end VR is the price, but of course an iPhone 7 Plus or Samsung S7 Edge or Pixel XL comes in at $750-770, and we don’t all balk at that price, because none of us pays it upfront. Installment plans make these purchases a lot more palatable, and that’s going to be important for reducing the barriers to adoption here. That doesn’t mean we’re all going to rush out and buy one of these, not least because it still requires a high-end PC as well, but this kind of small step will help accelerate the spread of VR just a little bit.
HTC announced this subscription VR service for its Vive headset at CES, but it’s now opening it up to developers. The fact that only 14,000 consumers have signed up to be notified when it launches is a useful reminder of just how small the VR audience on any of the high-cost platforms is today. And I would guess that many users will still end up shelling out lots of money on a per-game basis because the best premium content won’t be part of the subscription, at least in the long run. But a subscription model for VR makes a ton of sense for non-gaming content as more of that starts to show up, although arguably it’s a better fit for mobile VR experiences which are more attractive to non-gamers rather than the big-ticket PC- and console-based rigs.
HTC has another tough quarter, with revenue down 13% YOY, but smaller losses – TechCrunch (Feb 15, 2017)
I don’t typically track HTC’s financials that closely, because they’re so small (just $700 million in revenue last quarter) and such a minor player at this point, but it’s worth checking in from time to time, especially as HTC expands beyond its traditional smartphone business into VR and ODM manufacturing for Google. Interestingly, there’s very little sign of any meaningful bump in revenues or profits from either of these initiatives, which either means that their contribution is tiny or that the traditional smartphone business is declining even faster than in the past. Revenue was down 13% year on year, and the company has had negative operating margins for seven straight quarters and most of the last three years. On the Q3 earnings call, HTC said that it was near breakeven on its smartphone business, and blamed the VR business for the overall losses. It also refuses to talk about the Pixel business at all on earnings calls, citing the lack of public disclosure by Google (which is odd because Google has confirmed it). Regardless, it’s worth noting that the company’s gross margin is just barely in the double digits, which obviously doesn’t leave much room for marketing and other corporate costs. HTC is one of a number of what were major Android vendors a few years back which have faded considerably, and unlike Sony it doesn’t yet seem to have figured out how to make the business work at its new smaller scale.
HTC will launch mobile VR device as follow-up to Vive – CNET (Feb 15, 2017)
I covered HTC’s Q4 results yesterday, and it was clear that VR was not yet making a big positive dent in the business yet. Part of the reason is that Vive, like Oculus Rift, is a marginal play – it relies on heavy duty existing hardware and is itself expensive. It’s no coincidence that the top selling VR headset today is Samsung’s Gear VR, with over 5 million units, because it’s compatible with many smartphones and costs very little. HTC is smart to move into this territory too, though of course if this device really is limited to one of its own smartphones, that’s a pretty small addressable market too.
It’s musical chairs week in VR, with Hugo Barra leaving Xiaomi to head VR at Facebook, and now an HTC designer moving to Google to work on Daydream VR there. This is one of the hottest areas in tech, and it’s therefore no surprise that it would prompt moves between companies as ambitious people try to find roles in the sector. For HTC, which continues to struggle mightily on the smartphone front and has only a side business in VR, it may become increasingly difficult to attract and retain talent in the face of an onslaught from some of the biggest names in the business.
via The Verge
Why The LG G6 Won’t Have Snapdragon 835 – Forbes (Jan 24, 2017)
This is sourced reporting from a Forbes contributor who (as far as I am aware) doesn’t have a long track record in scooping news like this, so take it with a pinch of salt. But on the face of it, this makes sense – Qualcomm’s 835 chip is brand new, and Samsung would logically need bucketloads of them for its next Galaxy S phones, potentially gobbling up all the supply available and squeezing other OEMs out in the short term. Apple is famous for securing long-term access to the components it needs and squeezing others out in this way, and given the timing and Samsung’s scale in smartphones, it makes sense that it would be able to secure all the available supply of 835 chips on a short-term basis too. That’s going to be tough for other OEMs launching handsets in the first half of 2016 – even though the article downplays the jump from the 821 to the 835, there are some significant additions in the new chip which will create better performance in areas like battery life, VR/AR, and so on.
What happened to virtual reality? – Business Insider (Jan 21, 2017)
This piece argues that VR is currently underperforming expectations, and hasn’t panned out the way many of its proponents hoped. In reality (no pun intended), I think most of the companies have been pretty realistic about the prospects for the current generation of VR technology – Facebook in particular has said it doesn’t expect Oculus sales to be material to its overall financial picture, for example. So this is as much about inflated expectations around VR that came from others – observers, proponents, fans – than from the companies themselves. But in some ways that doesn’t matter – the narrative was that VR was finally here and going mainstream, and now it’s becoming that VR is falling short of expectations. The first was misguided, and now the second flows from those misguided expectations rather than from actual performance in the market. VR is still at a very early stage, and though Samsung has sold 5 million mobile VR headsets, it’s mostly still a niche proposition today, limited largely to the hardcore gaming market. It’ll take both technological advances and much more compelling content to appeal to non-gamers.
HTC’s new flagship phone has AI and a second screen, but no headphone jack – The Verge (Jan 12, 2017)
HTC is the Android smartphone manufacturer I keep expecting to be the first to when the shakeout starts, and it’s hard to avoid the sense that this shakeup is imminent. Its financials make grim reading – rapidly declining revenues and regular losses, with only a brief blip following the launch of the HTC Vive. HTC typifies what’s happened to the big-name Android vendors over recent years with the exception of Samsung – LG, Motorola, Sony, and others have experienced similar challenges. Each has its own attempt to turn things around, and with HTC it seems to be the combination of investment in VR and an expansion of its premium smartphone lineup along with some feature experimentation. We’ve already seen the modular approach come and to some extent go, but second screens seem to be a feature that’s sticking around a bit longer. None of what’s here makes me think it’ll help turn HTC’s fortunes around though.