SmartPhones, Facebook and the Button Madness

Of all the smartphone makers whose names are not Apple, HTC is the most impressive. An upstart company from Taiwan, it has done a great job of building iconic hardware using commodity platforms. It has developed branding and messaging that’s edgy, cool and fun.

More importantly, it was the first company to embrace the idea of developing a user experience layer in order to differentiate itself from the commodity OS-based hardware devices that would flood the market. So, it came up with HTC Sense. A lot of credit for this unique sensibility should go to Horace Luke, HTC’s chief innovation officer, who has been the lightening rod behind the company’s design philosophy.

Perhaps that’s why I’m amazed he allowed HTC to release the abominations that are being called HTC’s Facebook phones. These are essentially nothing but regular HTC devices with a dedicated button for Facebook, which provides:

one-touch access to your friends and family. With a simple touch of the Facebook button, your network is immediately privy to the song you’re listening to, the new restaurant you’re checking out or interesting website you’ve stumbled upon.

These aren’t really Facebook phones, which are a whole different beast, and will be game changers when they come to market. If you want to know what a real Facebook Phone will look like – let’s just say it won’t be anything like HTC ChaCha or HTC Salsa. Kevin Tofel pointed out, “aside from the dedicated hardware button, many of the Facebook integrations are already available in widgets or natively in Android.” As I wrote earlier, a real Facebook phone will be a phone that embeds Facebook services in the very core of the phone and uses a Facebook user experience layer.

What these phones seem to be is a marketing gimmick cooked up by the marketing department at HTC and not the innovators. I can guarantee you Apple would never pull a cheesy move like this. Remember the long-forgotten days when Motorola introduced an iTunes phone? Well, we saw how that worked out.

This move by HTC reminds me of the late-90s, when the Internet mania was in full swing. Many companies were jostling for pole position and ended up paying a lot of money to PC makers to place their Internet access software or browser software on the desktop. Others went so far as to bake these Internet software/services into their devices via dedicated buttons. PC makers made those moves by sacrificing the needs of their primary customers and letting the greed get the better of them.

This time around, the situation is entirely different. Hardware makers are leveraging hot Internet brands to differentiate themselves and sell their increasingly commoditized hardware. By building a Facebook button, HTC is essentially trying to anoint Facebook as the social network of choice.

What happens if Facebook becomes less popular and something else pops up? Will HTC make a phone dedicated to that service? Will we soon see a Twitter button, an Angry Birds button, and a Bing button? Or all of them? Will HTC soon be selling hundreds of different models, each with dedicated button? If yes, how will they bring them to market?

The sad part is, now that HTC has gone ahead and done this, it’s almost a certainty that others are going to copy them and start rolling out phones with dedicated buttons. It won’t be good for the overall smartphone market.

The idea of dedicated buttons goes against the very design philosophy behind smartphone platforms. I believe smartphones are blank canvases meant to be hyper-personalized by average Joes and Janes, who download the apps they want and make the device fit their life. I am sorry, HTC; I don’t want you or anyone else making a choice for me via dedicated buttons.

App of the Day: TuneUp

If you’re like me, then you have a music library that’s ungainly and a tad unorganized. For some odd reason, many of the tunes you’ve gathered over the years have missing tags or cover art. Until recently, I had a tough time trying to clean it all up. Then I discovered TuneUp, which works on both Macs and PCs. It’s like sending your expensive shirts for French laundry, except for music. It fixes everything. The free version has advertising, while the premium service costs $29.95, with a yearly renewal fee of $19.95.

What to Read on the Web

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