HTC launches Grip, a fitness band for Under Armour’s Record app

HTC announced its long-awaited wearable on Sunday at Mobile World Congress. It’s called the Grip, and it’s a joint effort with Under Armour, the sportswear and now-fitness software brand.

The Grip doesn’t run Android Wear or other any major smartwatch platform. It can serve phone or calendar notifications, but it’s not really a smartwatch: It’s a fitness-focused trackers for serious athletes who want something more involved than a Fitbit. Instead of the colorful screens seen on Android Wear devices, the Grip sports a black and white PMOLED with an unusual 32 x 160 pixel resolution, and it works with both iOS and Android.

The chunky bangle has four main sensors: A compass, accelerometer, light sensor, and GPS. Except for GPS, those are “table stakes” specs shared by most other fitness trackers, but GPS will be appreciated by runners and cyclists who can leave their phone at home. In fact, the Grip doesn’t need to be synced to a device, so when users go to the gym, they can leave thier smartphones in their lockers. There’s no optical heart rate sensor — HTC says they tend to be inaccurate  — but the Grip can be used with a chest-worn heart rate monitor, like Under Armour’s Armour39.

The lack of a heart rate monitor helps the Grip manage a two to three day battery life when simply step tracking, although that falls to 5 hours with GPS on, although that’s long enough for most people to run a marathon. The interface on the Grip is stripped down and simple, with a simple menu that give you options for step tracking, calories burned, sleep logged and other quick stats on the device. Otherwise, your step and location data are fed into the UA Record app. If your workout doesn’t include running or cycling, the Grip has a gym mode, too.HTC Grip and HTC One M9

In terms of looks, the Grip has much more in common with Under Armour’s aesthetic than the brushed metal look of HTC’s phones. The inside of the Grip is a bright green, which matches some of Under Armour’s sportswear. Where it touches your skin, it’s got an interesting nubby and rubbery texture to help ventilation and maybe prevent the rash problems other fitness trackers have faced. It will come in three sizes when it goes on sale this spring.

The Grip will only sync with Under Armour’s relatively new Record app. Think of it this way: HTC is handling the hardware, and Under Armour — which recently bought over $500 million of competing fitness apps including MyFitnessPal — is handling the software side.

The Grip is HTC’s second product in its Re line, following the confounding buttonless Re camera. In the coming year, HTC isn’t just going to be a smartphone manufacturer anymore — with a little bit of help from its friends like Under Armour, it’s transforming into a premium electronics maker, too.

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HTC_Grip_2

No big changes for the HTC One M9, and that’s a good thing

HTC revealed its next flagship, the HTC One M9, at Mobile World Congress on Sunday. Take a close look: If you’re not careful, you might end up mistaking it for its predecessor, the HTC One M8.

It’s clear that the HTC One M9 is an evolutionary model. The two devices are essentially the same size. The spottable differences include the power/wake button, which has finally been moved to the right side of the handset, and the camera — instead of last year’s Duo camera setup with two lenses, the rear camera on the M9 only has a single lens focusing light on a new 20MP camera sensor that shoots video in 4K resolution.

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Of course, the HTC One M9 sports a few expected upgrades under its familiar facade. It has a similar 5-inch 1080p screen to its older sibling, but it’s sporting Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line mobile processor, the 64-bit capable Snapdragon 810. The front-facing camera gets a huge upgrade, too, taking HTC’s light-gobbling Ultrapixel tech and putting it on the other side of the device, which means it should be much better for selfies in the club. With the right charger, sold separately, the One M9 will support turbo charging, which can fill the battery up to 40 percent faster.

I was able to handle a pre-production unit briefly and I found the ergonomics of the HTC One M9 singificantly improved. The metallic rear surface has a grippier texture, and the slightly less curved body alleviated my main issue with the HTC One M8, which is that it always felt like it was slipping out of my hands. The wake button moved to the side helps, too as it’s easier to reach. Front-facing BoomSound speakers are in evidence too, and they can simulate Dolby surround sound.

HTC has also spent time on its Sense 7 skin and its own apps. The HTC One M9 will ship with Google Android 5.0 installed, and HTC has done a great job updating its look — it’s unique among Android phones, but still distinctly Lollipop. If you don’t like it, HTC is offering a theming app for the first time, which allows you to tweak icons and accent colors, as well as download themes other users made available online. At this time, all the themes are free, but HTC might include a way to charge for them in the future, if sports teams and other corporations with lots of fans make them.

There’s also a slick Android app called HTC Connect on the HTC One M9, which promises to be able to bring up a list of every wireless speaker your phone can beam music to, whether they’re connected by Miracast, Bluetooth, Qualcomm AllPlay or DNLA standards. It can also bridge two speakers into a stereo setup, too. I haven’t had a chance to try it out, but if it works as billed, I could see it being very handy.

Other software tweaks that could be less useful include a lockscreen app that serves nearby restaurant suggestions from Yelp. HTC’s also updated its Zoe social networking app, which will soon be available on iOS.

It’s interesting to look at the differences between Samsung’s approach with its Galaxy S6 and what HTC has done with the One M9. Whereas Samsung went back to the drawing board — curved screens, fewer apps, its own processor — HTC decided to simply iterate its already well-reviewed device and work on its software chops.

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720,000 Android Wear smartwatches shipped in second half of 2014

Smartwatches might get a lot of attention, but it’s important to remember they’re still a new product category, and not a real commercial force yet. Case in point: A new report from Canalys indicates that only 720,000 Android Wear devices were shipped after the platform launched in June, and those devices had the might of Google and some of the world’s biggest hardware makers behind them.

According to Canalys, which drew data from its internal quarterly market tracking service, the Motorola’s Moto 360 smartwatch was the “clear leader” among the six Android Wear smartwatches currently available. The report also noted that the round LG G Watch R performed significantly better than its squarer sibling.

Although 720,000 might seem like a large number, let’s put this in perspective: It really appears that mainstream consumers don’t want or don’t understand why they should want a smartwatch. It’s also worth noting that iPhone owners can’t use Android Wear devices, which eliminates a lot of potential customers.

Apple said recently it sold 34,000 iPhones per hour during the past quarter — which means it sold more iPhones on average in a single day than six different Android Wear smartwatches did in half a year. Pebble has sold 1 million smartwatches over the life of the company, including an estimated 600,000 units between last March and December, but remember, Pebble is a startup. It used to be a Kickstarter and it didn’t get revealed at Google’s annual developer’s conference.

Also consider that the Canalys numbers measure units shipped, not units sold. It’s possible there are a few Samsung Gear Live smartwatches languishing on Best Buy shelves waiting for a clearance sale.

The smartwatch market will change markedly once Apple enters it in earnest. Nobody really knows how many smartwatches Apple is going to sell when Apple Watch launches sometime this April. Estimates range from a few million in its first year all the way up to 30 million units shipped in 2015. Apple inspires such dedication that there are going to be people who purchase — even line up for — Apple Watch, regardless of features, performance, or reviews, and this latest data point indicates it’s very possible that there will be more Apple Watches sold in its first day of availability than the total number of smartwatches running Google’s Android Wear platform.

Bloomberg: HTC to launch a smartwatch in March

HTC is planning to launch its first smartwatch in March alongside a new flagship phone, Bloomberg reported on Monday. HTC has been tipped several times to be in the process of developing a smartwatch over the past few years, and the Taiwanese company was listed as an official Android Wear partner when Google announced the program, although it has yet to produce a wearable product for commercial sale.

The Bloomberg report noted that the new high-end HTC phone will use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 processor, have a 20-megapixel rear camera and a front-facing camera using HTC’s UltraPixel sensor. Sound will be provided by Dolby-capable front-facing speakers. The device should have fitness tracking capabilities through a partnership with Under Armor’s fitness service. Those specs match up with previous leaks describing the [company]HTC[/company] device reportedly codenamed “Hima.” The Bloomberg story also appears to indicates that this new phone has been using HTC’s existing code-naming convention, and could be sold under the moniker HTC One M9.

Unfortunately, Bloomberg didn’t share as much about the forthcoming HTC smartwatch — such as what software it runs. A year ago, HTC previewed several wearable devices, including one model based on Qualcomm’s Toq reference design, and one smartwatch “using Google Now” that sounds very similar to Android Wear. Based on HTC being listed by [company]Google[/company] as one of the first five Android Wear hardware partners, it’s likely that what HTC is cooking up is based on Google’s smartwatch software. CNET reported last year that HTC will “likely use an altered version of Android Wear” that includes “different elements and features” for its first smartwatch.

HTC Re camera

HTC Re camera

A smartwatch would make a lot of sense for HTC next new product, as the company has been diversifying its product lineup past smartphones. So far, HTC’s started producing tablets, such as the Nexus 9, and handheld cameras. In 2014, HTC launched the Re, a screen-free action camera largely controlled by a smartphone. HTC has given every indication it expects to launch more standalone cameras in the future.

In December, HTC announced its first quarterly profit in three years, but it was slim and full-year revenue fell.

Five questions about HTC’s role in the Beats lawsuit

On Tuesday, Monster, the first manufacturer of Beats headphones, filed a civil complaint in California court alleging that Beats essentially swindled Monster when the two companies split in 2011.

It’s no surprise that [company]Monster[/company] and its CEO Noel Lee are suing Beats. It’s been clear that the separation wasn’t amicable since at least 2013. And Beats Electronics ended up being worth a lot — Apple paid around $2.5 billion for the company in May, plus another $500 million for the Beats Music streaming service.

Monster’s case may turn on the actions of another smartphone maker — [company]HTC[/company], which is mentioned 162 times in the complaint. Monster claims that the mechanism that allowed Beats to allegedly steal its intellectual property, suppliers and clients was based on a “change of control” provision in the original Monster-Beats deal which was triggered by HTC buying a majority stake in Beats in September 2011.

Monster says HTC purchased its $309 million stake in Beats for the sole reason of releasing Beats from its contract with Monster, a claim that on the surface appears to be backed up the odd saga of HTC divesting from Beats in 2012 (when Beats bought back a 25 percent share) and 2013 (when the Carlyle Group effectively bought the remaining HTC stake for $265 million).

HTC is named as a defendant along with Beats Electronics, its founders Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, and Beats board member Paul Wachter.

If HTC helped Beats wrest a $3 billion business from its initial hardware partner, it raises a lot of questions.

Did HTC know it was helping Beats ditch Monster?

Monster alleges it did know, saying that HTC entered into its “sham” partnership with Beats “driven by greed” and with “full knowledge of the fraud.” Monster’s main evidence is remarks made by HTC board member David Yoffee this past summer.

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But a large part of Monster’s case is based on Beats having a pattern of ripping its partners off by taking their ideas and poaching their employees. From the complaint:

This is not the first time Iovine, Dre, and others have engaged in this course of
conduct. These misdeeds are not isolated transgressions; rather, they exemplify a pattern and
practice… (a) lure entrepreneurs, musicians, and electronic product developers with promises of growing a business as partners; (b) then extract the intellectual property, production, and supply mechanisms that underlie the venture and that create value

The complaint says that Beats did the same thing to its first design partner, Pentagram, and first manufacturing partner, Jibe Audio. Could Beats have treated HTC in the same way?

Still, the actual recorded financial transactions are odd. Why would HTC sell back half of its Beats stake only a year after the original partnership was announced — and only a month after the official close of the deal — while Beats was still growing so quickly?

It’s also possible that the HTC-Beats deal was initially struck in good faith, and eventually fell apart due to trouble integrating the two corporate cultures as well the timing: HTC took a stake in Beats at the beginning of HTC’s three-year decline.

If HTC was in on the deal, what did it stand to gain?

[company]HTC[/company] profited from holding part of [company]Beats[/company] for a little while. Though HTC reportedly turned a small loss when it sold half of its stake in Beats back to the company in 2012, it made $85 million when it sold its remaining stake in 2013. The company has had a very difficult past few years, and that $85 million helped it dodge quarterly losses.

Few commercially important products came out of the partnership. A few HTC phones — like the HTC Rezound — came with Beats branding, but the Beats contribution to those devices was mostly “audio tuning,” or a fancy equalizer. Some HTC handsets came with Beats-branded earbuds, but even those were quickly dropped.

At the time, Om Malik wrote that the initial deal looked like an attempt for HTC to buy cool:

It is paying $300 million for coolness and a brand, though it is not very clear how it allows the company to overcome problems that are much bigger than a few cool adverts can paper over.

Even if HTC was trying to buy cool, it didn’t do a great job. Beats-endorsing celebrities like Lady Gaga and LeBron James showed up at HTC launch events, but the Beats halo never rubbed off on HTC in a commercially meaningful way.

Another possibility is that HTC was going to be the partner for Iovine’s planned streaming service. Did Iovine mislead HTC about that partnership? Or was it really in the works, but then something prevented it from taking off?

Was HTC CEO Peter Chou involved?

HTC Rezound Launch Event

It’s hard to imagine a company taking a $300 million stake in another company without the CEO signing off. The complaint details emails from Iovine to Monster saying:

a. “I don’t know what to say. I’m meeting with peter the ceo of htc what doI say to him???? (sic)”
b. “I’m in Taiwan (sic) met with peter ceo of htc…this is me talking we have to get this deal done Friday if we don’t it all could unravel” (sic)

If HTC was never really a strategic partner to Beats, as Monster claims, what did Iovine discuss with Chou? At the time, Iovine told the Los Angeles Times that Beats was “going to be in business with HTC and they’re going to help us and we’re going to help them in every way they can.”

Making things more complicated is that one of the driving forces behind the deal, Matthew Costello, at the time was both HTC’s COO and on the Beats board. Costello is now the COO of Beats.

When did Apple enter the picture?

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One of Monster CEO Lee’s main claims is that Beats leadership told him there was no “liquidity event” on the horizon at the same time as [company]Apple[/company] was doing due diligence in order to purchase the company.

Iovine has said that the deal was in the works as early as 2012, and Apple SVP Eddy Cue has also said the purchase was years in the making.

Did anyone at HTC know about the potential Apple sale? If it did know, why would it sell back its stake for a return a fraction the size that it would have received if had held through when Apple purchased Beats Electronics for $2.5 billion? It’s possible that Apple wouldn’t touch Beats as long as HTC held a stake.

What’s next?

Beats launched a streaming service in early 2014, and it’s expected to form the core of a new Apple-backed music streaming service. The majority of Beats’ current headphone lineup owes little to the first-generation Monster versions — and in my opinion, display clearly superior build and sound quality. A Beats executive told me in 2014 that the company has spent a lot of time revamping its lineup and removing leftover design elements from its Monster-era headphones.

A Beats spokesperson declined to comment for this story. Requests for comment from Apple and HTC have not been returned. The lawsuit does not specify a specific dollar amount that Monster is seeking.

HTC revenue grows for the first time in three years

It’s been a tough few years for HTC, the Taiwanese hardware maker that made many of the great early Android phones. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel: In the fourth quarter of 2014, HTC reported its first quarterly revenue growth in three years.

HTC posted fourth-quarter sales of $47.9 billion Taiwan New Dollars (USD$1.5 billion), a slight increase from the NT$42.9 billion posted in the fourth quarter last year. Net profit for the quarter works out to NT$0.47 billion, or about $14.7 million.

Bloomberg reported that the slight revenue increase is mostly due to “new mid-range handsets” that helped HTC fend off competition from the iPhone and other high-end models. The year-over-year revenue increase probably wasn’t because HTC’s flagship One M8 or its action cam Re had a big Christmas — it’s more likely tied to improving sales of value-based HTC’s Desire line, which is targeted at China and other Asian markets.

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The HTC-built Nexus 9 tablet, which came out during the quarter, probably didn’t really make a dent in the balance sheets. But it does signal an important closer relationship with [company]Google[/company]. Although HTC still makes a Windows Phone every now and then, the vast majority of its handsets are running Android with Google services.

HTC isn’t out of the woods yet — yearly revenue for 2014 was still down compared to 2013 (and 2012, and 2011.) But after a year in which the Taiwanese company had to cut costs to get profitable again, revenue growth is a sign that HTC isn’t going anywhere in 2015.

HTC’s next flagship could be the same size as the One M8

The HTC One M8 was a critical darling among Android smartphones in 2014, although that didn’t necessarily translate to big sales. Based on a few early spec leaks, it looks as if its successor isn’t going to be a radical change.

HTC’s preparing a high-end phone codenamed the “Hima,” according to reliable leaker Upleaks. Upleaks said the Hima is going to be powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810, which is an octo-core 64-bit chip that will likely power other flagship phones like the Samsung Galaxy S6. It’s going to have a 5-inch screen with a 1080p resolution. Rounding out the specs we think we know are 3GB of RAM, a 20.7MP rear camera, and the front camera will be either a 13-megapixel shooter or a 4MP Ultrapixel camera. It should be running Android 5.0 with HTC’s Sense skin when it launches.

If the Hima is HTC’s flagship, its 1080p screen means that HTC is no longer trying to keep up with the bigger QHD screens we’re seeing on phones like the LG G3 or the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. It’ll be interesting to see whether Samsung’s high-end flagship also stays at five inches, especially considering other high-end phones released recently, like the Nexus 6, feature screens larger than that.

HTC One M8 build

The One M8 has large bezels. Looks like its successor will have them, too.

Upleaks also shared dimensions for the Hima, which could measure 144.3mm tall, 69.4mm wide, and 9.56mm thick. Those are all within a few millimeters of the HTC One M8, which means that although the Hima should have a 5-inch screen, it won’t be losing the chunky bezels that drive some people crazy about the HTC One M8. It’s safe to assume the Hima will have HTC’s front-facing BoomSound speakers.

The dimensions didn’t come with a weight, so we can’t tell if [company]HTC[/company] is going to stick with the metal body seen on the HTC One and the HTC One M8. HTC does know how to make plastic phones with top-notch build quality and given that the HTC One M8’s metal body didn’t lead to a decisive sales advantage over phones from Samsung, it wouldn’t be surprising if HTC is moving away from machined aluminum and steel. It’s also worth noting that the codename for the M8 was the, well, M8, so the fact this one is called the Hima internally might signal a shift away from the generic “One” moniker.

Upleaks has a good track record on HTC leaks — the leaker has provided an early look at the HTC-assembled Nexus 9 as well as several other HTC devices. Expect an official announcement on the HTC Hima in the first few months of 2015.

HTC’s Windows Phone now available from AT&T and T-Mobile, too

If you’re loyal to Windows Phone and looking for a new device this holiday season, there aren’t many high-end options to choose from. One of the best is HTC’s One M8 for Windows, which has the same body and build-quality as its Android sibling, but running Microsoft’s mobile operating system instead. It was only available from Verizon to start, but now other big carriers are carrying it as well. Prices vary. Verizon sells it for $99 with a contract, but AT&T, for instance, is charging $199 with a 2-year commitment.