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HTC Sense — the New Smartphone Platform

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When you think of smartphone platforms, the usual players come to mind. Windows Mobile (s msft), Android (s goog), WebOS (s palm) and iPhone are the major players currently. Windows Mobile 6.5 just launched recently, and Android is evolving at  a rapid pace. Palm is continuing to improve WebOS in the Pre and soon the Pixie, and Apple (s aapl) is plodding along with the iPhone 3GS. What these companies better be paying attention to is the unnamed platform, HTC Sense.

HTC Sense is not really a platform in the true sense, but it has the ability to become one in the consumer’s eyes. Perception is reality so I can see Sense becoming a platform in its own right, and that is due to the sharp thinking at HTC.

What is a phone platform? It is the OS backbone that runs the entire show, but to the consumer it is simpler than that. The platform is the interface — the way they interact with the phone, their information and more recently the web. It’s the face on the phone as much as anything, and HTC was savvy enough to see that before most in the game.

The early work done by HTC on the TouchFLO 3D interface was just the forebear of the current Sense interface. HTC first put the Sense interface on the Android-based Hero, easily the best phone on that platform to date. Sense is next going on the HD2 phone to be released soon, bringing the interface to the Windows Mobile 6.5 platform. HTC is taking pains to make the Sense interface become ingrained in every aspect of the phone’s operation, the very function a platform is expected to perform.

I just recently completed a thorough evaluation of the HTC Hero handset, and found it to be an outstanding smartphone. This finding was in large part due to the functionality added by the Sense interface. The phone was fun to use, and Sense made it simple to customize the entire interface to fit my needs. That is the way platforms work, at least the good ones.

I have not held a Windows Mobile phone running HTC Sense, but I hope to remedy that soon. I have thoroughly researched the HTC HD2 phone running the new Windows Mobile Sense, and it is simply outstanding. This hands-on video review of the HD2 shows that HTC has the Sense interface permeating every aspect of the phone’s operation, and to the consumer that is the very definition of the platform. Now that HTC has Sense running on both Android and Windows Mobile, it is a game changer in the smartphone world. A multi-platform platform has never been done, and it will shake up the entire smartphone arena.

35 Responses to “HTC Sense — the New Smartphone Platform”

  1. Pretty much everybody who reviewed HTC Hero went gaga over how beautiful its UI is and how it makes sense to have multiple customizable screens. It’s all HTC sense doing it nothing Androing specific right. So, how do you compare Android and WinMo now?

  2. MonkeyBottom

    I bought the Sprint Hero the first day it was available, and switched from Verizon to do so. I did this specifically because of HTC’s Sense.

    I deal with Samsung phones quite a bit and have access to their phones anywhere from 4-6 months before launch, and I can say without hesitation that no one — not Samsung, not WinMo, not Moto Blur — can come close to HTC’s implementation of Sense on the Hero.

    Not only are HTC’s Sense Android widgets beautiful, they’re much more functional than their standard Android brethren. Sense is the real deal. The integration simply works. I cannot wait to see what HTC does with 1.6 (the Hero currently runs 1.5), and 2.0.

    The sad thing is, I’m getting greedy after only a week. I want more pretty HTC widgets. I want more home screens (seven isn’t enough!). I want a faster processor. I want a larger screen.

    I’m hooked on HTC’s Sense, and as long as they keep stepping up they’re game, I’ll stay with them and upgrade phones ’til I’m broke. Like I said, Sense is the real deal.

  3. Sorry, it’s Friday night, and I have to leave for today. And it really is a very interesting conversation, that I’d love to continue.

    For now, the short answer would be: the power and money in these things (components, hardware/integrated systems/software/services) is always shifting. (re: Clayton Christensen). One part gains an upper hand and makes boatloads of money, then standardization and commoditization comes along, and then the real money and innovation moves to the next level and back. We saw it happen in PC and across tons of other industries.

    Now the hot thing is cloud services and mobile. Whoever figures it out…

  4. Very interesting conversation Staska and it stimulates me to stretch my thought a bit further. If abstraction layers are “abstract enough” to enable developers do their work as efficiently as they would by using native tools (and that is a big “if” that someone with the technical expertise could help us clarify), then manufacturers will essentially become platform builders, correct?

    So, instead of having a distribution of platforms across the traditional players (say MS, Apple, Google), we will have a different distribution across hardware manufacturers. Is this sustainable in the long run?

    The reason I am asking is the following: A cross-platform layer is basically extra resources that someone has to commit in order to build it. Why would consumers pay for such an extra layer? Viewing the same question from a slightly different angle, imagine the following scenario: one day MS decides to produce its own device. MS doesn’t have to bother about cross-platform layers hence it can do more things with fewer resources. Wouldn’t that give MS a huge competitive advantage over the cross-platform players? Isn’t this basically the advantage that Apple now enjoys over them as well?

  5. The problem with HTC Sense is that it is not really a design standard. That is one of the major differences between, say, an iPhone and a HTC Touch HD2. The latter really has better hardware by a mile, but the experience will still be somewhat fragmented because all third party software does its own thing as far as the look and feel is concerned.

    Every iPhone app will look good and use the standard iPhone controls in the main, whereas there are many WinMo apps out there that look like utter ick but work quite well. The experience will never be graphically uniform until GUI design standards are enforced and encouraged.

    I like WinMo myself when you layer HTC Sense on top of it, and the HTC Sense portion of it really is a pleasure to use, but third party apps still clash mightily with the look and feel on my device.

  6. Can “cross-platform platform” builders like Samsung really compete with dedicated platform builders like Apple and Palm, when it comes down to providing thorough and powerful development tools and a uniform GUI across all applications? Or is this TouchWiz approach a “second best” solution to a difficult problem, namely platform redundancy? I am asking this after watching the hd2 video and seeing the terrible lag and slow response of HTC’s skin on even a monster of a processor.

      • Why don’t you take a look on the video posted on this site? See how many times the girl tried to flick on the “favorites” tab with no response! Even when there was a response there was a noticeable lag when flipping pages. This is not a fluid seemless interaction imo…

      • What video? Care to post a link to it?

        Anyway what you’re describing sounds like it has more to do with the capacitive screen than the software running slowly on the hardware. Who knows why that happened to her but I haven’t seen it happen in any other video I’ve seen. Are you seriously claiming that a device suffers from terrible lag based on one brief moment in a short video?

      • Well, the only thing that I can seriously claim is that neither you nor me can form a proper conclusion without using the device in real world situations (and not just watching short videos where people just launch a couple of apps basically from cold start). But seriously, tell me you don’t see the obvious lag on the video hosted in this site:

        Since none of us knows whether the hd2 will provide us with a lag-free gesture-based experience, lets concentrate on my initial question. Is the skin-based, or platform-on-top-of-platforms approach in mobile computing going to give people more effective means/tools to develop apps? Or is such an approach a waste of resources (even computing resources on a device…) that cannot be sustained in the long run? Why didn’t we see a widespread adoption of such strategies in desktop computing? Just a question…

      • Looking at the video John linked to in his reply here, the young lady in question has painted claws that she uses to interact with the phone. I’ve never yet owned a device with a capacitive screen but isn’t the requirement there skin on screen contact? Just wondering if her oversized black nails might interfere with using the device.

    • Darn! John, jOTR CMS won’t let me to reply to original comment I cared about, so I’ll repost the question that I really liked and want to respond to.

      “Is the skin-based, or platform-on-top-of-platforms approach in mobile computing going to give people more effective means/tools to develop apps? Or is such an approach a waste of resources (even computing resources on a device…) that cannot be sustained in the long run? Why didn’t we see a widespread adoption of such strategies in desktop computing?”

      Yes, IMHO, an abstraction layer above the OS, that let’s the developer interact with all the capabilities of the mobile device, just like the native apps do now, is where all this stuff is going to end up. Skins, Web runtimes, widgets, etc; are just the start.

      And computing resources are part of the equation.

      Not so long ago, even devices like current smartphones where impossible. Because the resources available just wouldn’t support that, everything had to be written in machine language. It is still the case for a cheap feature phones running native OS’es like S30, S40 from Nokia, and similar stuff from others.

      But, thank’s to Moore’s law, we already have the smartphones that allow SDK’s and third party apps to work without a hitch on mobile devices.

      And, I don’t remember who, but someone early in a personal computing days said something like “Don’t be afraid to waste computing cycles”, or something like that. Well, that now applies to mobiles as well.

      There were tons of different computing platforms in PCs in the beginning. Apple, IBM PC, Atari, Commodore and probably tens more, which, with the ever exponentially increasing computing power might have led us to that same abstraction layer…

      The main reason, IMHO, we ended up in PCs the way we have, was because nobody understood the stakes, cared and was watching. Except for Bill Gates,who by luck or genius, came in and standardized everything on DOS and then Windows.

      Well, everyone now knows the stakes in this, and everyone is watching. So nobody (operators, vendors, regulators) will allow anyone in mobile to get to such a dominant position as we have in PC world.

      But, on the other hand, it will be too difficult for an app developer to make his app work through a widely fragmented ecosystem of platforms.

      So, eventually, we will end up with abstraction layer, that works on top of multiple platforms, and allows apps to do all the things we expect from the native app today.

      Whether this will be one layer, like a collection of HTML/JavaScript/XML/CSS/etc; for the Web, or something more fragmented, I have no idea.

      But, I am sure, that the native OS apps, are just a stop gap.

      • Staska, thank you – that was exactly the type of answer I was looking for. So the key word here is “abstraction layer”. My question then becomes: how abstract is an “abstraction layer”? (I am looking for a technical answer like the one you already gave me). At least now I know the key word and look around for an answer :).

        Also, if an abstraction layer is “abstract enough”, wouldn’t that mean that companies like Samsung and HTC would have to become much more vertically integrated and start resembling much more the likes of Apple and Palm?

        P.S. I have a comment though regarding the waste of computing resources. I think that it may have become irrelevant in the world of desktop computing (although the wide resent towards vista indicates otherwise…) but I think it will remain a hard constraint in the world of mobile computing for quite some time. Not just because of processor constraints but mainly because of battery constraints. We’ll see…

      • Re: battery power, agree 100%. That’s the main reason the progress in mobile devices is much more slower then in PCs. I just hope someone somewhere sometime soon will have that breakthrough in power storage, that will let mobile devices realize their full potential.

        Re: vertical integration. Yes. They will have to. And Nokia is again ahead of the pack. They are already doing it for 2 years with OVI (How successfully, that’s another topic). Samsung is also starting now ( TouchWiz, Movie store, app store). No one else (in mobile, I’m not talking about Apple or Google), yet, has a clue. Well, Motorola might.

        About Apple and Palm. Well, Apple may have a shot, but they are too closed and self focused to become anything more then a big niche player, at least until Steve Jobs is in charge. And Palm, for now, is just too small to pull it off.

        Getting back to vertical integration, why do you think Nokia just got in bed with Microsoft, the main competitor in their smartphone biz very recently? It’s because they see Google as the main threat in the years to come.

        Some interesting years ahead of us, and I have no idea how it will end up in 2015. Nokia vs Samsung in mobile devices, Google vs Nokia vs Samsung vs Apple in mobility services… Then all these possible wildcards…

        I’m just lucky to be watching it from a second row :)

  7. GoodThings2Life

    James, I actually completely agree with you on this. HTC Sense is the “Java” of the mobile world… a platform that works on multiple platforms.

    HTC has taken two great platforms already– Windows Mobile and Google Android– and has begun giving users a consistent experience across their devices regardless of the OS. This is a testimony to WinMo and Android in that it reflects their flexibility and functionality. WinMo’s UI may be dated, but the rest of the platform is chugging right along no matter what its critics claim, and this proves it. Android while new and unfamiliar to most is also getting a huge boost because of this flexibility as well… and it’s the consumers that are reaping the rewards and benefits of it.

    Soon it won’t matter if you choose Windows Mobile or Android, you’ll want to choose HTC… and if Apple is arrogant enough to ignore them, it’s going to cost them. They’re not the only ones, either… Blackberry may still be popular for business users, but their platform makes WinMo seem flashy and new by comparison.

    Oh, and I’m loving my HTC Touch Pro 2… still running TouchFLO and Spb Mobile Shell, but definitely anxious about the WM6.5/Sense update that’s coming.

  8. HTC’s decision to create their own TouchFlo interface and then make it multiplatform with Sense is a really smart move. The next step in making it a platform would be opening it to third party developers.

    Having said that, I’d also say that HTC is hardly original in this.

    Everyone else is doing it too. Samsung TouchWiz, LG S-Class are also multiplatform interfaces for their phones. Samsung’s ToucWiz works on their own feature phones, WinMo, Symbian and (most likely) Android soon. LG’s S-Class is now on their own OS and WinMo. We also have Motorola Blur, Sony Ericsson’s panels that started with WinMo Xperia X1, now on Xperia X2, Symbian Satio and, probably, Android Xperia X3. Even Acer is doing it’s own interface for their WinMo and Android devices.

    Of them all, Samsung is the most advanced in making their TouchWiz Wiz UI into a platform. They have the volumes to make it interesting, already opened TouchWiz for third party developers, released an SDK, and they are rolling out their own app store.

    • You’re right, Samsung did this early on. But, I believe that HTC can create a much bigger impact, given that they are a huge maker of phones cross-platform. This can be a big deal in the Smartphone space given how huge they are.

      • If you create your own interface as a platform, open for third party developers, who then can create widgets/apps to run on top of it, the distinction between smartphone and feature phone becomes sort of meaningless.

        So the potential impact of Samsung, with it’s this cross-platform interface, should be much bigger.

        And one thing HTC is not, it is not huge. As far as overall mobile phone market goes, and even in smartphone category, they are pretty small fish. HTC shipped 12 mil devices (yes, all smartphones) last year, and will, maybe, ship 15-20 mil. of them this year. Which is pretty small amount even for smartphone category.

        And Samsung almost cought up with HTC even in smartphone shipments last year already. This year, between WinMo Omnia’s, Symbian Omnia HD, Android Galaxy, Moment and others, Samsung, most likely, will surpass HTC even in Smartphones. All running the same, cross-platform Touch-Wiz interface.

    • GoodThings2Life

      Yeah, I see your point, and I buy it, but when I look at the hardware being released by Samsung compared to the hardware being released by HTC, Samsung still looks and feels clunky to me. Maybe it’s just my tastes, but I’ve liked almost all of HTC’s designs.

      I have yet to find something about the Samsung platform that I actually LIKE either. I found the Omnia to be downright frustrating. Flexibility/customization without ease of use isn’t a way to build a platform.

      HTC, on the other hand, has given more and more flexibility with each release of TouchFLO/Sense they push out, and it’s ridiculously easy for a consumer to use.

      I agree with James… I really believe HTC is going to be a powerful player over the next few years.

  9. Silverlight will attempt to do the same thing you describe here. Mark my words – this summer you will see multi-touch capacitive WinMo 7 running Silverlight apps including the upcomming Office 2010 free Silverlight versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.

    As far as applications go, you pick up quite a few if your phone can run Silverlight ;)

    • I haven’t been a critic of skinning as much as the aging Win Mo platform that requires it to be truly functional. I have long used Spb Mobile Shell to get good use out of the platform. What HTC is doing is more of an impact because it is preloaded on their phones. Theirs is the interface that consumers are seeing in the store. Thus, theirs is the “platform.”

  10. I’m not too sure HTC Sense has any long-term potential with WinMo handsets, given the leaked info MS has provided for WinMo 7. While it is too early to tell, MS could pull out a revolutionary new GUI with version 7, other changes notwithstanding, eliminating the need for manufacturers to cover their utilitarian 6.x devices with a more modern skin. MS has made it clear that they will be making big changes with version 7 – the problem is that we still need to wait probably another 12 months before MS rolls something tangible out. Handset makers won’t be twiddling their thumbs waiting for that, and neither will consumers.

    • This is my concern as well. I’d be very surprised if Microsoft continue to encourage the sort of skinning that handset manufacturers currently engage in once WinMo7 comes out. It will be interesting to see where this leaves HTC as they clearly intend to stick with WinMo for most of their range (including their flagship devices) but it will make it difficult for them to tie their brand to their unique interfaces in the long term.

      It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    • GoodThings2Life

      On the contrary, HTC has single-handedly saved the Windows Mobile platform with TouchFLO/Sense’s deep skinning of the WM experience, and Microsoft has long encouraged them and others to do so by way of Spb Mobile Shell and others too. In fact, the deep level of customization on the entire Windows platform has always been a selling point… here’s what we give you, and here’s how much more you can do through all the vast array of products available.

      Apple has always been the one to stifle that type of practice.

      • Everything you said is true but I do think Microsoft are going to want to restrict this sort of default skinning in WinMo7. They’ve already started dictating the hardware that OEMs need to use for WInMo7 and if the rumours of a Zune-like interface are true I think they’ll insist on that being used.

  11. animatio

    interesting thoughts. yet one important aspect of smartphones, specially winmo phones has been left out completely – not only here on this blog. winmo devices actually are handheld computers with a phone interface (like some symbian phones too) – in contrast to the big bunch of mobiles out in the market that are really only phones with some addons, like music player, radio.
    this means, as long as phone functionality is the major factor of usability any sort of interface might be set up on top of the os as long as its functions are supported.
    yet, with pda phones there has a second aspect of “plattform” to be discussed. computer operability. if this is too far apart from the phone interface it will create troubles among a lot of users.
    unfortunately this is the real, actual weakspot of winmo. no consistent mode of handling phone AND computer.

    • It was called TouchFlo but, as James said, they are renaming it Sense as of the HD2. From what I can tell, Sense seems to be a brand name that’s related to a design philosophy rather than a specific UI. The UI on the hero is widget based while the UI on the HD2 is fullscreen but HTC are referring to both as Sense because they allow the user to interact with their information in similar ways.

      You can see a marketing explanation of Sense on the Hero here:

  12. This is a very interesting article that brings up some very valid points. I look at the ‘multi-platform platform’ as a very big step and one I will gladly support. I have used WinMo since its early inception on the iPaq 3630; so you know how disappointed one might be in the development (or lack thereof) of WinMo compared to the NKOTB (New Kids on the Block).

    One thing that has kept me with WinMo is the vast array of applications I have, some free, some paid for. It has only been in the last year that some of the top apps have ported to the iPhone and Blackberry. I have not seen any development towards Android yet. Sense offers a great change of pace and still keeps WinMo users happy…for now. I hope to see HTC develop and grow their branded platform. Kudos.

  13. I think a lot will depend on developers who have already made a significant investment in time and money on the iPhone, Android, and WebOS platforms. It’s bad enough that I might have to modify my Pre app for the Pixie because the screen is a different resolution, but at least the underlying OS is the same. To get real distribution I next have to recode for the iPhone. But recoding my whole app for Windows Mobile probably isn’t going to happen.

    Maybe HTC has tools and an abstraction layer to make it easier to port from one “platform” to another while using the same display. I’ll have to do more research on that.