Posted by: Kenji Hall on August 30, 2007
HTC couldn’t have picked a better time to fire up the marketing machine. Today, Taiwanese tech company unveiled a Windows Mobile-based, touch-screen handset that will work on NTT DoCoMo’s 3G network beginning in early 2008. The phone’s sleek design has made it such a hit in Britain that it’s already drawing the inevitable comparisons to Apple’s iPhone. It’s anyone’s guess when the iPhone will go on sale in Japan but HTC should be able to get a head-start before the iPhone buzz drowns out all rivals.
But can the H1100 hold its own against the iPhone? It’s not going to be easy, even for a good-looking handset like this one. HTC’s model has a few things going for it. The H1100’s hardware is already technologically superior to the iPhone: Not only can it zip heavy video files at speeds of 3.6 Mbps, it’s also compatible with different cellphone standards around the world (GMS, GPRS and W-CDMA). And since the handset runs on the Windows Mobile 6 operating system, connecting the phones to businesses’ computer networks should be hassle-free. (Those are all key iPhone weaknesses.)
But the H1100’s design isn’t flawless, either.
HTC got rid of the stylus that came with the version it sold in Britain. Yet it's still not completely intuitive to use. I had to have a DoCoMo official show me the press-and-flick action that activates the TouchCube, the interactive menu that users navigate by pressing or flicking a finger across the display. (To return to the TouchCube menu screen after you've made your selections, you need to call up a pop-up menu by pressing once in the center of the screen. Again, not intuitive.) Browsing through the TouchCube takes some getting used to because you have to push harder than you might expect, and it doesn't work with every application. You can thumb through Web sites but not through your calendar.
That's not the kind of usability you'd expect from something that was two years in the making. (HTC says it has spent some of that time learning what customers want and how Japan's cell phone supply chain works.)
The phone also lacks two key technologies that have become standard on many Japanese cell phone models: a chip for e-payments and a digital TV tuner. Both are a hit with a growing number of Japan's 90 million-plus cell phone subscribers, and it won't be surprising if some think of HTC's phone as a technological step backward, even though its software interface makes the button-riddled models of most Japanese handsets seem outdated. Such are the challenges of trying to break into this hypercompetitive wireless handset market.
HTC CEO Peter Chou says the company thinks the H1100 resolves a familiar complaint about handsets that rely on Windows. "We learned that some customers are frustrated by the Windows UI," says Chou. "While it looks sophisticated, it's too techy and difficult to use. Our new user interface is simple." There's another benefit to selling the H1100 in Japan now: HTC buys itself time to work out the kinks before moving on to the U.S., where it will have to compete directly against the iPhone and every other me-too phone that's sure to be on the market soon.