HTC smartphones boss on AI, Android and design

Chialin Chang, President of Smartphone and Connected Devices Business at HTC, says, "We’re not going to have a smartwatch in the short term"

U Series
Chialin Chang, President of Smartphone and Connected Devices Business at HTC, shows off the U Ultra's second screen

At last week’s regional launch of the HTC U Series Ultra and Play smartphones, #GNTECH sat down with Chialin Chang, President of Smartphone and Connected Devices Business at HTC. These are the best bits from the 30-minute conversation:

How did HTC decide on the U Ultra’s specs? How many devices can we expect to see this year? 

“I think the size of portfolio will be reduced quite dramatically. Down to six or seven devices. We’re not [making] iPhones, so we can’t just do two [models].

“This is the best CPU out there. We’re not playing the specs game. Every time there’s a brand-new CPU with power we can leverage, we’re always at the forefront doing that. Some people are thinking about the timing. Obviously, timing was determined nine months ago. When the next flagship CPU comes, HTC will be one of the first to include that. If we fast-forward a couple of months down the road, looking back it will be clear why HTC introduced the U Series. We wanted to have a couple of months of leadership before the next flagship CPU came, and when it does, another HTC flagship phone will also come. But that will be a period of time. Name one person who will introduce a phone right after MWC. I can tell you for sure: none. You want to have four, five months without a flagship phone in the market? You know, Pixel is a flagship phone, even though it’s not sold in the region here, and it also uses the best processor.”

HTC U Series Ultra
The U Ultra is HTC’s most powerful phone, but Chang says it won’t be the only flagship device from the Taiwanese manufacturer this year

On developing the AI-driven HTC Sense Companion

We focus on three areas. First, we divide a person’s life up: work, play, well-being, love. Among these categories, there are all sorts of different activities in there. On the other pocket we ask: what are we going to learn? We’re going to learn the very basic location, awareness, all sorts of things, device information, calendar… obviously, the consumer needs to opt in because they’re very sensitive about the private information shared. The third pocket is: this is the scenario, these are the things we’re going to learn: How will we trigger and leverage the Google Awareness ecosystem? The device information we know. We know the call log, dialler, digital trail, performance, the hardware, etc. Then we know the third parties that provide useful information to consumers: point of interest, Yelp, all those things. We’re going to be local in Dubai, for example. We combine these. We created a useful AI based on machine learning and sometimes deep learning.

“But we don’t want to call it AI, because we don’t think this is about technology. This is about user experience – we want the consumer to feel that, as a result of AI empowering their phone, the device becomes a companion. And that’s why we say “U”. The phone learns from you. You contribute to the learning. If you don’t let it learn, it won’t learn, right? I walk with my phone and at the end of the day, the machine will say “Chialin, at the end of last week or so you had these kind of activities,” because we had the awareness of activities on this [device]. It becomes a very inseparable part of yourself. We think that’s very important. At the end of February, people will have started feeding useful information into the phone, but it takes some time. The purpose of the second screen is to use this as an AI window. That’s why we chose this display.” 

HTC U Series Ultra second screen
The U Ultra’s second screen flashes AI-driven notifications. These are delivered based on your usage of the device, and can be both reminders or suggestions

How are you incorporating Arabic content?

“We’re already studying this. We would not be able to serve the consumer well in this region by only supporting English – that would not work. In the early days, I think we were one of the first to support Arabic language on a device.”

3D sound – what’s the deal?

“The four microphones in the U Ultra can record 3D sound, not just to give consumers a more immersive experience, it’s also very important for a mobile VR experience. You can’t have 2D sound in VR, that would be a gap in the experience. We thought about these things.”

The phone learns from you. You contribute to the learning. If you don’t let it learn, it won’t learn, right?

Great overall specs, but the U Ultra does have a relatively small 3,000mAh battery…

“To be honest, we could’ve included a bigger battery, but then the design would be impacted. Nobody can make the perfect phone – you always have to find a balance. We wanted to get a symmetric design in there. You’re going to have to trim down on the side here. You’re going to have to do more the trimming down on the side, which will impact on the battery. Then we decide: how much do you want to trim? What’s the balance versus the software capability? And there’s also fast-charging to be considered. We feel like we are able to have the software performance in there.

HTC U Series
Chang says every smartphone design is a result of trade-offs with form versus function 

“The second display is not always on, because then you reduce another hour from the battery life. It’s only when you pick it up and it turns on. We’re finding different ways to make the power more efficient. Obviously, I have to admit, a bigger battery is better… It’s always a trade-off in design, there’s always a headache. This is basically the HTC 10 level of battery performance, we tried it.”

Please tell us the U Ultra won’t face the same heating issues the M9 did…

“To be honest, some of the struggles HTC is facing are all by the M9. I asked Qualcomm about it. I said, “There’s heat!”. They said, “No, no”. And then before we shipped, I said, “It’s still hot!”. They said, “No, no”. On top of that, we didn’t change the design. Very honestly, the M9 suffering and then locking down the 10… that was probably the most difficult two-three months of my HTC life, 2015’s second quarter. Because M9 wasn’t doing well right away, and then we needed to lock down the 10.

HTC One M9
2015’s HTC One M9 had heating issues. “Some of the struggles HTC is facing are all by the M9”

“Every organisation’s similar. You need to break out, and that’s easier said than done. In the initial HTC 10 model, we also struggled. In the end, we did the chamfering, some things here and there. It’s debatable. Some people think incremental as well. That’s why last year we said we’re going to do something really different. What’s really different versus last time is we go in to the bottom of the brand. We ask ourselves: ‘What does our brand stand for? What do consumers feel about the brand?’, ‘What does it provide for them?’…. they need to be able to connect. If you think positively about it, some of the difficulties, challenges and struggles, they force you to think deeper. That’s why we want to do something different. The market’s competitive. Hopefully the consumer will feel like we’re trying to do something really helpful to them, not just say [a device] has nice specs.”

On consumer perception versus reality

“I have an urge to go on social media and talk about dynamic RAM. Upping the RAM as a selling point is like buying a bigger garage because your old one was highly disorganised. Why don’t you get your house in order first? I can’t understand – I’ve tried, tested, and asked engineers and we’ve studied it… there’s no use for that much RAM. Four GB is adequate. To be honest, we’ll probably up these things in the next update.”

How’s your relationship with Google?

“This isn’t something we alone can talk about here, but the relationship so far is good. Both sides can continue innovating. One aspect of the Google relationship is that we’re working with multiple parts of a company that’s just so big.”

What’s happening with that rumoured smartwatch?

“I can tell you we’re not going to have an Android watch. We’re not going to have a watch in the short term. I don’t feel like we know it. I’m not sure we’ve nailed it. Even the Apple Watch is declining.”

Describe working with Android

“My experience is, the whole OS spread very quickly. Over the years, Google solved the UI issues. It’s a lot more user-friendly now. I know some people complain, but I don’t want to duplicate apps that already work well. I’m always telling our internal team not to do this. The second thing: I think Google is trying to make the security is right. It cares so much about this. After that, it becomes more and more about AI. Number four is very Google-centric – they want to push more of their services through Android. They will try to give you more incentive to do that. Google Assistant will spread. It will get the company big data and allow it to do a lot of things in there. Google wants us to incorporate the Google Assistant in a standard, prominent way. We’ll use that, but Google’s system sits in the cloud. That is something the consumer will need, but beyond that there are other services that we want to provide. We still need to get something differentiated. There’s still a lot of device information that can be helpful to consumers.”

One aspect of the Google relationship is that we’re working with multiple parts of a company that’s just so big.