HTC, once known as High Tech Computer, is now Britains newest mobile phone maker.
Yes, were talking about the inventor of the first successful Pocket PC—the iPaq. Of course, the corporation is still based in Taiwan; but it now has a London (ish) office.
And so we had a good party to celebrate, and all sorts of important people came to say how vital it was for the future of the mobile networks that really good smart phones arrived, and how great HTC had been for them and their businesses.
We even had the head of Microsoft EMEA, Neil Holloway, stand up and imitate Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, and make a speech to advertise HTC and its excellent qualities.
I enjoy a good party, especially this time of year when people take time out to share good cheer—and I dont begrudge HTC this moment of glory—but one couldnt help noticing the absence of Sendo.
The simple fact is, we never did get to hear what the terms were, when Banquo and Macbeth (sorry, Sendo and Microsoft) settled out of court a year ago.
Much of what was expected to come out was at least as gruesome as an encounter with three Weird Sisters on a blasted heath in Scotland, and much of the story cannot be told, even when we are sure of our facts, for fear of legal repercussions.
But the public bit of the story was that Sendo, a British startup phone maker, and Microsoft did a deal to jointly develop the first true Windows smart phone. Sendo, which knew about phones, would design the hardware, and Microsoft, which knew about software, would do the OS.
And, if you care to dig out your archives, you will discover that Microsoft pulled the plug on the project, called for Sendo to be wound up, and instead HTC produced the first Windows smart phone.
I cant say too much about the events of those days, but I can tell you that Sendo was expecting to be the main podium player at the Big Launch. And I can tell you that they were dumbstruck when the famous Billingsgate Fish Market by the Thames in London was hired for the launch, and the HTC Sound Pictures Video, or SPV smart phone, was the one that was shown.
Sendo said that the design of the SPV was a Sendo design, and that Microsoft had given the design to HTC. Microsoft contested this, behind the scenes, but the rest of us assumed that both designs would launch.
And then, it all went to pot. Microsoft said that Sendo failed to make the phone.
That happens to be an exaggeration, because as a reviewer of the phone, I had a working sample, and it functioned. It still does. I can probably still put my hands on the Z100, and if we charge it up and put a SIM card in it, we can make calls.
It was at least as good as the HTC version, and noticeably smaller and neater in design—which wasnt a big surprise, because it wasnt Sendos first phone, but it was the first time HTC made one.
I spoke at some length about this to iMate—a company which resells HTC smart phones and PDA phones—at a time when Sendo was forced to move from Redmond to Finland.
Did Nokia put money into Sendo? Some of my best sources say yes, about eight million dollars. Sendo always denied this. But it started from scratch, and made a Nokia Series 60 smart phone under license—the Sendo X1.
The designers at iMate, like the guys at Sendo, were phone industry veterans, and the story they told was that they were called in by Microsoft to help HTC actually make the SPV work.
Its quite possible that people exaggerate their own part in these stories.
Taking Credit for SPV
We have a famous confectionery in the UK—it may even have made its way across the Pond by now—called the After Eight Wafer-thin Mint.
It became famous for all the wrong reasons when John Cleese appeared as the obsequious but bullying waiter in the film “The Meaning Of Life.” Cleese feeds “just one more, waffer-thin mint” to M Creosote, who exploded in the restaurant after eating it.
If you meet an advertising type from the 1960s you will, almost certainly, be told that the “waffer-thin mint” was all their own idea, more or less.
Everybody in advertising in London at the time, it seems, developed the concept. It was a brilliant idea, which enabled the chocolate maker to sell five cents worth of chocolate for a couple of dollars, on the strength of a few glamorous dinner party sketches involving diamonds and tuxedos in TV advertising.
So, similarly, everybody in the phone business seems to have been instrumental in designing the SPV.
Believe what you like from those fishers tales, but one thing stands out: they all agree that HTC was fine at making PDAs, but hadnt a clue about how to make a phone. And magically, when the SPV finally launched, it worked, and had lots of phone-like features.
It isnt easy, making a phone. You have a socking powerful transmitter generating pulses of high-frequency energy, right next to an audio amplifier and audio synthesizer, and you have to keep them from talking to each other.
Phone designers say “it isnt easy” and they mean it. And the thing has to be able to fall, and bounce. Thats not easy. And thats just the start of the list of things that are not easy.
I can understand why, at a party to celebrate Macbeths triumph, Banquo wasnt a welcome guest; and if HTC had started mentioning Sendo, its quite possible that we wouldnt have stood upon the order of our going, but would have backed nervously away, and then fled.
So this isnt a request to persuade Microsoft to acknowledge the debt it owes to Sendo in giving the design to HTC, but it is a reminder to the rest of u.
For a small company to do a deal with a big company, it is necessary for them to hand over their fate, lock stock and barrel. The big guy, with very few exceptions (remember Stac Electronics?), always gets his way.
Today, HTC is utterly beholden to Microsoft. It started out making the iPaq PDAs for Compaq, and graduated from that to making SPV phones and various PDA phones—and today, it does a pretty fine job of it, having sold over ten million smart phones. But it attained this status by the simple expedient of doing what it was told to do.
Had the lawsuit run its course, a lot of detail would have emerged, which I doubt would have been to the credit of anybody in Redmond.
Sendo eventually collapsed. That was for many reasons, but not least of them was the fact that instead of being the first smart phone builder around, it became just one of several, all building variants of the Nokia Symbian platform. So it was a year or more late to a market it should have pioneered.
What Sendo founder Hugh Brogan brought to this market was the concept of a phone as an operator-branded design. I dont get the impression that rival phone companies like this, but the deal is done.
The brand equity in a name like Samsung is real, but it is starting to be eclipsed by the services offered by Vodafone or DoCoMo or Cingular. And Brogan deserves the credit for helping start that revolution. He understood the phone distribution channel, and if you know how these things work, you can do amazing things.
Would Sendo have succeeded if Brogan hadnt fallen out with Redmond? Quite possibly not.
Starting a small, independent phone maker in Birmingham with factories in China, competing against giants like NEC and Nokia and Motorola, was always a gamble. And the word from the trade was that Brogans Achilles Heel was actually quality control of the finished product.
All praise to HTC for what it has done, and good luck to them in the future. And may they never fall out with Microsoft.
But I think the chances of seeing another British-based phone maker startup are small.
Contributing columnist Guy Kewney has been irritating the complacent in high tech since 1974. Previously with PC Mag UK and ZDNet UK, Guy helped found InfoWorld, Personal Computer World, MicroScope, PC Dealer, AFAICS Research and NewsWireless. And he only commits one blog—forgiveable, surely? He can be reached at [email protected]