During my briefing for the new HTC U Play and U Ultra last week, a point of discussion around "flagships" came up during the presentation. HTC wants to send the message that U is now the premiere brand for the company, and that U is where HTC's premiere products will be found.
There was an interruption by an HTC rep, something along the lines of "we won't say there will be no HTC 11" (I'm paraphrasing here - this isn't a directly attributable quote), but the HTC executive making the presentation then responded with something that basically worked out to "well, we kind of are saying that." There was a pause, and the presentation moved on.
I don't think many people took note of it, it was a pretty off-the-cuff remark and one that was at best noncommittal. But here's the thing: They wouldn't have even said a word about it if it were untrue. If HTC was building an HTC 11, why even bring up the point? To purposefully generate confusion? Of course not.
Now, the question is exactly what 'there will be no HTC 11' means. Does it mean that there will not be a mainstream, 5-inch-ish high-end HTC phone competing with flagships from Samsung and LG this year? Or does it just mean that we will get such a phone, but under U branding? We don't have the answers there, but we can analyze what we've seen and know at this point and consider the factors that would make either case.
Our best clue is probably in timing. The HTC U Ultra is a $750 flagship smartphone scheduled for release in March, likely just a month or so before the Galaxy S8 and LG G6 will launch. The U Ultra will be available roughly two months before the same time the HTC 10 launched last year, and the 10 was positioned to go up against the G5 and S7 in terms of retail availability timeframe. Why on earth would HTC launch a separate, 5.7" flagship-level smartphone if it was planning to sell a more mainstream, next-generation device just a month or two down the road? That really would be bizarre. The U Ultra would almost certainly be hamstrung by such a product portfolio approach, and HTC's customers would be utterly confused, too. You just told me the U Ultra is the flagship - now you're launching another flagship? That would be nonsensical, even by HTC standards.
Perhaps HTC plans to launch a more mainstream, U-branded flagship later this year, after the dust has settled, closer to the launch of the new iPhone or the next generation of Google Pixel. But that feels odd, too. Apple and Google will absolutely hog the limelight during that time, and anything HTC does would almost certainly be overshadowed by phones from the world's two largest companies. Also, if HTC is still Google's ODM on the Pixels, it'd be rather strange for them to announce a direct Pixel competitor while they go about building the new Pixel. I'm not saying that's impossible, and we've seen weirder things, but that seems even greater folly in terms of getting a foothold in the mainstream smartphone market. Samsung's new phones will already have neared saturation in terms of sales by Fall of this year, and Apple will then go about devouring the rest of the meaningful portion of the consumer pie, with Google probably getting the scraps. It's hard to see a mainstream HTC phone being relevant in that conversation.
In short, we'll have to see what happens with HTC this year, but the timing and positioning of the U Ultra, along with the comments I heard, would seem to indicate the company is undergoing a major shift in its (admittedly, failing) smartphone strategy.