HTC banks on a selfie turnaround

HTC, once the world’s top smartphone maker by volume, is hoping that its waterproof action camera and software for taking photos might help revive its fortunes.

HTC targets the selfie-smartphone niche with Re Camera: Source - HTC

While working on a product road map for smartphone maker HTC Corp. earlier this year, company Vice President Jerry Hsiao did some research.

“British women spend a month of their lives taking selfies,” read an article from the British tabloid the Daily Mail that Mr. Hsiao selected for a PowerPoint slideshow highlighting his findings.

While Mr. Hsiao had included the article jokingly in a presentation this week about new products from the Taiwanese company, the observation holds true that people today are often endlessly fascinated with their own images refracted through high-tech gadgets. And long-suffering HTC is hoping that tendency will help it engineer a turnaround.

On Wednesday in New York, HTC, once the world’s top smartphone maker by volume in 2011, launched a waterproof action camera and software for taking selfie photos, a departure from its usual emphasis on mobile-phone hardware. HTC also unveiled a selfie-focused smartphone to bolster the company’s midprice Desire line.

It’s a strategic change that the company hopes will help it reverse three years of falling sales. Last year, HTC fell out of the world’s top 10 smartphone brands by shipments amid branding weakness and strong competition from Samsung Electronics Co. of South Korea in the high-end market and Chinese rivals such as Xiaomi in the low-cost segment. This month, the company said its third-quarter revenue fell 11 per cento 41.86 billion New Taiwan (NT) dollars ($US1.37 billion), compared with $NT47 billion a year earlier, despite returning to a net profit largely on cost cuts.

Chief financial officer Chialin Chang said in an interview that the company hopes its new products will help it return to sales growth in coming quarters. HTC’s sales have fallen year-over-year for the past 12 quarters.

HTC’s $US199 Re Camera is a slim tube-shaped camera that can be clipped to a backpack, mounted on a bicycle or taken underwater. It is the company’s first major venture outside smartphones since its launch of a tablet computer three years ago, and will be sold on Amazon.com and through other retailers and operators. The camera weighs about 2.5 ounces, similar to the weight of an extra-large egg.

Spending the marketing dollars wisely

HTC chairwoman Cher Wang has blamed marketing weakness for the company’s decline. Its third marketing chief in two years left HTC this fall, after an advertising campaign with actor Robert Downey Jr. failed to stem the company’s sales slide.

In an interview, Ms. Wang said HTC is looking to invest its marketing dollars more effectively. “The most important thing is to make the end-user love you,” she said.

The smartphone maker released its Zoe slideshow app free for devices powered by Google’s Android software and Apple’s iOS. Its newly launched selfie app, HTC Eye, offers voice-activated photo-taking and a video-chat feature that keeps a subject’s face centered in the screen even if the person is walking around. The company plans to eventually make the selfie app available free of charge for non-HTC users.

HTC plans to offer the new smartphone, called Desire Eye, through AT&T Inc later this month. Unsubsidised, the smartphone would cost between $US450 and $US500, Mr. Chang said. It comes with 13-megapixel cameras on both the front and rear and has a 5.2-inch screen.

A number of competitors await HTC in the selfie-smartphone niche. Samsung, Sony Corp. of Japan and others have also rolled out smartphones with features intended to make it easier to take and edit selfie photos.

With the Re camera, HTC will have to vie against other action-camera makers, such as GoPro Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., although HTC’s ads are geared toward attracting more mainstream users. GoPro plays up its cameras’ use for extreme sports.

Gartner analyst C.K. Lu said he doesn’t expect the non-smartphone business to become a chief contributor to HTC’s earnings in the near future. “HTC is showing improvement in its mid-price smartphone offerings, which were formerly a weakness for the company,” he added.

“HTC could see a sales recovery in the first quarter next year as its mid-price line becomes more competitive.”

But HTC’s Mr. Hsiao, who has been with the company more than a decade, said the new camera presages bigger change. He said HTC has been “reborn” multiple times since it was founded in 1997, including its move from contract manufacturing to building its own brand, and switching from personal digital assistants to Android smartphones. And now, it is cameras and software.

“I think this is a turning point for the company,” he said.

Write to Eva Dou at eva.dou@wsj.com

Related Articles