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HTC Chairwoman Wang takes over as CEO in comeback bid

Cher Wang replaces fellow co-founder Peter Chou, who will focus on developing new products. But with a tough year ahead, can she get HTC back on track?

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HTC Chairwoman Cher Wang now runs the company as CEO. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

HTC is hoping a shake-up at the top will reinvigorate its fortunes.

The Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer on Friday said that its co-founder and chairwoman, Cher Wang, would replace long-time leader Peter Chou as CEO, effective immediately. Chou will remain with the company in a new role helping with the development of new products.

The move comes as HTC -- a former heavy hitter in smartphones that has suffered through three years of sales declines -- pins its comeback on the new One M9 smartphone and a range of quirky gadgets such as the HTC Re camera , HTC Grip fitness band and HTC Vive virtual-reality headset, part of a broader attempt to diversify its business. Chou presided over the rise of HTC as a consumer brand, but hasn't been able to keep up with the marketing might of rivals Apple and Samsung.

"There have been question marks about Peter Chou's role as CEO" since 2013, said industry analyst Ben Wood of CCS Insight. "Peter has undoubtedly been the driving force behind HTC, but recently the company appears to have lost its way."

Today's reshuffle completes a shift that's been in motion since 2013, when the company's ailing fortunes prompted Chou to hand over elements of the day-to-day business to Wang. "I took on too many things," Chou admitted in an interview at the time. "I need to be more focused on innovation and [the] product portfolio."

Over the last year, Chou, who has always been fixated on the design aspects of the business, has increasingly spent time overseeing the parts of the HTC focused on new products. That includes the software-focused Creative Labs division, Advanced Concepts, a team led by Claude Zellweger, whose main responsibility is coming up with new product categories, and Connected Devices, a group led by Chou tasked with bringing the new ideas to market.

"In his new executive role as head of the HTC Future Development Lab, Mr Chou will be instrumental in identifying future growth opportunities for the Company," Wang said in a statement.

As one of the rare successful female entrepreneurs in tech, Wang herself is a high-profile figure in Taiwan -- Taiwanese media have been known to take photos with her after press events.

Burma-born Chou co-founded HTC in Taiwan with Wang and H.T. Cho in 1997. The company once known as High-Tech Computers was at the forefront of Android's success: HTC was responsible for the first phone running Google's mobile software, the HTC Dream, known as the G1 in the United States; the first Google Nexus phone, the Nexus One; and the first 4G phone to go on sale in the US, Sprint's Evo 4G. By 2011, HTC was the biggest smartphone manufacturer in the US with 24 per cent market share, ahead of Samsung and Apple.

That reign was brief. Samsung's something-for-everyone Galaxy range and a marketing budget that HTC simply couldn't match propelled the Korean company into the top spot, and HTC dropped to just 4 percent of the worldwide market. The company confusingly bought headphone maker Beats Electronics, only to sell it two years later before Apple stepped in and splashed out billions of dollars on the popular brand. A 3D phone and phones with dedicated Facebook buttons didn't pan out, and 2013's HTC First -- the official "Facebook phone" -- was a high-profile failure.

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HTC simplified its confusing range of phones with the HTC One and One M8, but critical acclaim didn't translate into sales. The company has shown signs of recovery over the last two quarters as its revenue and profits stabilized. The company is set to launch the One M9 flagship product in the coming weeks.

Still, HTC faces an uphill climb as it looks to regain some of its presence in the smartphone world. Samsung Electronics has a radically redesigned flagship smartphone in the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge, which go on sale on April 10. Apple's iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, which launched in September, continue to dominate the premium segment, which is where HTC hopes to stay relevant.

"It remains to be seen whether Cher Wang is the right person to get HTC back on track," Wood said. "HTC has a very tough year ahead."

HTC co-founder Peter Chou will remain with the company exploring new products. Andrew Hoyle/CNET