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HTC wants U back. But is it too little, too late?

Its new strategy emphasizes quality over quantity, but some say the bell may already have sounded for the embattled phone maker.

It's no secret: The last few years have been rough for HTC.

After paving the way for Android by making the first Android phone years ago, the Taiwanese company lost its groove. While Apple and Samsung have locked in as the premium phone makers and Chinese companies like Xiaomi and OnePlus have become go-to brands for affordable, quality devices, HTC hasn't been able to find its place in the modern market.

One generation after another of HTC phones struggled to catch on in any significant way. At the same time, the company failed to make make any real headway expanding into other lines of business, fizzling with gear like fitness bands and the quirky Re camera.

In late 2015, Peter Chou, who'd led HTC through its glory days, stepped down as CEO, shifting into an advisory role that ended a few months later. He was replaced at the helm by Chairwoman Cher Wang.

The company's downward spiral began in 2011, according to Counterpoint Research analyst Neil Shah, when its global market share was 10 percent. "Since then, HTC's market share has slipped to an oblivion of almost 1 percent," he said.

Can it make a comeback? That sort of achievement has eluded other onetime stars of the phone business like BlackBerry and Nokia.

Chia-lin Chang, HTC's president of global sales, told CNET at an event in Singapore last week that the company still has a few tricks up its sleeve, both in the phone department and with its adventures in VR.

But the onetime trailblazer has a long way to go still.

Less is more

The HTC U Ultra line: A cure for the company's blues?

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

One of the issues that's plagued HTC is brand dilution. It's had too many different phone lines, often with little distinguishing one from another. That comes to an end in 2017.

"We are going to reduce product offerings this year to six, maybe seven phones a year maximum," Chang said. "What we want to do is highlight just a few phones so that customers have an easier time choosing."

If you're in the US or Western Europe, you'll probably only see around three of these models, and they'll mostly be premium devices. Growing markets like India will get more budget-friendly devices. That shift is already happening, with HTC announcing during an earnings call last week that it'll be dropping many of its low-end phones.

As it pumps out fewer phone lines, each one really needs to count.

"HTC will have to make sure these two or three models are the best the industry has seen from design, experience, specs and pricing perspectives," said Counterpoint Research's Shah.

The company's next attempt at hitting that sweet spot will be with its upcoming U line, announced in January and shipping in March. The U Play and U Ultra devices are equipped with glass designs and AI to set them apart.

They'll be a little tough to find, though. The U Play won't make it to the US, and the U Ultra is only available directly through HTC -- not through any major carriers.

This was a calculated move to give customers more flexibility in choosing phones, according to Chang. Shah said it could be a good strategy, as it would allow HTC to sell quality phones at a lower price -- a move made famous by Xiaomi, not long ago China's hottest phone brand.

Unfortunately, the company seems to have missed the boat on the price front. The U Ultra starts at $750 (AU$1,200; no UK pricing available but US price converts to roughly £600), more than what you'd pay for a 32GB iPhone 7.

"HTC has to understand that they cannot price more than Apple," Shah said bluntly. "HTC doesn't have the brand equity left to charge that premium."

Viva la Vive

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Phones became a smaller piece of HTC's pie in 2016 thanks to the Vive, its high-end VR headset.

There's plenty of hope for the Vive, which holds around 6 percent of the global VR market and, according to Canalys, leads the pack in China. Now, Chang said, HTC is focusing on making virtual reality more portable, hinting at a new and more mobile VR platform and giving adopters more content.

But just as its phone business has been bitten by rivals on both ends of the spectrum, HTC is swimming with the sharks when it comes to VR.

The Vive focuses too much on gaming, said Counterpoint's Shah, where it'll have to combat Sony's PlayStation VR. Though a more mobile VR platform could help, he warns that would then put HTC at odds with the Google-backed DayDream View VR and Samsung's Gear VR.

Chang said the new platform isn't "a phone slapped onto a headset," but it'll have to be something special to beat out the increasingly tough competition.

"It will be a long road ahead for HTC to make a comeback," Shah said.

Chang knows this, acknowledging that it'll be nearly impossible for the company to regain the prominence it once had. The trick, he believes, is to be laser-focused on the people who already like HTC's spin on Android.

"The HTC brand is not for everybody. It's not everybody who goes , 'Oh I go for HTC, I buy HTC,' he said. "There's so many smartphone brands they can choose [from], why do they choose HTC? There has to be some link. We have to focus on that link."

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