How HTC Became a Smartphone Hero

The last few years have been brutal for some of the best-known companies in the handset business. Nokia (s nok) has watched its dominance erode, Motorola (s mot) failed to maintain the momentum it created with the Razr, and Sony Ericsson’s prospects look bleaker by the day. But while some venerable phone makers struggle to remain relevant, Taiwan’s HTC — a relative newcomer in an increasingly crowded field — has become a dominant force, reports Wired News. Here’s why:

  • Smart about smartphones: HTC was early to recognize a shift in mobile toward a more PC-like model, centered on standard chipsets and operating systems and focused on the Internet. The company initially aligned itself with Microsoft and now is solidly in the camp of Google (s goog) Android. Meanwhile, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and others dragged their feet. Lesson: See the future clearly.
  • In Google we trust: HTC (GigaOM Pro profile) recognized that Android — not Windows Mobile — was likely to emerge as a winner, and then it moved quickly. The company is a founding member of the Open Handset Alliance, a Google-led consortium of mobile players centered on the Android operating system. It produced Android’s first handset — T-Mobile USA’s G1 — and has continued to churn out Android phones as the OS picks up traction around the world. Wisely, it plans to ramp up its Android efforts and focus less on Windows Mobile, which is becoming less relevant by the day even as the smartphone space heats up. Lesson: Bet on deep-pocketed winners less hampered by their past.
  • Touchscreen crazy. Apple (GigaOM Pro profile) was the first to gain traction with a touchscreen superphone, allowing users to eschew bulky QWERTY keyboards in favor of a more intuitive user interface. HTC saw that touchscreen technology would be the interface of the future long before bigger rivals like Nokia and Sony Ericsson realized it and joined the bandwagon. It has effectively drafted on Cupertino’s momentum with the G1 and, more recently, the Droid Eris from Verizon Wireless. And demand for touchscreen technology will only ratchet up as consumers increasingly demand higher tech in smaller form factors. Lesson: If you can’t invent first, then be a super-fast follower.
  • Sense user interface. HTC introduced its new UI earlier this year with the debut of the HTC Hero, which received rave reviews for its software. The Sense UI continues to garner praise and looks to play an increasingly larger role as the company expands its smartphone portfolio. Lesson: Be unique and make your software stand out.
  • Effective brand-building. Once happy to churn out handsets that sported carrier brands, HTC has stepped out of the shadows by building its own brand. The company ramped up those efforts in the last few months with its “You” campaign, which touts the personalized features of its handsets. The move not only allows HTC to market a phone as a must-have feature “that gets you,” it also prevents carriers from co-opting its phones with their own marketing campaigns — like Verizon Wireless (s vz) has done with its Droid initiative. That marketing will be crucial if HTC is continue to grow its mind share among consumers. Lesson: Use marketing to help get people to love your products.

HTC still faces stiff competition in the cutthroat smartphone space, of course. The momentum of Apple’s (s aapl) iPhone continues to grow; Research In Motion (s rimm) has only gained traction in recent months; and a host of other manufacturers are joining the Android bandwagon.

But HTC has impressively built out its worldwide footprint in the last two years, and its ad campaigns are helping the company morph from a simple hardware manufacturer into a major consumer-electronics player. So while some mobile dinosaurs are fighting for their survival, the new kid on the block continues to pick up steam.