HTC: The Latest Victim of Smartphone Wars

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HTC posted fourth-quarter earnings that were less than impressive. It also forecast a disastrous first quarter. These are signs that HTC is the latest company to succumb to the success of Samsung and Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL). Like other competitors in the sector, HTC will not entirely recover.

In the fourth quarter, HTC’s revenue fell 2.9% year-over-year. More telling is that revenue dropped 25% from the third quarter to the fourth. Operating profits were worse, down 36% and 23% respectively. First-quarter profits will drop as much as a third from the fourth quarter of 2011, to $2.2 billion.

The first reaction to the news was hard to dispute. Samsung is set to overtake Nokia (NYSE: NOK) as the world’s largest handset company, and smartphones will be the driver of that success. Apple has taken the number three spot in the market. Its position is marked by the fact that it sells no inexpensive handsets. Smartphones are its sole product category, which makes its success all the more impressive. HTC has been marginalized.

HTC management has to ask itself the same question that LG, Motorola (NYSE: MMI), Sony Ericsson and Nokia do. At what point does an investment in the smartphone industry become financially foolish? At what point is it better to take and hold a 5% market share with modest R&D and marketing expenditures. Put another way, at what point is it best to surrender — at least surrender that foolish hope that there is a chance to overtake Samsung, with its colossal balance sheet, and Apple with products that come nowhere close to satisfying customer demand?

HTC was the latest smartphone company to have had a hot hand. Its sales in 2010 and early 2011 were extraordinary. Its smartphones had a number of features that made them competitive to the iPhone. HTC had unlocked the secret of making features of the Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) Android operating system competitive with the Apple OS. But it could not produce a product like the iPhone 4S or Samsung Galaxy S II. It also did not have the marketing muscle to pressure Apple and Samsung in the consumer markets.

HTC’s run is over now. That may not make sense, because it was doing so well a year ago. But Apple and Samsung have grabbed market share that they can hold because of better products and better finances.

Douglas A. McIntyre

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