Samsung and Apple have been dominating the global smartphone market for the better part of a decade now, but those unfamiliar with the mobile industry’s history might be shocked to hear the names of the other top five companies just seven years ago.

Back in Q3 2011, Samsung’s lead over Apple was already starting to grow, while Nokia ranked third after years of crushing command, HTC was fourth with over 10 percent share, and RIM, aka BlackBerry, followed in fifth after its own Nokia-style fall from grace.

Why are we talking about 2011 rankings and numbers? In short, to highlight two unlikely comebacks and find out if a third one is also in the cards. Granted, both Nokia and BlackBerry (especially BlackBerry) have a lot of work to do before fully regaining their relevance, but these are still two brands magically recovering from the brink of death. Can HTC realistically hope for the same?

Let’s start at the beginning

That HTC Dream was a dreamy-looking handset, wasn’t it?

It’s no big secret that HTC has had a tough past few years. In fact, it’s been so hard lately to turn a profit that the company gave up some precious intellectual property and a talented team of design and research employees in exchange for a $1.1 billion Google payment. If that’s not desperation, I don’t know what is.

Founded in 1997 as a designer and manufacturer of laptop computers (bet you forgot that part), the Taiwan-based consumer electronics outfit quickly sensed the potential for growth of the nascent smartphone business.

After a couple of Windows Mobile experiments, HTC played a key role in Android’s birth and swift rise, joining forces with Google on the Dream slider, aka T-Mobile G1, then the Nexus One. 2008’s HTC Dream, mind you, was the very first commercially released device running Android, while 2010’s Evo 4G pioneered the high-speed mobile era in the US.

Sure, the Nexus One looks weird now, but so will the Galaxy Note 9 in 2026

A co-founding member of the Open Handset Alliance, HTC stood out from the smartphone manufacturer pack for several years with an incredible eye for innovation, a unique willingness to take risks, and perhaps more importantly, very close ties with major wireless service providers.

Where did it all go wrong?

2011 was HTC’s peak, but somehow, by the end of the following year, the company had already tumbled out of the world’s top seven smartphone vendors. Ironically, it was similar risks as the ones that so handsomely paid off before which threw HTC in a downward spiral with seemingly no end in sight. 2011’s Evo 3D was a useless gimmick rather than a forward thinker, the ChaCha insultingly (and poorly) copied BlackBerry designs, while 2013’s HTC First “Facebook Phone” went down in the history books with its record-breaking low sales of 15,000 units.

This monstrosity is the reason we’ll probably never have a second “Facebook Phone”
By the time the HTC One was released, the market had lost all its confidence in the company’s ability to deliver a usable, practical and powerful high-end phone, which was terribly unfortunate for a product that was all of those things and more. Then came the terribly named and unimaginative derivations and iterations, most of which were overpriced, over-advertised, and… did I mention unimaginative? 

And yes, there is such a thing as excessive advertising. Especially when it’s ineffective and crazy expensive, like that billion-dollar Robert Downey Jr. campaign.

The 2017 Nokia 3310 is still one of the industry’s most unlikely success stories

Nokia is another example of a brand that’s suffered many variations and even mutations before coming back stronger than ever (not exactly, but you get the idea), so why couldn’t HTC also capitalize on audiences willing to forgive and forget in the name of nostalgia?

But what exactly can HTC do?

First of all, the company has to make a decision. It’s a tough one, but it’s been long overdue. After trading designers for cash, laying off factory workers, and losing top talent, as well as seasoned executives, is there any point in manufacturing and marketing its own phones?

The TCL-made KEY2 looks just like a classic BlackBerry… with a modern twist

That brings us to the most obvious possible solution to these never-ending creative and money problems – a brand licensing agreement. You know, like the ones signed by BlackBerry and Nokia with TCL and HMD Global.

It’s pretty obvious that the HTC brand is still worth something for many people that remember the T-Mobile G1, Evo 4G, or even the HTC One (M7) fondly. But it’s equally obvious that those left to save this sinking ship are all out of ideas, as proven by the underwhelming U12+ and U11+, as well as the empty promise of a blockchain phone (what the heck is that again?).

The U12+ is not a bad phone per se, but it’s a little late for average designs like this

If HTC can find a licensee, preferably a new and ambitious company like HMD, willing to try and save its name in the smartphone business, perhaps the Vive VR division can also grow at a steadier pace, proving once and for all virtual reality is not a gimmick. The HMD example feels fitting from another standpoint as well, since the company was founded specifically to carry on Nokia’s legacy by a number of Nokia and Microsoft veterans. The venture technically came into existence in December 2016, but it never felt like a hesitant startup. It was more a mini-Nokia, and that’s precisely what HTC needs. A new company with big goals, experienced leaders, and a refreshed vision focused on innovation.

Of course, someone like TCL could also help HTC, with more extensive experience in gradually building up brand recognition and a global retail presence. Not to mention more money to invest right off the bat in (smarter) marketing and robust distribution.

Another no-brainer exit from the disastrous situation of the past couple of years would be continuing to live on through Google. It’s unclear if the search giant is interested in acquiring what’s left of HTC, but even if that’s not the case, this fall’s Pixel 3 phones will carry a lot of the Taiwanese company’s DNA. That may not be enough for many hardcore fans, but it’s definitely better than nothing. 

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