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The smartphone maker knows it faces challenges in selling its first camera, but has a strategy to overcome them.
It looks like an inhaler, a submarine periscope, or even a piece of PVC piping.
The HTC Re camera represents a new category for the long-time smartphone maker. CNET
But one thing HTC's newly unveiled Re doesn't look like is exactly what it is: a portable camera. And not just any camera; it's supposed to be the shooter that replaces your smartphone, allowing you to "live in the moment."
The Re camera represents HTC's first major break from its traditional mobile devices business, which has focused largely on smartphones. Re was formulated out of the company's newly established Creative Labs unit, and marks the beginning of its next act -- one in which it branches out with different products, as well as apps and services.
"The smartphone is just the overture of HTC's grand opera," HTC Chairwoman Cher Wang said at the company's launch event Wednesday. "There's so much more beautiful music to be made."
But it starts with the Re, which will face significant challenges as a new entrant in the market. The Re's unusual shape will likely be a source of curiosity but also a potential turn-off as it requires customers get used to the idea of blindly taking photos without a viewfinder. And at $200, it's a pricey purchase. Ultimately, HTC will have to convince consumers that they will actually need another camera when a smartphone does pretty well by itself.
"That's going to be a challenge for HTC," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis. "It's a product in a new category from a brand that's not known for this product category."
Even HTC concedes it faces a steep climb in getting the Re into the hands of consumers.
"We have a lot of work to do to get this in the market," said Jeff Gattis, head of marketing for the emerging devices business.
HTC's main pitch is that by holding the small, lightweight Re instead of a smartphone, you're able to enjoy the moment while simultaneously capturing it.
While on stage at the launch event, Jason Mackenzie, president of HTC's Americas unit, recalled watching a basketball game in which his son was playing. Like any proud dad, he had his smartphone up and was dutifully recording the game. But when it came down to the final, critical seconds, he made the decision to put down the phone and actually watch his son sink a game-winning buzzer beater. While he didn't regret putting the phone down, he said he wished there had also been a good a way to capture the moment for later.
Jason Mackenzie, president of the Americas region for HTC, shows off the Re camera. Sarah Tew/CNET
That's where the Re would come in. "We have to lure them in, then connect them with the problem," Gattis said.
Whether HTC can relay the same kind of story as Mackenzie's anecdote to the public remains to be seen. But early interest has been strong, HTC CEO Peter Chou told CNET at the sidelines of the event.
It was Chou who green-lit the Re four months ago, a surprisingly quick turnaround for any product, let alone one that represents a new category for the company. Initially, HTC had planned a "soft launch," making it available to US consumers through a website. But once HTC began showing the Re around, retailers jumped on board. HTC said the Re would launch in the US "in time for the holidays" but didn't provide more specifics. A launch to other markets is expected to follow.
Amazon and three of the major US carriers -- Verizon Wireless, AT&T and T-Mobile -- plan to sell it. HTC expects a big push at big box retailer Best Buy, where HTC has invested in 32-inch screens running video promos to catch the consumer eye. Gattis said the marketing materials focus on "the moment."
The Re will be sitting near GoPro at Best Buy, but HTC emphatically denied that it was going up against the successful action camera maker. "We're not GoPro; if we went up against them we would lose," Gattis said.
HTC is instead targeting parents who are heavily involved with their children's activities, youthful people with an active social life, and travelers who want to take photos but don't necessarily want to lug around a professional-grade camera. The company plans to tout the Re as fun, durable (it's waterproof) and convenient. With only two buttons on the device, the company focused on simplicity.
Typically, a new product requires heavy marketing, but HTC lacks the resources for a massive campaign. Instead, the company will start slowly, getting the product into the hands of influential people in an effort to build buzz and interest.
It will likely get some play at AT&T, which will exclusively sell the Desire Eye, the selfie phone also unveiled at Wednesday's launch event. The carrier is expected to devote a section in its stores to the two HTC products. Carrier salespeople typically earn more from pushing accessories, so HTC is hopeful the Re will get more enthusiastic support than the typical smartphone.
Even after a consumer begins using the Re, there is the uncomfortable act of blindly taking photos and videos without seeing what's shot. HTC said that it developed an extra-wide-angle camera to ensure the proper image is captured, but it acknowledged that consumer comfort would be a challenge.
Lastly, with a $200 price tag , the Re is outside the "impulse buy" range.
"At $200, it's a tough case to make against many capable point-and-shoots for people who want a separate imaging device," said Ross Rubin, an analyst at Reticle Research.
Gattis conceded that the price is another challenge but said he hoped that the Re would see success at its current price. Eventually, the company would want to bring the price down to tap into the "sweet spot of moms and dads with kids," he added.
"We do think we can bring it down, it's something we can consider," he said. "We can't get to sub-$100 right away."
With the Re, HTC is showing it can still surprise with its music. But whether the little camera is a chart-topper or a flop remains to be seen.
The HTC Re features an unusual shape, and no viewfinder. CNETRoger Cheng Roger Cheng is the executive editor in charge of breaking news for CNET News. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. He's a devoted Trojan alum and Los Angeles Lakers fan. See full bio