September 6, 2011
“If you have a vision, no matter how difficult things are, everything just becomes a process.”
– Cher Wang on her view of the hand-held device’s future after the early 2000s
Today they are called “smartphones” and they are everywhere. But a little over ten years ago when Cher Wang, Chairperson and Co-Founder of Taiwanese HTC Corp, urged her team to design phones that were much like hand-held personal computers (PCs), they were anything but a hit. Still, with Cher Wang at the helm, HTC transitioned from an obscure hand-held device designer to a brand name that is vying to battle technology stalwarts like Apple.
Viewed as one of the most powerful women in the technology space, Wang has made it to the 20th spot on Forbes list of the World’s Most Powerful Women (2011). Along with her husband Wen-chi Chen, she takes the number one spot on the Forbes richest Taiwanese list this year, with a combined fortune of around $8.8 billion.
Fame and fortune precede her. Wang is the daughter of one of Taiwan’s most successful businessmen, Y.C. Wang, who co-founded the conglomerate — Formosa Plastics Group. She is one among nine of Y.C. Wang’s children from two wives. With an admired entrepreneur for a father Cher Wang seemingly had a lot to live up to.
Determined to make her own mark, she attended California’s College Preparatory School in 1974, and later Berkeley. Wang, who originally wanted to be a pianist, was first admitted to Berkeley as a music major, but switched gears mid-stream, earning a master’s degree in economics instead. Wang cut her teeth in the technology domain at First International Computer, a computer products manufacturing unit presided over by one of her sisters. But it took several years for Cher Wang’s inner entrepreneur to surface. In 1997, at the age of 39, she launched HTC along with associates HT Cho and Peter Chou.
Until 2006 though, HTC was not a name that the average person recognized. When it was first founded, the firm used to sell notebook PCs. It was Chairperson Wang who urged her top management to shift the company’s focus away from its bread-and-butter notebook computer business to hand-held devices. The journey was a long one, but ultimately, her judgment proved correct.
So, HTC began designing and manufacturing some of the first wireless hand-held devices for its larger clients. In the late 90s, HTC was one of the few hardware makers creating hand-held devices that functioned on the basis of a human touch, rather than buttons. It wasn’t long before HTC played an instrumental role in the creation of hand-held PCs and personal digital assistant (PDAs). The predecessors of smartphones, these devices performed functions of regular PCs and laptops, but were small enough to fit in the palm of a human hand. At the time, HTC’s design was seen on the iPAQ — a successful predecessor of today’s tablet PC that was marketed by erstwhile PC supplier giant Compaq. iPAQ’s success put HTC on the radar of international wireless service providers and carriers who wanted HTC to design their hand-held devices.
Unfortunately for HTC and other developers, the market then was just not ready for this innovation. Consumers were unwilling to accept these hand-held mini-computers. They found the user interface unfriendly and the screens too small. These market sentiments threw the future of the entire hand-held device space into doubt. But Wang was unfazed. And perhaps the business acumen running in her veins contributed to her resolve to persist with the technology.
“HTC had strong engineers developing notebooks. But it was a
volatile business with lots of competitors. She saw that clearly and
pushed for the other instead.”
- Wen-chi Chen to the New York Times in 2006 on his wife’s decision
to shift HTC’s focus to hand-held devices
Along the way, HTC’s dynamic Chairperson was also in charge of the company’s relationships with customers, including Microsoft. Building a rapport with Microsoft executives, she secured HTC a deal to use the Windows Mobile operating system on the devices it designed. Incidentally, HTC also designed the first Microsoft 3G phone in 2005.
It was only a year later that Wang and her team made a decision that brought the company out of the shadows and into the public eye. After years of designing and making phones and hand-held PCs for others, HTC finally announced that it would make and sell products under its own name. Since then, HTC has released a series of products, with its most recent quarter seeing the launch of four new smartphones and two new tablets.
On her trips to Silicon Valley during HTC’s early days, Wang had also established ties with German T-Mobile’s executives. In 2008, those alliances proved critical when HTC launched HTC Dream — the world’s first smartphone that used Google’s Android mobile operating system — in a marketing collaboration with T-Mobile. This was another instance where Wang was able to sense market trends and succeed at catching the wave.
Indeed, Google’s Android operating system is today posing a formidable challenge to Apple and Microsoft mobile operating systems. And, with Steve Jobs stepping down, there have been concerns that Apple might not be able to increase its share in the smartphone pie as easily now. Of course, HTC and other top smartphone makers are waiting on the sidelines for just such an opportunity.
After creating a brand name for itself through hardware innovations, HTC is now planning to concentrate on developing the content aspect of its smartphone business, namely the support of applications or apps. Much like its strategy in the past, the firm has positioned itself in the right direction, appointing a Chief Content Officer to chalk out this critical strategy.
Today HTC, which once faced troubled waters for designing hand-held PC and PDA hardware, is the fifth largest smartphone vendor. In the second quarter, HTC’s share in the global smartphone market was 11%, up from 6.8% last year. Although Taiwan is a well-known global manufacturing outsourcing hub, HTC is one among a handful of Taiwanese brands to be recognized on the global stage for its own products.
Much to Cher Wang’s credit, HTC remains well-positioned in the smartphone market and ready to pounce on future opportunities. And with this, Wang, who also chairs her husband’s chip-making unit VIA Technologies, is close to recreating her father’s financial success. Even so, the mother of two reportedly does not define herself by her wealth. Despite being one of the most powerful women in the technology world, it is said that she prefers a simple life, shunning private jets and lavish dinners with associates. After all, having your feet firmly planted on the ground and maintaining a clear head may be what it takes in this cutthroat tech world. Indeed, in Wang’s own words to Forbes in 2006 – “If you have a vision, no matter how difficult things are, everything just becomes a process.”
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