By Tarmo Virki and Clare Jim
BARCELONA/TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan's HTC Corp, the world's No. 5 smartphone maker, launched a range of models on Sunday, packing advanced cameras and music functions into new designs in a push to recover from a rapid fall from grace in a challenging and fickle market.
The new phones, unveiled at the Barcelona Mobile World Congress, are crucial for HTC in its battle with Samsung Electronics and Apple Inc, a fight it was losing at the end of last year when its sales slumped and investors dumped its shares on concerns it had lost its edge.
That fall had been as rapid as HTC's rise from obscure contract maker to designer of must-have smartphones, and analysts said that its approach with the new devices represents a pragmatic choice for a company that lacks the resources of its big-pocketed rivals.
"HTC seems to have learned from mistakes it made in 2011," said Malik Saadi, Principal Analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media.
"The company aims now to concentrate on what they do best and have built their brand on: bringing innovation through design of premium devices rather than spreading efforts across all segments of the market."
The HTC One series consists of three models, the One X, One S and One V, running the latest version of Google's Android software.
The phones feature HTC's ImageSense camera technology that the company says offers photography on a par with traditional digital cameras, including fast autofocus and low-light shooting. They also have photo storage and sharing software.
The phones have fast processors for graphics and either polycarbonate or metal cases the company says are harder and more resilient than standard ones.
Music features include integrating Internet radio and using audio technology from Beats Electronics, which HTC bought last year, for games as well as music.
LOOKING OVER THEIR SHOULDERS
HTC said 144 mobile operators -- the widest carrier support for the firm so far -- have agreed to carry HTC One range models starting from April.
"The products look competitive, but HTC executives will be looking over their shoulders nervously to see how these new devices stack up against rival Android smartphones also being announced at the show," said Ben Wood, head of research at CCS Insight.
Analysts note however that, as most mobile vendors are building their phones around similar themes, making it harder to differentiate models, companies will need to look to software, innovation, distribution and building partnerships to stay ahead of the game.
"HTC's strategy to streamline its branding and to offer fewer, better-differentiated products is a reaction to both market forces and engineering necessity," said Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum.
"Its decision to focus on perfecting core smartphone functionality around camera and music playback is an extremely pragmatic one."
HTC said earlier this month that it anticipated a drop in revenue of as much as 36 percent for the first quarter, well below analysts expectations.
The former contract maker had a fairytale ride in 2010 and early 2011, when its shares more than tripled in the 14 months to April 2011 and sales grew four-fold in 1- years as consumers snapped up its innovative phones with their distinctive large clock numerals.
But an equally rapid fall from grace saw its stock become the worst performer among global smartphone companies last year, down 42 percent.
(Writing by Jonathan Standing; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Alex Richardson)