The long-rumored HP Elite x3 will cheer beleaguered Windows phone fans, even though this new smart phone isn’t aimed at them, or at the retail market. Instead, the Elite x3 is just part of a compelling end-to-end solution aimed at businesses looking to simplify the transition to a more mobile workforce.
So, yes, HP is making a Windows 10 Mobile-based phone. And yes, it is a high-end, flagship-caliber device with heady, next-generation specifications, an amazing stable of accessories, and a third-party hardware extensibility story that is unlike anything seen before in the smart phone market, Windows phone or otherwise.
But the Elite x3 can’t save Windows phone. HP’s stunning hardware can’t put an end to the app gap. And it won’t trigger a renewed effort to sell Windows phones at retail. (Indeed, the Elite x3 will never be sold at retail or via any wireless carrier.)
In many ways, the Elite x3 has very little to do with Windows phone as we’ve traditionally known it. Instead, HP is further embracing Windows 10 and—as important, I believe—the Universal Windows Platform as the way forward for its commercial customers. The complete x3 system is a way to mobilize business work forces that might previously been stuck on thin-clients, older PCs, or quirky one-off solutions.
I spoke with HP about this device and asked the obvious questions. Yes, they looked into both iPhone and Android first. Apple, predictably, was a non-starter, but I was more curious to hear that Google couldn’t or wouldn’t provide HP with the security and management infrastructures its commercial customers demanded. And I asked about Intel and was interested to hear that Intel’s phone chipsets are still “years” behind ARM and nowhere near ready. (That fact could chill rumors of an Intel-powered Surface phone happening this year.) So an ARM-powered Windows phone it is.
According to HP, the Elite x3 ecosystem–remember, it’s not just a phone—is the result of customer feedback. No, no companies asked HP to build a Windows phone. But what they did ask for, apparently, was a single device that could be used everywhere, managed easily, and connect to the back-end apps they’re already using.
And I know what you’re thinking. How could a Windows phone—an ARM-based Windows phone–possibly meet those needs?
HP’s solution is surprisingly elegant, though it of course relies on one big assumption: The ready availability of high-quality broadband Internet. So the x3 is a phone, of course. It is a PC when connected to a Continuum-based dock, screen, keyboard, and mouse, and using Remote Desktop or Citrix technologies to access Datacenter-based legacy applications. And most intriguingly, it is even a laptop, when used in tandem with HP’s laptop-looking Mobile Extender (and, again, those back-end legacy apps).
But there’s more.
As it turns out, not all of the users at HP’s commercial customers sit at a desk. Instead, HP serves a diverse and massive set of different customer types, each with its own unique needs. So HP is creating a hardware extensibility program so that others can extend the capabilities of the x3, via pogo pins on the back, with hardware “jacket extensions,” enabling the handset to be used in virtually any environment: Retail, medical, health care, field service, whatever. (When I joked that they should call this “jacket extension” system “iPAQ,” I was met with a blank stare. Yes, that joke should have killed. Anyway.)
This extensibility program will need some time to get off the ground, which is why HP is announcing the Elite x3 now, in February: Over the next 6 months or so, HP will work with its vertical market partners to help them develop compelling add-on peripherals. And then HP can ship a complete system in “very late summer,” which I take to mean September/October. It will not be sold at retail, but HP—in yet another unique twist—is working with carriers around the world (AT&T here in the U.S., but not Verizon) to ensure that the x3 is “certified” on their networks.
To me, that is the most interesting thing about the Elite x3: HP will simply bypass the normal retail sales baloney that has doomed Windows phone from the start. So instead of having to compete with the iPhones and Samsungs of the world, the Elite x3 can instead be seen for what it is: Another commercial PC design. And when you think about how well such PCs must sell—what? 500,000 units at best for the most popular models?—I have no doubt that HP can turn the x3 into a viable business.
So let’s look at the phone itself. I know that’s all you really care about.
The HP Elite x3 is all business, and its next-generation internals reads like a nerd’s wish list. It’s powered by a 64-bit, quad-core 2.15 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 820-8996 processor, 4 GB of LPDDR4 RAM, 64 GB of internal storage (with microSD expansion to—wait for it—2 TB), and next generation networking: a Cat 6 LTE modem and 2×2 AC Wi-Fi. The AMOLED screen is humongous at 6-inches, just like the Lumia 1520, but runs at an astonishing WQHD (2560 x 1440) resolution, and is protected by Gorilla Glass 4.
Sit down, there’s more.
The x3 has two front-facing speakers, both at the bottom of the screen when held normally (in portrait), but angled so that they provide a nice field of stereo sound. It has microphone arrays with Active noise cancellation. It has dual SIMs, of course, and is USB-C based. The cameras look impressive—16 MP out back and 8 MP up front—but I have yet to test them. And it sports two—yes two—biometric security devices: An iris scanner on the front and a fingerprint reader on the back (like the Nexus 5X and 6P; the fingerprint reader isn’t on the prototypes HP is currently showing off). Why two? Because some users—imagine a line worker up on a pole in the winter—can’t use the fingerprint reader in the field easily.
The battery is enormous at 4150 mAh because, as HP puts it, the x3 has got to last all day. (By comparison, the iPhone 6S Plus has a smaller 2915 mAh battery.)
Whew. That is a lot of phone.
And it’s backed by some great, business-class accessories. The Desk Dock is a Continuum dock, much like Microsoft’s, though it’s a bit bigger and of much sturdier construction. It even includes a rubber micro-suction bottom so it stays glued to the desk, which is a nice touch. Expandability is as expected: Gigabit Ethernet, DisplayPort out for video, two USB 3.0 ports, and one USB-C port. You get rapid charging capabilities.
The Mobile Extender (or as HP thinks of it, the “me dock”) is even more interesting. This Continuum-based laptop-like accessory packs a 12.5-inch 1080p near-borderless screen, a full-sized keyboard, and a 48 wH battery that HP says is good for “at least” 24 hours of life. There’s no CPU, RAM or storage in the Mobile Extender because all that is in the phone. And you you can pair the phone wirelessly or with USB-C, meaning you can leave it in your pocket or briefcase and still get to work: Just open the screen and connect and you’re good to go.
When you add this all up, what you get is a pretty compelling commercial solution, though I still have questions about how users will react to a phone with no viable app ecosystem. (Today’s business customers are used to a BYOD world dominated by iPhone and Android, and I could see this not pleasing some users.)
And for Microsoft, it’s a nice nod to the Universal Windows Platform because HP will help its customers move LOB and other internal apps to UWP where possible, while giving users more mobile access to the apps they use today. HP’s system is called HP Workspace, and as noted it can use either Remote Desktop or Citrix on the back-end.
Will HP’s commercial customers go for this? According to HP, they already have: Over 50 percent of HP’s commercial customers said that the Elite x3 could replace a tablet, and 36 percent said it could replace a notebook. 75 percent of decision makers at these firms were “highly interested in this platform,” HP told me.
So we’ll see. We’ll see whether the Elite x3 is the start of a new direction for Windows phone, and whether Microsoft’s erstwhile mobile efforts can finally find success outside of the smartphone norm. But regardless of what does happen with the platform, HP has shown that it’s possible for a company other than Microsoft/Nokia to make a truly kick-ass Windows phone. And I’m curious how or if the rumored Surface phone could even match what HP has accomplished here. Indeed, the x3 makes the very notion of a Surface phone a whole lot murkier.