As some of you may have noticed, I’m a bit down on the HP Elite x3 as a smartphone. But as a locked-down “3-in-1” PC for businesses only, the Elite x3 could make sense. Maybe.
The issue here is simple: Windows phone has failed as a smartphone platform. It offers little in the way of critical apps outside of Microsoft’s in-box offerings, in particular the Office apps. And mainstream support for Windows phone is getting worse every day, with more and more existing apps silently disappearing from the platform. Even Microsoft has “drained the swamp” of its own Windows phones, and has stopped supporting Skype on the Windows phones that most people use.
So why on earth would HP sell a Windows phone now?
First, HP had no choice: Android doesn’t have the security and manageability choices that HP’s business customers demand. And Apple, of course, is not open to iOS licensing.
Second and perhaps most importantly, HP isn’t positioning the Elite x3 as a smartphone. Consumers aren’t going to see commercials for the device, and they won’t be offered it when they walk into their local AT&T or Verizon retail store. In fact, if you look on HP.com, what you’ll see is that HP doesn’t even have a “Phone” section: This device is found under “Laptops & tablets.”
But HP isn’t marketing the Elite x3 at individuals, and that’s where my “trolling” comes from: I need to be very clear that this is not a device that any individual should purchase, no matter their level of misplaced affection for Windows phone. That ship has sailed, folks. I care about you and how you spend your phone. I cannot with a clear conscience recommend such an expensive purchase.
But then the HP Elite x3 isn’t for you. The HP Elite x3 is aimed at managed businesses with a formal IT infrastructure. The goal is to save those companies money by offering them a complete IT solution—which includes hardware, software, and services—and not just “a phone.” In fact, HP is pretty honest about the fact that most Elite x3 users will still retain their personal smartphone too. After all, normal people like the choices—apps, media ecosystems, and so on—that iPhone and Android provide.
You can see the business focus all over the Elite x3 web site. The device is “designed … for employees,” not for individuals. It is “built for business”, a solution for “traveling professionals” and “your mobile employees.” It’s very clear.
With that in mind, I’m trying to evaluate the HP Elite x3 fairly, and within the context of the market it really serves. Yes, my personal biases are getting in the way here. Partially for the reasons stated above, and partially because I try to focus on personal technologies that benefit real human beings. In many ways, the Elite x3 is an attempt to stem the tide of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and return IT departments to the centralized control they prefer. And I sort of have an issue with that.
That said, it’s also fair to say that BYOD is much stronger in smaller businesses. And that the Elite x3 represents an interesting step forward for more traditional and larger businesses that are wrestling with other modern trends, including the rise of millennials in the workforce and their desire to “work anywhere,” and especially away from the head office. In this new world of work, traditional IT departments find themselves outside their comfort zone, so a device like the Elite x3—which is limited as a phone and requires excellent connectivity to work like a PC—could check some boxes.
So I give HP some credit for at least going for it. I feel that they couldn’t have stacked the deck against themselves more if they tried, but again, that’s just me and my calcified opposition to anything Windows phone related in 2016. (Seriously, you do have to wonder if a future version of this device will simply run Android and solve everyone’s problems. OK, I’ll stop.)
So what is the value proposition here?
According to HP, the Elite x3 is the result of asking customers what they need and then delivering something that meets those needs, and not the reverse. As noted, it’s a solution, not a standalone phone. So it includes other hardware, like a desktop-based Desk Dock and assorted peripherals, and a coming laptop-like Lap Dock. It includes HP software. And of course it includes HP services, most notably the Workspace service that brings datacenter-hosted Windows desktop apps down to a docked Elite x3 so you can use it like a real PC.
Much of what makes the Elite x3 interesting comes of course from Continuum, the Windows 10 Mobile technologies that enable HP to market this device as a “3-in-1.” That is, by itself the Elite x3 is of course a phone, albeit one that is pretty much limited to the in-box apps and a shrinking set of core third-party apps. Attach it to the Desk Doc and a keyboard, mouse, and keyboard, and you have a PC-like solution. And if you hit the road with the Lap Dock, it becomes a laptop of sorts.
At this particular slice in time, Continuum is Microsoft’s sole advantage in the mobile space, and a source of understandable pride in Redmond. I am of the feeling that Continuum capabilities can easily be duplicated by Google with Android, but that’s sort of beside the point: Today, this solution must compete with traditional set ups—most workers have both a smartphone and PC—and emerging threats like Chromebook and iPad Pro. Neither of which are going to sit still for Microsoft or HP.
Continuum speaks to an IT mindset as well. In a world in which individuals routinely sync data to the cloud and then access it from any device, the Elite x3 promises a more familiar experience where data is always available because it’s on that device. Which transforms between phone, laptop, and desktop PC form factors, meaning it provides a different way—and almost old-fashioned way—of ensuring your data is always there. There’s no need to sync.
Looking ahead, the Elite x3, or at least some form of Continuum-based transformable, could very well disrupt the PC market. Today, its complementary, and is, in fact, a PC in all the ways that matter to IT. And that, I think, is what’s really happening here: The Elite x3, despite its limitations, especially as a phone, scratches an itch in IT.
Will it take off? We’ll see. I’ll be looking more at the phone itself, its many peripherals and add-ons, and it supporting services in the weeks ahead. Who knows? Maybe at the end of this, I won’t be so down on the Elite x3. But no promises.