The Devices Formerly Known as Smartphones

Bob O'Donnell / February 23rd, 2016

The Barcelona-based Mobile World Congress trade show has served as the location for major smartphone announcements for a long time, so it’s no surprise to see that happening again this year.

Splashy introductions have been made by Samsung, LG, Lenovo and other usual suspects. But there is an important twist for 2016. It stems from the transformation of smartphone-sized devices that has been going on for several years now. In essence, the question boils down to this: when is a smartphone no longer (or not primarily) a smart ”phone”?

For many younger people, arguably that’s been the case for quite some time. We know they essentially use their phones as mobile computing devices and very rarely use the traditional smartphone features. In fact, in a survey of over 1,000 US consumers done last fall by TECHnalysis Research, voice calling only represents 5.8% of the 18-24-year-old segment’s total smartphone usage time. Even with older consumers in the 45-54 age group, voice calling and texting together only account for just over ¼ of a typical user’s smartphone time. The rest is spent on more computing-device type activities, such as browsing the web, listening to music, gaming, reading email, social media, etc.

Alongside these consumer trends, we’ve seen tremendous changes in work habits. For example, in that same survey, over half of employed respondents said they used a personal phone for work tasks during a typical week, spending an average of 2.3 hours on those efforts. While a good portion of this is likely for email, there’s no question a large amount of time is spent doing work-related, computing-style tasks on our personal smartphones. Throw in the large number of employer-provided smartphones in active use where—theoretically, at least—most of the time spent is on work tasks, and the total hours of computing done on smartphones becomes enormous. Plus, this is just for the US, where PC penetration is quite high. In many developing regions, smartphones are essentially the only computing device many people own or have access to. As a result, smartphone-based computing on a global basis is now on a staggering scale.

Given this context, thinking of a smartphone as more of a traditional computing device than just a communications tool seems incredibly obvious. But for many traditional applications, there is that one thing — screen size.

Now, as someone who finds reading glasses to be an increasingly necessary accessory, I’ll admit I don’t have the razor sharp eyes of my youth. I also acknowledge that it never ceases to amaze me how much today’s young people can do on the 5-5.5”-sized screens the smartphone industry has coalesced around. Still, there is a limit that most people face when it comes to what they can achieve on these smaller screens, particularly when a fair amount of input is required.

That’s why I’m intrigued by HP’s new Elite X3. At first glance, the 6″, Qualcomm Snapdragon 820-powered device looks to be just another smartphone—a Windows 10 Mobile-based one, at that. But, in conjunction with some of the hardware accessories the company specifically developed to be used alongside it, along with the capabilities of Windows 10 Mobile’s Continuum features, the X3 can morph into a full-on, big-screen computing device.

Now, cynics will argue we’ve seen this before. Anyone remember the Motorola Atrix? Or how about Microsoft’s own Lumia 950 from last fall? Both notable but ultimately failed efforts to develop a smartphone form factor computer. The difference with the X3, however, is the focus and detailed vision. On the Atrix and Lumia 950, the computing features were add-ons to an existing smartphone. The X3 seems to be positioned and designed primarily as a computer, with the smartphone capabilities essentially built in.

On the Atrix and Lumia 950, the computing features were add-ons to an existing smartphone. The HP X3 seems to be positioned and designed primarily as a computer, with the smartphone capabilities essentially built in.”

Admittedly, that may sound like semantics and, of course, whether the final execution lives up to the promise remains to be seen. However, a quick glance at some of the details suggests HP has thought things through pretty well. First, the hardware accessories—particularly the clamshell form factor Mobile Extender, with its 12.5” HD screen, three USB Type-C, micro HDMI and audio ports—add a whole new level of connectivity and input options to the phone-based computing experience. You connect the X3 to the Mobile Extender via one of the USB Type-C ports—where you’ll get the added benefit of being able to power and recharge the X3 through the Mobile Extender’s built-in battery—but HP will enable also wireless connections, though that may come after the product launches.

On the software side, because it’s Windows 10 Mobile-based, the full Microsoft Office suite is built-in. As an ARM-based device, however, there is the potential for compatibility problems with existing Windows apps (other than newer universal Windows 10 apps, which can run natively on Windows 10 Mobile ARM devices, but those applications are still very limited in number). To avoid the Windows RT-like incompatibility stigma, HP is working to provide a virtualization-based solution that will allow traditional x86-based apps to run on the X3—a huge boon for most potential users.

Even with all these efforts, it’s not clear to me a device like the X3 will become most people’s only, or even primary, computing device. Nevertheless, in a world where people are looking for more flexible computing options, and are accustomed to working across multiple devices, the X3 concept seems to be well timed.

Mobile World Congress also saw the debut of some smartphone form factor computing devices from Panasonic. The company’s new ToughPad FZ-F1 and FZ-N1 (Windows 10 IOT Mobile Enterprise and Android-based, respectively) are ruggedized, have a 4.7” screen and are Qualcomm Snapdragon 801-equipped handheld computers with integrated barcode scanners. At first glance, they look like ruggedized smartphones with a large protrusion (for the barcode reader) but, interestingly, the company will actually be selling a version that supports WiFi only (and can do voice via VOIP), in addition to an LTE-equipped option. Though clearly not designed to be a general purpose computing device, like the HP X3, these Panasonic FZ devices exemplify how hardware companies are evolving smartphone form factors to meet unique mobile computing needs.

To be sure, the “traditional” smartphone will continue to be the dominant opportunity for these 5” screen-based devices for some time. But as the category matures and dramatic new technology innovations for them continue to slow, it’s clear we’re entering an era where smartphones, as we know them now, will likely cease to be.

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
  • obarthelemy

    Just a niggle: Office on Mobile is not quite full Office, features are missing compared to the x86/desktop version: http://www.howtogeek.com/219866/why-windows-10-offers-two-different-versions-of-microsoft-office/

    It’s weird how Google and Apple left MS to be the first to converge Desktop and Mobile. They could have pushed from their Mobile strength into Desktop 2-3 years ago, instead they just gave time to MS to do the reverse move. MS’s execution is still iffy (Win10 is rather buggy, fairly incomplete as a Mobile OS, and sorely lacking Universal apps), but some Universal apps are bound to pop up, especially with the iOS conversion tool becoming available in the near future, and MS is making incremental progress on the other issues. I think they’re managing to turn this into a long game, and they’re good at that.

    I think Google said they’re working on making Android more xtop-friendly at last. OEMs have been going at it for years (Samsung had a desktop dock for its S4/S5, HP a laptop, Huawei a desktop…). Hopefully this will liven things up. On the entreprise side, there sure is a rationale for sticking with MS warts and all. On the consumer side, there’s no reason to sacrifice Android’s better ecosystem and OS for “old-PC” compatibility.

    • Shameer Mulji

      “They could have pushed from their Mobile strength into Desktop 2-3 years ago, ”

      I can’t speak for Google, but there’s a good chance Apple may end up doing just that.

      https://loumiranda.com/2015/12/17/10-clues-to-the-future-of-universal-apps-and-the-apple-app-store/

      • aardman

        Deleted by poster

      • Kizedek

        Meanwhile, Ford sold 70 million El Caminos this quarter.

      • obarthelemy

        I’m really not getting Apple’s reluctance to move faster. Especially since they have mostly standardized on touchmice and touchpads that would even support multi-touch gestures, let alone pointing/selecting/zooming/one-finger gestures that any old mouse can support and that are all that’s needed really.
        I suspect they fear losing expensive Mac sales to inexpensive iOSBox sales ?

        I’m on the Android side, and I mightily appreciate the ability to
        – use a mouse with my tablets (use it daily)
        – run Android on my non-touch PC/Laptops (use it several times per week)
        – remote to/from Android from/to Windows (use it several times per month)
        What’s striking is that a lot of Android apps are better than Windows apps, especially when there’s no Windows app only a web app, but even for many actual Windows executables, and I’m not talking about Universal apps, even good’ol Win32 GDI apps.

        OEMs/Jide/Rockchip’s scattered efforts are not good enough though, we need Google for that last fraction of a mile (slightly better mouse support, standard split-screen and PIP multitasking, CUA keyboard shortcuts… that’s all I really miss)

  • davebarnes

    Microsoft is doomed in the mobile market. Their product offerings no longer matter. Even an insanely great product will get zero traction.

    • observer

      That doesn’t stop Microsoft from continuing to pour money into a lost cause – and calling it Windows, of course.

      Steve Ballmer may be gone, but his market views remain.

    • GJSmyth

      Microsoft knows they have missed the mark in the current generation of what we call ‘mobile’.
      This product from HP, and Windows 10 UWP in general, is Microsoft’s effort to consolidate efforts on what is *next* in portable computing by leveraging from their existing strengths in he corporate world and desktop/productivity. Mary Jo Foley’s interview with Satya Nadella bears this out: http://www.zdnet.com/article/ceo-nadella-talks-microsofts-mobile-ambitions-windows-10-strategy-hololens-and-more/

      This new product from HP, and others like it, should be measured against these markers of success which are different from the current consumer smartphone market.

      • Shameer Mulji

        The UWP is a good strategy. The biggest achilles heel for MS’ strategy is over-reliance on Intel. There’s little incentive for developers to create UWP apps because they know there’s a wide variety of apps (and the most used apps) are built on “legacy” Win32 code. Add the fact that Windows Mobile has such a minuscule market share, it just compounds the problem.

        • GJSmyth

          The BIG push around Windows 10 desktop seems to be all about building a market for UWP apps that, in turn, helps the value proposition for Windows 10 Mobile.
          The HP Elite X3 has an interesting ability to run virtualised legacy Win32 apps through the HP Workspace app on Windows 10 Mobile. This is meant to deal with the line of business apps that “will never be converted to native mobile apps”.

  • GJSmyth

    Nice to see some coverage of this – a very interesting device and forward looking vision for portable computing.

    “Anyone remember the Motorola Atrix? Or how about Microsoft’s own Lumia
    950 from last fall? Both notable but ultimately failed efforts to
    develop a smartphone form factor computer. The difference with the X3,
    however, is the focus and detailed vision.”

    Part of the HPs focus and vision for this device is that it is developed for corporate clients on the basis of their many and varied requirements which is why it is max-ed out in the spec department, including finger print & iris biometric auth for example as well as the provision of connection ‘pogo’ pins on the back for h/ware extensibility.

    This business client focus is really what sets it apart from the Atrix and Lumia – The Envy X3 is not intended to be a mass-market consumer device. It will get compared to iPhone/Android sales as demonstration of being a ‘failure’ – however ‘success’ for HP will be measured in 10s to 100s of thousands of units and not 10s of millions.

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