Inside HP's plan to turn smartphones into wire-free laptops

HP returns to the smartphone market with the Elite X3, and has a three-year plan for success

HP's Elite X3 smartphone

HP's Elite X3 signals the company's return to smartphones.

Credit: HP

HP's decision to return to the smartphone market with the Elite X3 wasn’t an easy one, especially given the company's history of failure in the market for handsets.

HP's ill-fated, 2010 acquisition of Palm, which it ended up jettisoning by 2014, has weighed heavily on the company.

After HP's high hopes for Palm's WebOS for smartphones were dashed, there was mixed opinion and many internal discussions over the viability of a return to the market. In the end, HP concluded that smartphone buyers could not be ignored. Smartphones are playing a larger role in computing since they can almost match laptops in horsepower and the sorts of software they can run.

The company is taking a cautious approach though, establishing a three-year timeline for success. HP is targeting the Elite X3 -- which has a 5.96-inch screen and runs Windows 10 Mobile -- at enterprises, but is open to launching a consumer handset, said Michael Park, general manager and global head of mobility at HP.

HP is trying to differentiate the Elite X3, announced in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress, from the competition by positioning it as a smartphone that can double as a laptop. Users can hook up a screen, mouse and keyboard and turn the super-fast Elite X3 into a laptop, according to Park.

Previous efforts to introduce handsets with similar capabilities have failed, the most notable example being Motorola's Atrix, which was launched in 2011. But Park said changes in technology have allowed HP to develop a smartphone that can act as a laptop when needed.

The Windows 10 OS was instrumental in allowing HP to "flex form factors," Park said. Windows 10 lets developers to create so-called universal applications that can run across multiple platforms and allow smartphones to access desktop applications from the cloud, Park said.

The Elite X3 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, which is one of the fastest mobile chips available. The chip -- which is also targeted at tablets and PCs -- is three times faster than similar Qualcomm processors from three years ago.

HP has a three-phase plan for the smartphone market. The first is to release the Elite X3, which will come out later this year. The second is to work with third-party developers and resellers to tweak legacy Windows applications so that they run in the cloud and can be accessed from  smartphones.

Elite X3 users will be able to fire up cloud-based desktop applications via the HP Workspace, a virtualized desktop program.

Microsoft's Project Centennial is designed to help developers bring existing code to Windows 10 and run applications in Azure, with the development process in some cases taking just a few days, Park said. Microsoft will maintain a catalog of available applications, and HP will certify resellers to assist customers in the conversion of applications to the cloud.

But many large desktop applications won't move to cloud, and conventional PCs will be needed for those programs, Park acknowledged. A Web-based delivery model for larger applications requires bandwidth, which remains a problem, Park said.

Park would not talk about the third phase, but hinted at something that could involve moving to hands-free computing, perhaps with technology revolving around wearables and the Internet of Things. He gave the example of a firefighter, wearing a suit full of sensors feeding environmental and other relevant data to assist in rescue operations. That particular scenario may take a long time to become reality, but Park said computing is headed in that direction.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether HP comes out with a consumer smartphone, though Park didn't dismiss the idea. HP has been cutting many low-margin tablets and PCs from its line-up in order to improve profitability.

The Elite X3 has 4GB of LPDDR4, 802.11ac Wi-Fi and a microSD slot for up to 2TB of storage. Corning's Gorilla Glass 4 technology lends ruggedness to the screen. It has an eight-megapixel camera, and "dual biometrics" that include iris detection and a fingerprint reader. It has dual SIMs and a large battery that could provide a full day and perhaps more of run time. HP didn't provide exact battery life.

The company is also selling add-ons like a desk dock that has USB-C, USB-A and Ethernet ports. The dock can be used to charge the phone or connect handsets to wired networks, DisplayPort monitors or external peripherals like storage drives.

Another interesting accessory is a "Mobile Extender" that provides a full-fledged laptop experience when linked up wirelessly to the smartphone. The Mobile Extender has the looks of a laptop with a keyboard and 12.5-inch display, and can also link up with the Elite X3 through a USB Type-C cable. The Mobile Extender has no storage or memory of its own and all the computing power is drawn from the Elite X3. 

HP did not provide a specific release date or pricing for the Elite X3.

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