Keith Hartsfield may well have the toughest sales job in the tech industry.
The corporate vice-president in charge of mobility products at HP, he’s the man in charge of HP’s ambitious re-entry into the mobile phone business.
On the face of it, that’s a tough job as it is. When HP’s Elite x3 Windows 10 Mobile device goes on sale some time between now and September, HP will essentially be trying to sell a Microsoft-powered phone at the very time Microsoft itself appears to be backing away from the idea.
In May, Microsoft said it would sell its Nokia phone business to the Chinese phone maker Foxconn, a deal which directly affects only its low-cost “feature phones”, but Microsoft officials have also said they are no longer focusing on high-end Windows 10 Mobile phones, at least not in 2016. With Windows 10 Mobile capturing only a tiny fragment of the market in most countries – Windows accounted for just 2.8 per cent of Australian phone sales in the three months to April this year, according to figures from Kantar Worldpanel, and in the US that figure was just 1.3 per cent – the software giant is believed to have narrowed its focus to Windows 10, which has been far more successful and has now been installed on more than 300 million PCs, laptops and tablets around the world, according to Microsoft.
But selling Microsoft-powered phones when Microsoft seems to have given up trying is not even the toughest part of Keith Hartsfield’s job.
No doubt to distance itself from Microsoft’s mobile phone troubles, but also to capitalise on HP’s position as the world’s number one maker of commercial PCs, HP plans to pitch the Elite x3 not as a mobile phone, but as a “next-generation” computer for businesses, designed to free up workers from having to carry around notebook PCs.
A PC replacement
Hartsfield doesn’t just have to convince people to replace their Android or Apple phone with a Windows 10 Mobile phone. They have to replace their PCs as well.
“If I tell you that we’re releasing a Windows phone, you’re going to be like, ‘Yeah, why would you do that?’,” Hartsfield told The Australian Financial Review.
“But if I tell you that as leaders in the commercial computing space we’re going to redefine computing [with a device] that happens to make voice calls and sit in your pocket, that’s something different,” Hartsfield says.
HP says it won’t be selling the device though mobile phone carriers, but rather through its regular computer resellers and integrators. And nor will it be sold just as a phone, Hartsfield says: customers will only be able to buy it bundled either with a “Lap Dock” – a laptop-type device that has no computer power of its own, but which connects to the Elite x3 and supplies it with a big screen, a keyboard, trackpad and an extra battery – or a “Desk Dock”, which connects to phone to desktop devices including a screen, keyboard, mouse and extra storage.
Pricing for the bundles has yet to be set, but HP was aiming to make the Elite x3 and Lap Dock bundle “significantly” cheaper than it would cost to buy a phone and a regular laptop.
The strategy is based around a feature in Windows 10 Mobile known as “Continuum”, which allows the operating system to create a second display on an external monitor, a display that looks and acts more like a Windows 10 PC than a Windows phone. Many of Microsoft’s own business applications, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint, have already been rewritten to work in Continuum, providing users with a phone-like experience when they view the app on the phone’s own screen, and with a PC-like experience, replete with keyboard and mouse control, when they open the same app on a second, larger screen.
“We’re probably leading Microsoft a little bit on Continuum, because I think we’ve had a lot deeper thoughts about how powerful the features can become for next-gen computing. We’re pushing really hard and I think we have a deeper vision of where Continuum should be in the market,” Hartsfield says.
That thinking has been informed by research HP conducted into how people used mobile phones.
Millennials, Hartsfield says, already use their phones as computers anyway, so coming up with a computer that actually is a phone is not as big a stretch as it might sound to older generations.
“I would consume media on a phone, but I would never create a spreadsheet on it,” he says. “But the data says that millennials don’t share that opinion. Independent of computing task, almost two thirds of the time they reach for the one-handed device.”
And even for older generations, the phone has begun to replace the PC for certain tasks. HP’s research found that more than 40 per cent of the population of any age will use their phone to reply to an email, even when they’re sitting right in front of a PC with their email app on the screen.
“That’s amazing to me,” Hartsfield says.
“The phone is a very personal device. It’s the only device that you typically hold against your face. It’s the only device that people will take with them almost everywhere.”
Part of HP’s pitch to business will simply be that it’s easier for organisations to manage one, universal device – a phone that doubles as a PC when you attach a screen – than it is to manage both phones and PCs.
“The beauty of the solution from an [IT manager’s] perspective is, there are fewer endpoints. The phone is the only device that has a brain and gets managed. The Lap Dock and the Desk Dock are just dumb peripherals. They’re accessories. There are no brains in them, so there’s nothing to manage.”
Just how many brains there are in HP’s attempt to reinvent computing seems to be something of an open question, though.
Foad Fadaghi, managing director of the telecommunications consultancy Telsyte, says the strategy does present HP with a way to “outflank” competitors in the mobile phone space by harnessing HP’s strength in the enterprise market. However, it faces two significant challenges.
One challenge is that it relies on enterprises buying the HP phones for their workers, at a time when it’s more popular for workers to supply their own phones. Forty-six per cent of Australian enterprises support the so-called “bring your own device” method of rolling out technology, but only 29 per cent support the “choose your own device” method that HP would rely on, according to Telsyte figures.
The other challenge is that Windows 10 Mobile in Continuum mode simply isn’t as good as Windows 10 as a computer platform.
If workers don’t want to use Windows phones as phones, and if they’re not as good as PCs at computing, then why bother?
For his part, HP’s Keith Hartsfield admits his next-generation computer revolution is still in its early days, with problems that need to be ironed out.
“It won’t be all things to all people, but it will be meaningful for a significant number of people in the beginning,” he says.
John Davidson was flown to Singapore by HP for this story
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