Microsoft Surface Phone= HP Elite X3 + Blackberry DTEK 60 + Panasonic FZ-X1?


Currently, there are three companies selling business-focused smartphones at scale.  They are Blackberry, HP Inc., and Panasonic.  Blackberry is using Android, Panasonic has both Android and Windows models (though they position this as a small connected tablet with phone features), and HP Inc. has its HP Elite X3— which is Windows only (and crosses over in full configuration to Geeky cool) and the poster child for Continuum, which was to be Microsoft’s killer app for phones, allowing you to use your phone as a PC, sort of.  

I carry a BlackBerry DTEK 60 myself, largely for the apps, and this phone, and its Blackberry siblings, is the most secure Android phone line in the market.   The Panasonic FZ-X1’s advantage is that it is a truly hardened phone designed to function in hostile environments.  So, Panasonic does both, Blackberry just does Android, and HP just does Windows. 

Next year Microsoft is rumored to release the Surface Phone which, ideally, should learn from all of these current business phones to become something more than a niche device.   The smartphone market used to be better than 90 percent business and now it is closer to 5 percent. Apple showcased that an outside company could step in and disrupt the market, but only with an angle that was uniquely theirs and only when the market was stagnating.  Microsoft has Windows Azure, which is uniquely theirs, and the market is stagnant. 

So, what kind of device might pivot the market again, but this time in Microsoft’s direction?  Let’s talk about that this week.

The Zune Example

I was intimate with the Zune launch and the reason that product failed was horrid execution.  The team knew what they had to do but someone in management thought the list of critical components was “multiple choice” and it was “all of the above.”   To win, Zune needed to be positively differentiated, which it was (on paper); it needed to be well marketed (both funding and execution) ,which is wasn’t; it needed unique content (which it lacked); it needed to be seen as attractive (which it wasn’t); and it needed to be able to migrate iPod users who represented the vast majority of the market (which it didn’t).  They might have been able to get away with missing one element, but the firm missed four of five and became a money hole.

The device was hardened but not attractive and folks were buying looks despite the fact that kids were hard on products; they were afraid to release their iTunes migration tool because of Steve Jobs litigation; they underfunded marketing by a magnitude— it would play video (which the iPod didn’t at the time) but they lacked a video iTunes-like service— and the part they did market was music sharing, which only worked if both people had Zunes and a Microsoft Music subscription.  (Apple was aggressively and effectively marketing against subscription services at the time). 

Had they used a sports focus, where the vastly more robust Zune would have been an advantage, rolled out their iTunes migration product and a Video store, and properly funded marketing, they could have had an iPhone moment.  Oh, I should point out that insiders argued that rather than doing a Zune they should have done an iPhone-like offering years before the iPhone. But they didn’t do that either, likely for the same reason Palm didn’t do it: management thought there was no market for a consumer-focused smartphone. 

Pivoting Back

Just because the market pivots one way doesn’t mean it can’t pivot back.  There are still a massive number of smartphones paid for by businesses and Blackberry that are still largely dominant in government and a number of security-focused business segments.  Oh, and South America.  That showcases there is a market, and the slowing of this segment suggests people are looking for something different.  Let’s talk about what requirements a business-focused smartphone might have. 

  • Security:  Like Blackberry, the phone needs to be resistant to malware, particularly Ransomware, and hacking, yet be easy to get into and use.  An advanced form of Microsoft Hello with facial recognition would be ideal but, at the very least, a fast fingerprint sensor placed on the back of the phone.  
  • Apps:  Everyone has at least one app on their current phone they can’t live without, which means that the phone has to be able to run several key apps from either the iPhone or an Android phone that the user or business needs.  These aren’t specific apps and many likely could be run from the cloud because most require connectivity to work properly anyway.
  • Windows:  Given this is the phone’s “killer feature,” this has to be a nearly no-compromise experience in desktop mode.  But here too they could host the apps on Azure and run them like a current generation low latency thin client (these have improved massively over the years).   But, if they go too cloud heavy, the same thing could be done on an iPhone or generic Android phone, making this less exclusive and reducing the “killer app” aspect.  However, they might actually sell more licenses, making Microsoft more of a software/services firm than a hardware company. 
  • Battery Life:  With most phones going for thin design over big battery, but most users still complaining about battery life, there is an opportunity to trade off thin and get class leading battery life.   The phone is rumored to use the Snapdragon 835 SOC that has QuickCharge 4.0 which means they could charge the device very quickly even with a large battery. 
  • Hardened: They could revisit the Zune hardened case idea but do so with a more attractive design.  This would allow the phone to function in a wider variety of environments (indoor and out) and play better to those who work and play outdoors more.  But the phone should be more robust than the typical iPhone or Android phone. 

Wrapping Up:  Or Something Completely Different?

There are several very different solutions that might work better than a phone.  For instance, how about an Azure instance where your entire desktop was streamed to your phone when docked at your desk.  The phone becomes part of your authentication method and you could then use your existing iOS or Android phone to get a better Continuum Experience than you could ever get running native on an ARM phone.

I think there is an opportunity to flip the smartphone market again, maybe even with a completely different design (something like the Rufus Cuff), but Microsoft will have to execute far better than they did with Zune.  Given Satya Nadella has been solidly out executing Steve Ballmer to date, there is a good chance they may get it right this time.   

Edited by Alicia Young
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President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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