Microsoft's Lumia 950 XL looks deceivingly like a flagship Android phone

With the recently announced Lumia 950 XL Windows Phone, Microsoft aims to replicate the success it had with its Surface tablet in the smartphone market.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL smartphone

The specifications of Microsoft's recently announced Lumia 950 XL Windows phone could easily be mistaken for those of a flagship Android smartphone like the Nexus 6. Both are powered by a Snapdragon 810, both have 3GB of RAM, both feature 560x1440-pixel, 5.7-inch screens, and both can shoot 4K video. Its ecosystem won't be mistaken for Android's, though.

Like Apple MacBooks benefit from powerful, efficient, and cost-reduced Intel processors and the WinTel supply chain, Microsoft's smartphones benefit from the powerful, efficient, and cost-reduced Qualcomm processors and the Android supply chain. Lumias are built with the same Qualcomm reference designs as Android smartphones. The only difference between Google and Microsoft's smartphones is the operating system, logos, and, most importantly, the ecosystems.

With Windows 10, the Lumia 950 XL purports to be something more than a smartphone. It can become a personal productivity hub when connected to a dock, keyboard, and monitor. The Windows 10 operating system limits its ecosystem to Microsoft's, which could make it a much better desktop than the smartphone it could be if it had Android's mobile ecosystem.

Microsoft seeks the same acclaim from the 950 XL that it won with the Surface Pro, delivering one device that serves two purposes. The 950 XL will fall short, though. Mixing the ecosystem of a smartphone with the productivity of a desktop PC is very different than mixing a tablet with a keyboard for personal productivity.

Smartphones and notebooks are necessities, but tablets aren't essential. Tablets are jettisoned from backpacks and briefcases because the functions are redundant to the other two devices. By combining a tablet with the MS Office personal productivity suite and a keyboard, Microsoft extended its tablet into the well-understood functions of ultrabooks – arguably cannibalizing some ultrabook sales and moving into the necessity category. But there isn't a pre-existing category that the 950 XL can cannibalize by adding an external monitor and a keyboard. 

The 950 XL has two limitations compared to the Surface Pro 3 and 4 as a productivity hub with a keyboard and monitor. In this configuration, the 950 XL lacks the portability of a Surface Pro to be snapped shut and tossed into a backpack. The 950 XL is compatible with Universal Windows Platform (UWP). Surface Pros are Win32/X86-compatible and UWP-compatible, availing the user to many more apps.

Compared to the Android smartphone that the 950 XL resembles, it lacks a real consumer app ecosystem. There are about 600,000 apps on the Windows Store that, on the surface, compare favorably to the Apple App Store and Google's Play Store, each with about 1.5 million apps. Most of Microsoft's apps are desktop apps, whereas all of Apple's and Google's are mobile apps. Microsoft recently gained some top-10 apps in Facebook and Instagram, but it only has three of the top-10 overall mobile apps, according to Comscore.

Microsoft is still suffering because consumers wait for apps to appear before buying a Windows phone, and app developers wait for consumers to buy enough Windows phones to give them a return on their UWP app-porting investment. But in a mobile-first consumer market, IDC projects that Microsoft will control just 3.2% of the smartphone market at the end of 2015, compared to Android's near-80% market dominance, making UWP ports uncommon.

The 950 XL might be a good desktop with limited portability in the docked configuration, depending on performance for consumers who don't need backward X86 compatibility. Until it strengthens its ecosystem, it's a weak consumer smartphone.

A few days ago, Google and Microsoft issued a joint statement when the two companies settled their patent disputes, according to Reuters:

"Google and Microsoft have agreed to collaborate on certain patent matters and anticipate working together in other areas in the future to benefit our customers."

If this means Google and Microsoft will work together to port Android's ecosystem, YouTube, Google Play, Google Search, Google Maps, and Gmail, Microsoft would have 8 of the 10 Comscore top apps. That would certainly make the Lumia much more attractive to consumers than a keyboard and external monitor.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.