YotaPhone: two screens are better than one

21 Feb 2013

ITEM: Next week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Russian device maker Yota Devices will be showcasing the YotaPhone – a dual-screen LTE smartphone with a standard LCD display on the front, and a black-and-white 4.3” electronic paper display (EPD) screen on the back.

Yota Devices – which has been making Wimax and LTE routers, dongles and modems primarily for the Russian market since 2009 – unveiled the first prototype YotaPhone at last month’s CES event in Las Vegas, and won an innovation award for their trouble. On Wednesday, the company announced it had set up an R&D/sales office in Singapore and tapped local manufacturer Hi-P as its ODM partner for the YotaPhone.

So why two displays?

For a start, says Yota Devices CEO Vlad Martynov, the main purpose of the second screen is to have a way to have items visible for long periods of time without the screen dropping to sleep mode all the time.

“When your smartphone sits on your desk or on a tabletop next to you, the screen is always black to save battery power,” Martynov says. “But maybe you always want it to always display an image of your loved ones, or you want to keep the screen on so you can use a boarding pass or ticket, or keep a map visible even if your battery runs too low.”

The YotaPhone enables users to send content to the rear display, whether it's a photo, a map, an e-book or even a Facebook/Twitter feed. The display isn’t a touch-screen, but users can scroll via a capacitive strip below the screen. When the phone is turned off, the image stays visible, albeit in static mode.

The fact that the EPD screen uses E-ink – the same technology Amazon Kindles use – is significant in that e-books are an obvious app for the second screen. Martynov points to stats claiming that up to 60% of smartphone users also have a Kindle or similar e-book device. “Especially in Russia, it’s not unusual to go on the subway and see people with a smartphone in one hand and a Kindle in the other.”

Yota isn't the first device maker to tackle dual screens – Samsung, Kyocera and NEC have also launched two-screen phones, for example. But those involve dual LCD screens, the main disadvantage of which is heavy power consumption, Martynov says. “EPD uses far less power, and can still display an image when the power is turned off, so it can be always on.”

The YotaPhone on show at MWC will be a prototype – Martynov expects the phone to be available commercially by the end of the year. But the specs are compatible to top-end LTE smartphones on the market: Qualcomm Snapdragon 1.5 GHz dual core chip, custom Gorilla Glass from Corning, 12MP camera, and it runs on Android Jellybean. Martynov notes that those specs will be upgraded between now and commercial launch as smartphone technology improves.

Yota Devices aims to sell a million YotaPhones in the first ten months after launch, 70% of them outside of its home market of Russia (where it currently sells 85% of its other devices).

Martynov says he has been in talks with cellcos in Europe and America, but has high hopes for the Asia-Pacific market as the main international region to drive sales. “That’s partly because China is a huge a market, but it’s also because in Asia-Pacific, we see a lot more early adopters of the latest technology, and more users willing to try new things.”

Whether that includes dual-screen phones remains to be seen. Martynov admits it may take some education to help users grasp the benefits of having a second screen, especially one that’s not even full color (as color E-ink is still a year or two away from commercialization).

He does add that apps developers can help by thinking of creative ways to make use of a dual-screen device. “For example, an e-book reader developer is looking at something where you can read an e-book on the back, highlight text and then go to the front display to share it on Facebook or look it up in a dictionary, then you can just turn the phone back over to resume reading.”

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