As iPhones Chug Along, A Russian Telco Rethinks Smartphones
You have to really hunt for cool innovations in smartphones these days. When big players like Samsung and LG Electronics launch new phones this February at Mobile World Congress, the big differentiators will be higher resolutions, more powerful cameras, longer battery life. Samsung's upcoming Galaxy S4 will (shock) probably have a larger screen. Future iterations of Apple's iPhone may be bigger, or cheaper. Please try not to fall asleep.

Five years ago was one of the last moments for big innovation in mobile devices, when Apple introduced the first iPhone and did two crazy things. 1) It dropped the physical keyboard. 2) It swapped out a stylus for the humble human finger.

Now it is upstarts like YotaPhone introducing crazy, new features. Vladislav Martynov, CEO of Yota Devices, is currently walking around with a two-screen phone in his pocket -- the first build of the YotaPhone. Weighing 140 grams and running Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, it has a normal LCD screen on the front, and an e-ink screen on the back, like the one you'd find on Amazon's Kindle.

Till now, no other phone maker has exploited the empty backside of a phone. The only thing that came close was Samsung's "Upstage" in 2007, which had a small music player on the back. YotaPhone is different - it's big at 4.3 inches, and always on. When the battery dies, it's still on. If you've ever stored your boarding pass on a mobile phone, that's useful if your battery dies just as you get to the gate.

Martynov claims Yota's e-ink screen is only a slight drain on battery life, and it's large enough to display photos, notifications and book pages. For now, you can just "pin" screenshots from the front screen to the back screen, like a photo. But Yota is working on dynamic apps like an e-reader and email notification system for the back screen. It will also release an API that lets other developers create apps that take advantage of the back screen.

Martynov thinks this can fundamentally change the way people use their phones: less hunched-over-button-pressing, more casual glancing. "You always need to wake it up," he says, pressing the home button of his iPhone. "And then it disappears. On the electronic paper screen the notifications are on all the time. You don't have to interact with it." He looks down and fiddles with the iPhone again. "I hate doing this."

The electronic paper display on the back of a YotaPhone.
The electronic paper display on the back of a YotaPhone.
Aside from a permanent way to personalize your phone by displaying a constant photo or graphic, Martynov envisions different uses for the second screen. Moscow's book-lovers might use it as an e-reader on the subway, Japan for comics and anime, Americans for social media. "I believe the concept will work in every country," he says.

Yota is planning to launch its phone in Russia in the third quarter of this year, most likely targeting high-end price points. He's also in talks with major U.S. carriers to get it in the hands of American consumers by the end of 2013. Yota Devices' parent company makes modems and LTE networking services, so it should be able to make it itself compatible with the dizzying array of wireless standards used by the likes of AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, if any agree to carry the device.

Yota showed the first prototype to Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, and it has the backing of Russia's elite. The company is majority owned by an investment fund comprised of private investors.

"One of the biggest challenges for the Russian economy is its dependence on oil and gas," says Martynov. "There is a big push from government to see more investments into high tech segments."

Yota is fortunate to have the investment that many startups in this cutthroat industry lack. Whether it can find the right price point for consumers and sell them the need for a second screen is another matter.
22 января
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Vladislav Martynov. 2021
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