"Behind this black screen, there is an enormous amount of information, notifications and messages. Some information pops up for a few seconds on our screen. But it’s always hidden behind the black screen. Our current smartphones go to sleep because the LCD display consumes significant power. If the LCD display were always on, your phone would be dead in a few hours. And, it would not be a mobile smartphone.
"So, we asked ourselves how to solve it. Interestingly enough, the solution was on the surface. I’m, of course, talking about battery-saving electronic paper displays. Technology that already existed and is used in e-readers. So where do we place it? Again the answer was right in front of our eyes. Or actually on the back of our smartphones — a surface that had no practical use until today. The backside of the smartphone is a dead space. We decided to give it life."
"We turned this useless space into an always-on display."
The First Press
It’s not easy to get the world’s attention at CES, but the YotaPhone did so with a presentation method that would feel at home in a Hollywood biopic. "We didn’t even have a booth or stand at CES," relates Martynov. "Instead, we sat in a nearby Starbucks, meeting with journalists and analysts. Soon we realized we were the 'buzz' of CES. And YotaPhone was named the Best of CES by CNET, by PC Mag, by Time’s Techland, and several others."
The CES adventure led to a booth at MWC, which led to an approach from the Cannes Lions Award to enter the YotaPhone into the awards program. The result was the 'Cannes Lions Award for Innovation' for their smartphone, and the YotaPhone had that vital spark any product needs… momentum.
But the press was built around a smartphone that was still making the transition from prototype to commercial production. The ambitious goal was to ship by the end of 2013, just eleven months after CES, and twelve months since the YotaPhone was shown to the public. Any consumer electronic device will have issues making the transition to the production line, especially one on such a fast schedule. Yota’s unique take on the smartphone was no different.
Take that e-ink display and some of the challenges it presented. It is curved, one of the first curved e-ink screens in the world; six antennae had to be placed around the external edges so neither screen blocked the signals; and the temperature sensitive nature of the e-ink display required very careful thermal management of the double-sided ten layer circuit board inside the black box.
"When we unveiled the YotaPhone concept in December 2012, we said we would introduce YotaPhone in Russia by Q4 2013," a proud Martynov reminds me. "Not only did we make this deadline, but we expanded sales through these distributors, retailers and our online story to more than 20 markets in the CIS, Europe and the Middle East."
The initial brainstorming vision of showing information on 'the black box' remains, but through a year of testing, the team have continued to discover new user experience cases, from notifications and reading, to personalization and being useful after the battery dies — although you do need to have prepared something for the moment when the battery does exhaust itself so the smartphone knows what to place on the e-ink screen just before the terminal moment.
The tech press are going to lap up innovation like the YotaPhone, but what about the consumer?
"We have not had time to do any formal consumer research yet after the launch of the commercial units," but it is planned for Q1 2014, Martynov tells me. "However, we have been monitoring closely our fans' response via social media.
"YotaPhone is a new concept in phones. As a result, we knew it would require time to educate about the use cases and benefits of a dual screen, always-on phone not only industry and trade, but the public as well. That is why we unveiled the concept of YotaPhone more than a year ago and engaged with journalists, analysts, experts and bloggers."
While the commercial release of the YotaPhone is an important milestone, the work is far from over for the now 70 strong team at Yota Devices. There is delight in getting this far, but it is just one step. "Right now, consumers who are attracted to the first generation of YotaPhone are primarily two interesting and, in some ways, polar opposites. The first group is early adaptors — those gadget geeks who love new technology and innovation in communications. The second group is the 'creative' types — artists, musicians, writers, who like to be different and stand out from the crowd.