With a full-fledged Android display on one side and power-saving e-ink screen on the other, the dual-mode YotaPhone is emerging from the concept cocoon and spreading its wings in the real world.
The YotaPhone goes on sale this week in Russia, starting at 500 euros ($678), before it expands to other markets in Europea and the Middle East, and beyond. It's a fairly hefty price tag for a phone containing last year's Android specs, unchanged since we first saw the device nearly a year ago at CES 2013.
So CNET caught up with Yota Device's CEO, Vlad Martynov, about the origins of the always-on display, the benefits of e-ink, and why people should use the YotaPhone in the first place.
Be sure to bone up on the pros and cons of the unique smartphone in our YotaPhone hands-on here.
YotaPhone has an unusual design with the e-ink backing. How and why did Yota Devices decide to make a phone like this?
Martynov: What do users see when they look at their current smartphone? A black screen. To get access to information, they need to pick up their phone, activate it and even sometimes go to an application. Even within an application, you have to wait until it is opens and finds the information. This is a major distraction and actually serves to impede our interaction and relationships with our friends, family and colleagues.
In fact, the average smartphone user picks up their phone 150 times in the course of the day because they fear that they are missing something important hidden behind the black screen. Why is it black? Because the LCD uses tremendous amounts of power.
We realized that electronic paper display technology could make information available and visible without draining battery life and began working with e-ink to adapt their technology for a dual-screen smartphone. Now, with [YotaPhone's e-ink back], users receive the information they want and need on a continuous basis without having to pick up their phone and with substantially less power consumption. You can receive notices, reminders, SMSs, RSS feeds or other information on the electronic paper display, without even touching the phone.
What can you do with the e-ink display?
Martynov: It's a good platform to express yourself and differentiate yourself as you can put any image on the back of the phone. There are various wallpapers. If you like music, you can put your guitar on there. Or pictures of your loved ones. When you have pictures like that on there, it's very nice. It reminds you about your dreams and reminds you why you work so hard.
We have applications that put my schedule for the day on the back so I don't need to wake up the phone to check my next meeting. I can set up any RSS feed on there too or my Twitter feed will update in real time on the back. I set up the dashboard and decide what type of information I need on the back display -- it's kind of like a personal assistant.
My notifications for Twitter, e-mail, or messages will show on this back screen, so I don't need to wake the phone up and you don't need to lose me from real life conversations as I'm not staring at a screen. If there's something important I don't want to miss, it'll pop up on the electronic display.
You can choose settings for the back display, and there's a privacy one where you can select specific people who will display on the back display. All Android notifications will show on the back display -- you need to set in the settings whatever you want to display. Even Google Now will pop up on the back display.In terms of reading, it's not only books (we have hundreds of thousands of different books you can put on the back side.) We've signed a deal with Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, so you can get your newspaper delivered to the back side of your phone in the morning.
Can you access any e-book service?
Martynov: Not yet. we are working on this.
In Russia, we partner with e-reading service Bookmate. There is no partnership yet with Amazon Kindle and the likes. We partner with Vedomosti in Russia, which is a joint venture between Financial Times and Wall Street Journal.
What were the software and hardware challenges with creating a phone with two screens?
Martynov: Virtually every one of our major hardware suppliers had to adapt their technology to make it work for our dual-screen, always-on phone. We are very thankful for their support and assistance. For example, e-ink had to develop and manufacture a 4.3-inch curved EPD [electronic paper display] -- for the first time in the world. Hi-P and Yota Devices' engineering team had to come up with a unique solution for antenna placement using a double-shot injection approach.
Another challenge was to disperse the heat evenly across the EPD display, which is temperature-sensitive, to ensure high-quality performance. We also developed patented software to allow information to be shared and used between YotaPhone's two screens. This took several years to develop.
Because there are two screens, we had to develop an automatic lock and unlock system to ensure that you don't accidentally touch and activate the second screen. We have also worked with a number of development partners for special applications, such as Bookmate for reading and sharing information. We worked with Vedomosti (a joint venture with the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal), so that the paper is delivered to your back screen just like it was delivered to your front door.
The phone has been in production for three years. What was the hardest part to get right?
Martynov: We have introduced a whole new gesture control system with YotaPhone, which presented both hardware and software challenges. To be honest, the gesture system may take a while for users to get used to it, but once they do, it's difficult to return back to the button system. However, users do have an option in the phone settings to return to the button system.
To keep the phone a certain thickness and still be sleek and elegant was also quite difficult. But we accomplished this. YotaPhone has an attractive design, feel and look.
What is the benefit of these gestures?
Martynov: I see a contradiction -- if you have a touch screen that can support gestures, why do you need to have the buttons? It's strange we still have them. I can understand why you might need one button. We believe the most natural way to communicate is through gestures. We don't communicate with each other through buttons, through pressing on a certain spot, we just gesture. We believe this is the future, phones should not have any buttons.
How involved have developers been?br?> Martynov: We developed the SDK for Android developers. We talked to different partners and they are very excited about they can do with the second screen. The maps software we have is done with a third party. We have such amazing support from the Android community, so we are pretty thrilled about this.
When it was first shown off at CES in January, its specs were competitive against other phones at the time. How have they been kept up-to-date?
Martynov: We have the same technical specifications we announced at the beginning of this year.
Do you think people will be put off from a dual-core processor when the majority of new phones coming to market offer quad-core processors?
Martynov: Not really. YotaPhone is not about technical specs, we are about user experience. You're right, it doesn't have quad-core and such a high performance of processor, but when do you need this performance? You need it only when you are a heavy video game player and you need to process very heavy graphics. That has the downside of killing your battery. If you are a heavy gamer, our phone is not for you.
Who is the ideal user for the phone?
Martynov: All kinds of people, and any person can find something for themselves. For example, people who really want to express themselves and creative types of people will love the phone because it's a unique platform to express themselves.
Business people who want to track in real time the stock exchange, or breaking news, this is a unique device. You set the information to appear on the back display and it's always in front of you. A stock broker would love it.
Then the people who love social media -- it's a unique opportunity to improve a bit of your life. You can not only use social media, but be social in real life as you can see what's going on on Facebook and Twitter and not be behind your phone the whole time.
Two screens are more expensive than one -- how much will the second screen add to the cost, and what are other ways that Yota is managing the cost of parts in the final product?
Martynov: Adding the second screen increased the manufacturing costs by about 15 percent. We are using premium components from suppliers. It was difficult to use volume product sales to manage the cost because we are producing the first version of a new product. But our suppliers are not just about short-term profits; they wanted to be part of a game-changing innovation. In that way, they were more than suppliers; real partners.
OEMs have numerous ways to save power, including larger-capacity batteries and software switches. Why should someone choose this method instead?
Martynov: YotaPhone isn't just about saving battery life. It is about allowing users to get access to the information they need and want in an easier and less disruptive way. The EPD achieves both of these essential objectives. Once we determined that the electronic paper display would work to solve the problem of the "always-off" smartphone, a host of other user cases became apparent, such as the fact that you now have a smartphone and e-reader in one device instead of two.
It is much more comfortable to read documents on the electronic paper display on our phone than on the LCD. It delivers much more information and content with the same battery life. If you are only using YotaPhone for reading, there is a huge increase in the phone's battery life. Larger-capacity batteries and software switches only preserve batteries incrementally under this scenario. YotaPhone has 50 hours of battery life when using the second screen for reading.
Information also stays on the EPD as long as you need it, even if the phone's battery dies. You can send information that you want to have easy access to -- like a boarding pass or theater tickets. So YotaPhone isn't just about extending battery life. It is about improving the way we use our smartphones to communicate and access information.
Are you aspiring to be a significant player in the smartphone world?
Martynov: We definitely aspire to be an international mobile device manufacturer. But we also want to be a trendsetter. We strongly believe that all phones will be dual-screen and always-on in the future.
We believe we should take it step by step. You need to be patient, particularly when you bring a new type of device. We are trying to bring something new to the industry and the user experience. I think the first generation is the product for people who are open to trying something new, who is ready for something different.
The second generation will be on a global scale, a mass market. I wouldn't say [YotaPhone] is a proof of concept, as we've already proved the concept is very good over the past few years and even at Las Vegas we won this very surprising Best of CES award. (Editors' note: YotaPhone won Best of CES for the cell phones category in 2013 for its intriguing concept.) I showed the phone to Steve Wozniak in Moscow a few weeks ago and I told him about YotaPhone and he was thrilled and excited and said it's a gorgeous idea that has a future. He asked for one, so I have to give him one!
Any plans for the phone's next generation?
Martynov: Absolutely. We are working very hard on the second one and have already got plans for the third.
Andrew Hoyle contributed to this report.
Article updated: At 8:09am PT with more comment on e-book deals.