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One phone, two screens? Radical design opens door for change

An unlikely company is looking to kick-start a new trend in phones. It just needs to avoid creating a flop in the process.

zte-axon-m

The Axon M doesn't have a foldable display. Instead, it has two displays connected by a hinge. 

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Are phones getting boring? Little-known phone maker ZTE has something to say about that.

The Chinese company on Tuesday introduced the Axon M, a phone that rocks two displays -- one on each side -- that flip open to create a larger combined screen.

Is it weird? Yep.

It also marks a radical departure from the slew of lookalike metal-and-glass phones that have hit the market. The big trend this year has been the removal of the frame around a display. Sure, it refines the look of your device, but it isn't blowing anyone away.

So it's surprising that ZTE, known mostly as a maker of budget phones, is the company looking to start a new wave of innovation.

"This is a new direction," said Linda Sui, an analyst at Strategy Analytics. "We're right at the corner of the foldable-display era."

lenovo-tech-world-bendable-phones-2079.jpg

Lenovo's concept foldable phone may be a reality sooner than you think.

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We've already seen hints of startling designs from other handset makers. Lenovo has shown off a concept bendable phone called the CPlus that you could wrap around your wrist. Samsung has said it's working on a foldable phone that it hopes to introduce next year under the Galaxy Note brand. (Check out its slick concept video from a few years ago)

But it all starts with the Axon M (the M stands for multitasking) -- and with getting you to take a chance on such an unusual phone.

Comfort zone

There's a reason phones have largely settled into a common design: The standard slab is typically the one that does best. History is littered with phones that have gambled on a novel feature or design -- think the Amazon Fire Phone, the Facebook Home-powered HTC First or the Nokia Lumia 1020 -- only to be dumped into the bargain bin.

Now Playing: Watch this: ZTE Axon M has 2 screens and opens into a 6.8-inch tablet
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It doesn't bode well that AT&T is the exclusive US partner for the Axon M. Those previous three phones all received a big push from the big US carrier with little impact.

Unlike the other failed phones, ZTE at least appears ready to stick with this design for the long haul.

"We are committed to it," said Jeff Yee, ZTE's global vice president of product marketing and strategy. He said the company is already working on a second generation of the Axon M.

ZTE developed the Axon M at the request of Japanese carrier NTT Docomo, which was looking for a dual-screen device. AT&T saw the phone a year ago and offered its own feedback.

Kevin Petersen, head of AT&T's device business, said in an interview on Monday that the Axon M has the potential to start a new category, but urged patience.

"You don't establish a new category overnight," he said. "You need to get it out there and get people engaged with it."

AT&T considers this a marquee device to show off its new position as a provider of both wireless services and entertainment. It purchased DirecTV to expand its video capabilities and is in the process of buying Time Warner -- home to "Game of Thrones" and "Justice League" -- to better establish its Hollywood credibility.

Petersen acknowledges the need to get the phone in people's hands and vows to have the Axon M in AT&T stores. While ZTE and AT&T wouldn't talk about their expectations, Sui said she expects the phone maker to sell 2 million to 3 million units around the world, helped by its commitment from NTT Docomo, as well as carriers in China and Europe.

"Everything kind of came together and worked for us," Yee said of the partnerships.

Echo redux?

While the Axon M looks novel, longtime phone aficionados may recall that the Kyocera Echo employed a similar flip-out design and dual-screen setup. It was a phone that launched at a high-profile event hosted by Sprint -- complete with magician David Blaine performing tricks for the audience -- back in 2011.

The phone was an unmitigated disaster.

The Kyocera Echo for Sprint was a disaster. 

Kyocera

It couldn't adequately handle the two screens, resulting in a buggy, laggy mess. The large frame around each display created an unsightly gap between the two screens. It didn't help that the Sprint network couldn't handle the traffic, even if people actually used it.

Fast-forward six years. Networks are a lot faster, and people may be more open to bouncing between different apps on a phone. Processing speed is fast enough to handle the two screens, too. ZTE even reduced the frame around each display, although there remains a small black line dividing the screens when it's flipped out.

"Interests and expectations have evolved," Petersen said.

Skeptics still question the utility of the design and whether people are that keen to multitask on the device.

"What is the killer app for two screens?" said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC. "I didn't see it here, and I struggle to think of one now."

There are also concerns about the fragility of that hinge and the potential for scuffing or cracking that rear display (both use a stronger, fifth-generation version of Corning's Gorilla Glass).

Still, ZTE's push into foldable phones bodes well for consumers in the future. You may not buy into the Axon M itself, but thanks to ZTE laying the foundation, a foldable phone could be in your future sooner than you think.

Correction, 9:07 a.m. PT: AT&T acquired DirecTV, not DirecTV Now. 

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