It's been a long time since the U.S. and Russia were in a serious technological race, and at least one Russian company has gotten tired of watching old highlight reels of Sputnik. Yota Devices, formerly a unit of Russia's state-run defense corporation, has unveiled a new smartphone that the company hopes will challenge the global supremacy of Apple's iPhone. The YotaPhone features a color, LCD touchscreen on one face, and a black-and-white e-reader on the other. "We created this to be different," CEO Vladislav Martynov tells The Wall Street Journal. "Most phones nowadays are boring — they are just boxes. This is a phone for people who want to be outside the box."
So what exactly is the point of a Janus-like phone? Yota says it's fulfilling a demand for more screens, as users increasingly employ their smartphones for a variety of purposes. The e-reader, which is designed to stay on constantly, can feature a Twitter stream or stock market quotes. The phone will also reduce the strain on the battery by throwing certain data — such as playlists or appointments — from the energy-guzzling touchscreen to the reader, supposedly boosting battery life by 50 percent. Furthermore, the reader can be used for more banal purposes: Showing the time, actual reading, or displaying a boarding pass, which will remain on screen even if the phone runs out of power.
The phone runs on Google's Android operating system, and both screens are 4.3 inches. It will retail for about $500 when it makes its Russian debut in 2013, and Martynov says he's sending out prototypes to carriers in Europe, Asia, and North America to gauge interest there.
Analysts are divided on whether the YotaPhone will make an impression. There's a lot going against it: For one, "it remains to be seen whether the market treats this as a hardware gimmick, or something truly useful," says Ingrid Lunden at TechCrunch. In addition, there are "big risks involved when any smaller player tries to challenge hardware giants based on one particular selling point," says Sharif Sakr at Engadget, "although there are quite a few examples of that succeeding, especially in emerging markets."
Some are even more skeptical, according to the BBC:
"I don't see many users wanting this device in the U.S. or Western Europe," said Francisco Jeronimo, research manager at consultants IDC.
"China may be different — they like more gimmicky phones that can handle several Sim cards and feature unusual types of display — but none of those devices have done well elsewhere."
However, Martynov insists that smartphone users have moved beyond the single screen. "Two years ago we were not so dependent on all the kinds of information we consume now, from Facebook and Twitter to news and other RSS feeds," he tells the BBC. "The smartphone is now a window onto this virtual life, but today there's a lot of disappointment when you miss information."