The YotaPhone launched today with a 720p colour screen on the front and a 4.3 inch e-ink display on the back. It is a unique combination and a welcome innovation in a market where form factors remain stagnated around the generic, single screen, monobloc design popularised by the iPhone in 2007.
The inclusion of the low power, high contrast e-ink panel enables several new experiences. For instance, users can explore a map using the interactive, colour touchscreen on the front and then transfer the relevant section to the e-ink display on the back. It will sit there using virtually no power, easily visible in high contrast black and white, and accessible without having to unlock the phone. It can also be used to quietly display incoming messages and system notifications, materialising them on the rear panel while the main colour screen remains off.
Of course, it also supports e-books, meaning the YotaPhone can provide the same ‘easy on the eyes’ reading experience of a Kindle, while still sporting a 720p touchscreen for watching videos, browsing the web and all the functions users expect from their smartphones.
Yota has added playful elements too. Fire up the camera and the e-ink screen displays a ‘Smile’ message on the back of the device.
The concept of designing for second (or third or fourth) screens has been an area of exploration in the MEX community for several years. It is a broad principle, ranging from digital experiences accessed simultaneously on a mobile phone and TV screen, to devices – like the YotaPhone – which have two or more display panels integrated into the same product.
Earlier this year we spoke with Lau Geckler, Yota’s Chief Operating Officer, who explained the user insights which inspired this approach, talking about customers affected by the constant anxiety of checking the flashing badges and notifications on their smartphones. He’s not alone in recognising this growing problem. Nokia’s former design lead Marko Ahtisaari made it a personal crusade to ‘give users back their heads’ after he observed couples at restaurants bowed over their phones rather than talking to each other. Sergey Brin of Google described this tendency as ’emasculating’, in a perhaps ill-judged remark to create interest in Google’s direct-to-eye Glass interface, presumably expecting his legions of currently ’emasculated’ Android users to migrate to his more virile robot eyewear?
Yota’s strategy of combining a familiar colour touchscreen with the very different aesthetic of a simpler e-ink display feels more closely aligned with the reality of customer lives. The quality of the experience is better understood when seen up close, but Yota has certainly achieved something unique.
The screen in the photo (kindly modelled for MEX by Yota’s Lau Geckler) shows how Yota handles message notifications. It displays on the rear case, so a user can glance at it while their device is lying face down on a table, and carry on with their conversation without the immersive interruption which often leads to users being unconsciously drawn into a lengthy engagement with their colour screen.
The product appears to have progressed significantly (Engadget has a good hands-on review of the commercial hardware) since the early prototypes I played with, but I still expect this unusual combination will require many compromises. It will cost about $675 to purchase outright – a high-end price tag – but some of its specifications lag similarly priced devices, including a 1.7 Ghz dual core Krait processor where you might expect a quad core Snapdragon 800, Android Jelly Bean 4.2.2 (where others are already on 4.4 Kitkat) and relatively small 1800 mAh battery. However, more encouragingly, it will boast 2 Gb of RAM (enough for Android to run quite smoothly), 32 Gb of storage and a 13 megapixel camera.
I also have some question marks in my mind over the practicalities of the dual screen form factor. For instance, what will the colour screen look like after you’ve been holding it face down in your palm for half an hour to read a book on the rear e-ink display? Touchscreens are magnets for greasy fingerprints at the best of times and cradling a screen in your warm hand is likely to exasperate this problem. I also have a concern over the extent to which users will be comfortable flipping the device around to use the different screens. I remember some user observations I did on devices with slide-out keyboards and how users were reluctant to expend even the small effort required to flip out the keyboard. These are questions which will be answered only during an prolonged period of real world usage.
For now, however, Yota should be commended for introducing something different. It should prompt device manufacturers to consider whether they can find their own form factor innovations to excite customers who are increasingly ambivalent about the smartphone industry’s undifferentiated selection of generic monobloc slates.