Big manufacturers dominate tradeshows like MWC. Leave the bustling walkways to drop into any one of the eight vast halls here at the sprawling Fira Gran Via complex in Barcelona, and you are confronted with huge, dazzling displays from the tech world’s heavyweights. The stands of Samsung, Qualcomm, Nokia, Intel and their rivals are venues in themselves, and the products they have on show invariably steal the headlines.
But take away the small, emerging start-ups on the periphery, striving to create a buzz around their new creations, and MWC would be a far poorer show. Illustrating the point vividly today was Yota Devices.
The Russian company’s YotaPhone drew hordes throughout the day, as beleaguered, sleep-deprived MWCers were reinvigorated by the innovative dual-screen smartphone. A smart but run-of-the-mill 4.3 Android handset from the front, the YotaPhone sports an E-Ink display of the same size on the back, with intuitive connection between the two screens making for an intriguing mobile experience.
“From the beginning we wanted to do something different, we wanted to change the way people interacted with their phone,” Yota’s COO Lau Geckler told us.
Extending battery life and expanding typical phone functionality is at the heart of the Yota device. Images brought up on the front LCD can be thrown to the back screen, as Geckler demonstrated the transfer of documents, a Google map, and a plane boarding pass, showing how useful files can remain on the E-Ink rear while other activity can continue on the main screen.
Power can be saved by switching off the LCD screen to leave just the required image on the back, while the device also gives you the chance to send pages to the second display before it dies naturally, so addresses, phone numbers and other information can still be seen when the phone is dead. A YotaPhone would actually have come into play expertly at the end of my Saturday night, as I blundered through the streets of Barcelona on the hunt for my hotel, only for my phone to die as I tried making sense of Google Maps. The screen-saving function would have saved me a very scenic and meandering route home.
But the E-Ink display is far from a static affair, as browsing and apps like Facebook and Twitter refresh in real time, and the screen responds to calls, photo-taking, and even some words within your SMS messages, to display light-hearted images.
Such creativity is typical of Yota says Geckler, who contrasted life at the company with past jobs at far bigger firms. “When I was at HP, I just wanted to add one button to a printer,” he recalled, but said a huge web of employees meant getting even minor changes approved was impossible. “At Yota, we sit around a table, we decide something, and takes around three months to produce.”
Though Yota has grown from just 15 employees to 55 since August 2012, Geckler hopes the team can stay small so the spirit of innovation is preserved. He compared the group to a fledgling Apple, but hopes the creative mentality remains if success is realised – something he says is on the wane at the Cupertino giant. “I think they’re getting close to the point where they’re now forced to compete on specs,” Geckler said, which he believes is unhealthy.
So what now for Yota? The company is confident copy-cat products will be blocked by a strong patent collection that has required a great deal of finance and resource to build. “I have a background in IP enforcement and I would say it [YotaPhone] is well protected,” he said. Geckler also confirmed that a manufacturing deal had been signed for the near-complete handset to be produced in Singapore, and a “relatively soft launch” is planned for Q4 of 2013.
Negotiations are ongoing with UK operators and a successful conclusion would see our shores included in the first release stage. After speaking to Geckler we enjoyed some hands-on time the YotaPhone, which currently sports a 4.3in 1280×720 HD front screen, a 4.3in E-ink back display with 200dpi, robust Corning Curved Gorilla Glass, a Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM 8960 dual core processor clocked at 1.5 Ghz , 32 or 64GB storage, 2GB of RAM, a 12-megapixel rear camera allied with a front snapper, and a 2100 mAh battery. It will be priced in accord with premium Android models, so expect something exceeding the £400 mark SIM-free.
The YotaPhone exceeded our expectations and seems to have the functions and quality to shake off the tag of it being a mere novelty item – something we were fully anticipating to write before today. But succeed or not, the YotaPhone is interesting, exciting, and what tradeshows like MWC are all about.