The YotaPhone

This morning Dan Weissman interviewed me on NPR’s Marketplace about the viability of the 2-screen YotaPhone. (Americans will pronounce it like “Yoda” phone, and I suspect the semi-implied sci-fi connection will actually help.) The timeslot on NPR didn’t offer any time to expound on punditry, so here’s more on what I’m thinking.

The success of a new product in a mature market depends on many, many things. One of those is uniquely addressing an unmet need. Battery life is as yet one of those unmet needs. Until we solve some of those pesky constraints of physics and/or battery tech, we have to find ways to lengthen the utility of the phone within the constraints of existing power reserves. YotaPhone utilizes a second, e-Ink display on the “back” of the phone, and this helps battery life in two ways.

Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

But first, a paragraph of a primer: If you’re not familiar with the tech, e-Ink is an “electrophoretic display” where tiny transparent spheres can be turned black or white with a zap of a particular charge of electricity. (There’s a color version, but it’s more expensive and not as common.) The spheres are tiny enough to work as pixels, and that’s the basis of the display. It’s the thing driving Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook, among other products.

First: Sipping from the battery cup

One of the great things about e-Ink is that it uses very little electricity, especially compared to the full-color, backlit screens that are on most smartphones. At a 20% battery warning, then, you could turn the thing around and instead of having a handful of minutes left, you could conceivably have hours of phone time left, as long as you stick to the low-energy e-Ink display. That’s pretty cool.

Second: Life after battery death

The other crazy nifty thing about e-Ink is that once the display is refreshed, it uses no power. What that means is that you can design the phone to display critical information as its dying act, and the phone is still useful—It doesn’t become a brick. About to lose battery? Have it display the most common/recent phone numbers you access, so you can make use of some other phone. Have it display the directions you’re currently following so you can get there. Have it display your electronic boarding pass for your flight. In each of these mini-scenarios, YotaPhone can extend the utility of the phone for its users past the battery life. (That said, note that I haven’t been shipped one to play with or test, and don’t know if this functionality is built into the phone. I’m just sussing out opportunities.)

The YotaPhone is not the first to employ e-Ink. The Motorola Motofone (note the rhyming name) was released in 2006, and it featured an e-Ink display. But the e-Ink was its only display. Motofone asked its users to downgrade their whole experience in exchange for battery life, which is not a concern for most of the use of the phone. Contrast that with the YotaPhone, which says that you can have the premium sensory experience of full color and brightness as long as the battery reserves are flush. AND it gives users an option to downgrade their experience when that becomes necessary, and that’s new.

Also note that there are other design challenges to having two screens at once, but these are for a blog post longer than this one. (Somebody hire us to design for this little guy, and you can get a really, really good answer to that question. :)

Here at Cooper we design around user’s goals, and mobile phone users’ goals are actually to have mobile access anytime and anywhere, implying infinite power. And if someday battery capacity and/or decay are simply “solved,” the YotaPhone will seem very much like an antiquated, stopgap solution. But until then, it seems like a very good stopgap solution to me, one that I’d personally find useful, and I suspect the market will, too.

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