The phone with two faces: Russian YotaPhone2 takes on Samsung and Apple

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 January, 2015, 6:05am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 January, 2015, 11:51am

Since South Korean and US brands dominate the market for high-end smartphones, Vlad Martynov, CEO of Moscow-based Yota Devices, has his work cut out for him.

In Hong Kong last month to launch the YotaPhone 2 - dubbed the "Russian iPhone" - in Asia, Martynov seemed undaunted by the challenges posed by industry behemoths such as Samsung and Apple. "YotaPhone has unique and valuable features that no other smartphones can offer," he says.

Martynov describes one of the features - a dual screen with a five-inch, high-definition LCD panel on the front and a 4.7-inch electronic paper display on the back - as revolutionary. While the colourful LCD display works like that of any other Android device, the rear e-ink display can receive notifications, display news and other information such as time, weather and maps, helping to conserving battery life. Yota Devices owns the patent for the dual-screen design and the software that allows information to be shared between the two.

Martynov says the phone's design has solved some nagging problems that have dogged phone makers and users for years. "From the day we set up Yota Devices and developed our smartphone business, we understood that in order for us, as a start-up, to win market share and compete with such big brands as Samsung, we'd need to come up with a powerful disruptive idea that would change the way people interact with their smartphones.

"We looked into current problems with smartphones and quickly realised that the first problem concerns battery life. Most users, particularly heavy users, need to carry multiple chargers with them.

"Another problem is it's very difficult to use a smartphone in direct sunlight. When you go outdoors, it's hard to see what's on the display. [With the e-ink display], YotaPhone is [the only] phone on the planet that can be used easily in direct sunlight."

The phone's 2,500 milliampere hour (mah) battery can last up to two days on combined LCD and e-ink displays, and as long as five days as an e-reader. "Only with YotaPhone can you read books for up to five days on a single charge," Martynov says.

The e-ink display - showing incoming messages, emails or stock quotes, for example - is always on. Unlike other smartphones, it doesn't need to be activated by pressing a button. Users can just glance at the screen for information, so it's less of a distraction in social situations.

"Notifications appear on the always-on display continuously. With just one touch, you can return a phone call, accept a meeting invitation, read an email or [check] a text message. Even if the battery dies, your most recent information, or image, remains visible on the always-on display. [If you] save anything on the second display, from a map to a boarding pass to theatre tickets, that information is always on and always available." If they wish, however, users can post a wallpaper to guard their privacy

The existing smartphone is basically the same as the first iPhone. We want to bring consumers something creative
Vlad Martynov, CEO, YOTA DEVICES

Other specifications include 2GB of RAM, 32GB of fixed storage, and an 8 megapixel camera with flash paired with a 2.1 megapixel front-facing camera.

Despite its unique dual-screen feature and netbook-like power efficiency, the YotaPhone's steep price of HK$6,000 may be a turn-off, especially since the market is saturated with low- to mid-range phones from Chinese smartphone leaders such as Huawei and Xiaomi. But Martynov says the price is fair and competitive.

"We [provide] disruptive innovation that is much better than anything else on the market, and we set the price comparable to existing [premium] smartphones because we add value. In the past two years, the low-cost phone has been where the battle is. When [phone makers] can't create something fresh, they start to optimise technology and [lower] prices.

"Over the last eight years, nothing has really happened, and the phones we use are largely the same as those we used eight years ago. There's a bigger screen and higher resolution. But the existing smartphone is basically the same as the first iPhone. We want to bring consumers something creative.

"Whenever there's disruptive innovation - [when] technology changes life for the better - at the beginning it's always quite expensive. For example, when the first iPhone was introduced, it was almost twice as expensive as any other premium phone at the time, but people loved it because they could see the value."

Martynov began his career in 1997 as co-founder of ERP Software. He sold the company to Navision in 2001 but stayed on as managing director. When Microsoft acquired Navision in 2003 he then worked for the US giant, developing global strategies to engage software developers worldwide and bring them onto the Microsoft platform. He got the idea for the YotaPhone from a friend, Dennis Sverdlov, who later became CEO of Russian telecoms provider Yota.

Sverdlov spun off Yota's consumer electronics division and set up Yota Devices in 2009. The company launched the YotaPhone 1 in December 2013. The dual-screen device made a splash at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas the next month, winning the best innovation award. A limited number of YotaPhone 1s were made with a view to building the brand and testing the market.

"After YotaPhone 1 was launched, we had many ideas for how to improve on it and take it to the next level," Martynov says. "YotaPhone 2 has a larger display and is much slimmer; it's lighter and more elegant. The user interface is much better."

Although Yota receives no subsidy for developing the phone, the Russian government enthusiastically promoted the device as a product of Russian creativity. State-backed news channel Russia Today calls it the Russian iPhone.

Unlike the US and South Korean environments for technology, Russia's is lacklustre. Apart from antivirus software maker Kaspersky and search engine Yandex - the latter with a 60 per cent market share in Russia - most Russian tech companies barely register on the international radar. So the YotaPhone is a symbol of pride.

Russian President Vladmir Putin gave two YotaPhone 2 models to President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing in November. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has posted several photos of the phone on Instagram.

Martynov says the government is happy to see the company succeeding.

"Russia is an energy-centric economy [which should have more diversification]," he says. "The government is happy to see more hi-tech start-ups achieving some success in international markets. We are already working on YotaPhones 3 and 4. All future smartphones should be similar to the YotaPhone."