You don’t expect your first smartphone to walk away from CES with a ‘Best in Show’ award. Nor do you expect to have a commercial release of the CES prototype on sale eleven months from the Las Vegas extravaganza. That’s the highlights of Yota Devices’s 2013 with the dual-screen YotaPhone. I spoke with Yota Device’s CEO Vlad Martynov to find out more about this new smartphone manufacturer from Russia.
Born in the city of Korolyov, 28 miles to the west of Moscow, Martynov has been involved in IT for over twenty years, and started out by selling computer programs for the oil and gas industry on behalf of Price Waterhouse. His CV includes time with Andersen Consulting, SAP, Microsoft (as head of ISV Global Strategy), and CEO of Columbus IT Partners, along with some investing and mentoring in the Russian start-up scene.
Now the CEO of Yota Devices, he has the opportunity to implement some of his own ethos as well as give something back to the community. “I can give young, talented, creative people the opportunity to realize their ideas and maximise their potential,” he told me. “This is much easier in a fast-growing innovative start-up like Yota Devices.”
There’s a sense of practical patriotism behind Martynov’s drive. “Russia already has an impressive first start in this area, with companies like Kaspersky, Yandex, ABBYY and, of course, Yota Devices
“I am very passionate and motivated to break stereotypes both about Russian business and about innovation in the technology sphere. In the innovation space, I want to demonstrate that innovation in mobile communications does not only come from the big global brands, but that it is possible for start-ups to introduce new concepts, be successful and change the status quo.”
Yota Devices started in 2009 as part of Yota Scartel, before spinning out as a separate company in 2011. Known in Russia for their connectivity products (including modems, routers, 4G dongles) the company has focused on the customer experience, and making “the connected life more convenient.” These principles have driven the design of the YotaPhone.
The starting point for Martynov and Yota Devices was a company brain-storming session in 2011. “We asked ourselves what we liked and didn’t like with our current smartphones. While we loved the way it made us more productive and connected, there was one fundamental thing we all determined we didn’t like. Most of the time, the display is sleeping. It’s just a black box. While it’s sleeping, it’s useless. It has no value.
“Behind this black screen, there is an enormous amount of information, notifications and messages. Some information pops up for a few seconds on our screen. But it’s always hidden behind the black screen. Our current smartphones go to sleep because the LCD display consumes significant power. If the LCD display were always on, your phone would be dead in a few hours. And, it would not be a mobile smartphone.
“So, we asked ourselves how to solve it. Interestingly enough, the solution was on the surface. I’m, of course, talking about battery-saving electronic paper displays. Technology that already existed and is used in e-readers. So where do we place it? Again the answer was right in front of our eyes. Or actually on the back of our smartphones — a surface that had no practical use until today. The backside of the smartphone is a dead space. We decided to give it life.”
“We turned this useless space into an always-on display.”
The First Press
It’s not easy to get the world’s attention at CES, but the YotaPhone did so with a presentation method that would feel at home in a Hollywood biopic. “We didn’t even have a booth or stand at CES,” relates Martynov. “Instead, we sat in a nearby Starbucks, meeting with journalists and analysts. Soon we realized we were the ‘buzz’ of CES. And YotaPhone was named the Best of CES by CNET, by PC Mag, by Time’s Techland, and several others.”
The CES adventure led to a booth at MWC, which led to an approach from the Cannes Lions Award to enter the YotaPhone into the awards program. The result was the ‘Cannes Lions Award for Innovation’ for their smartphone, and the YotaPhone had that vital spark any product needs… momentum.
But the press was built around a smartphone that was still making the transition from prototype to commercial production. The ambitious goal was to ship by the end of 2013, just eleven months after CES, and twelve months since the YotaPhone was shown to the public. Any consumer electronic device will have issues making the transition to the production line, especially one on such a fast schedule. Yota’s unique take on the smartphone was no different.
Take that e-ink display and some of the challenges it presented. It is curved, one of the first curved e-ink screens in the world; six antennae had to be placed around the external edges so neither screen blocked the signals; and the temperature sensitive nature of the e-ink display required very careful thermal management of the double-sided ten layer circuit board inside the black box.
“When we unveiled the YotaPhone concept in December 2012, we said we would introduce YotaPhone in Russia by Q4 2013,” a proud Martynov reminds me. “Not only did we make this deadline, but we expanded sales through these distributors, retailers and our online story to more than 20 markets in the CIS, Europe and the Middle East.”
The initial brainstorming vision of showing information on ‘the black box’ remains, but through a year of testing, the team have continued to discover new user experience cases, from notifications and reading, to personalization and being useful after the battery dies – although you do need to have prepared something for the moment when the battery does exhaust itself so the smartphone knows what to place on the e-ink screen just before the terminal moment.
The tech press are going to lap up innovation like the YotaPhone, but what about the consumer?
“We have not had time to do any formal consumer research yet after the launch of the commercial units,” but it is planned for Q1 2014, Martynov tells me. “However, we have been monitoring closely our fans’ response via social media.
“YotaPhone is a new concept in phones. As a result, we knew it would require time to educate about the use cases and benefits of a dual screen, always-on phone not only industry and trade, but the public as well. That is why we unveiled the concept of YotaPhone more than a year ago and engaged with journalists, analysts, experts and bloggers.”
While the commercial release of the YotaPhone is an important milestone, the work is far from over for the now 70 strong team at Yota Devices. There is delight in getting this far, but it is just one step. “Right now, consumers who are attracted to the first generation of YotaPhone are primarily two interesting and, in some ways, polar opposites. The first group is early adaptors — those gadget geeks who love new technology and innovation in communications. The second group is the ‘creative’ types — artists, musicians, writers, who like to be different and stand out from the crowd.
“YotaPhone is a crossroads, in many respects, between art and technology. Our goal for the first generation for YotaPhone is to take the learning from these two groups of early fans and to develop a second and third generation of YotaPhone that has mass appeal and commercial success on the global market.”
It’s that second phone that will be the difficult next album for the team. There are a number of areas on the original handset that could be improved, and while Martynov isn’t letting anything slip, Mobile World Congress coming up at the end of February and there will be new developments from Yota Devices.
Where does Martynov see Yota Devices in the smartphone world? “We aspire to be an international mobile device manufacturer,” he confidently informs me. “But we also want to be a trendsetter in everything we do. I think we are well on our way to achieving both objectives.”
To find out more about the YotaPhone and Yota Devices, visit their website yotaphone.com. I’ve reviewed the YotaPhone here on Forbes previously, and you can read the review of the Android powered smartphone here.