What makes all this work is that E Ink technology. E Ink's pixels stay in position until an electrical charge changes them. They eat up extremely little power because they work with surrounding light rather than backlighting; the screen can be on for days and even weeks. When the power runs down, the image is still visible, frozen at its last state; for example, that map of where you're going remains visible even if your smartphone's battery dies.
Yota's plan is to debut a high-end Android smartphone in Russia in midyear, then follow on in the United States, Europe, and other regions next fall. The working prototype I saw was about the same size and weight as an iPhone 5 -- with very compact electronics -- so it was easy to carry and use in one hand.
The principals at Yota are Apple users -- MacBook Airs, iPads, and iPhones littered the desk -- and they clear have a Jobsian sense of simplicity in mind for the YotaPhone, based on the prototype I saw. It had no buttons, for example, not even the standard Android Back, Home, and Menu buttons; instead, you use gestures for everything. That seemed to work perfectly well in the prototype. CEO Vladislav Martynov even envisions that you would tap and hold the device to wake it or put it to sleep, and perhaps squeeze the device to turn it on or off (but who does that any more?). The YotaPhone was simply very compelling, and the technology has uses beyond smartphones -- on the lid of a laptop or on the cover of a tablet, for example.
I need to be clear this was a prototype, not a shipping product, and demos are almost always better than the real thing. But in my 30 years in this business, I've very rarely seen such a polished prototype -- frankly, Yota could sell the prototype today and offer a more compelling design experience than the vast majority of smartphones available. This is no dubious Kickstarter or Indiegogo project based on a napkin's pencil drawings and a garage-based engineer's dream.
I had to ask, given all the Apple gadgets in the room, if the folks at Yota had considered a way to bring the technology to the iPhone, such as through a sled or cover. Perhaps -- that'd be no simple task and could be a very awkward product, said COO Lau Geckler. Apple rarely licenses third-party technology, but one can only hope!
The folks at Yota don't intend to license the technology to other Android device makers, at least not at first. The reason: Maintain a high level of quality, without the design compromises typical in large companies, Martynov said. I applaud the purity and the underlying aspiration of excellence, and I hope Yota can pull it off when it gets to the manufacturing stage with whatever company it hires to build its design.
Getting to market won't be easy, though it helps that Yota has a proven track record with some mobile products, as well as relationships with key suppliers such as Corning and Qualcomm (which makes smartphone chips). Also, its principals have held high-level positions at Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and other such firms, so they have entrée into many Silicon Valley firms, including Google.
When you're making your wish lists for Christmas 2013, hope that the YotaPhone will be an option. I'll certainly be keeping a close eye on it!
This article, "The smartphone you'll lust after -- for Christmas 2013," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.