It takes a lot to stand out at a vend show the size of Mobile World Congress. But here’s one machine that caught my eyeball today: an e-ink smartphone. Unlike Yota Phone, the Russian startup that’s using e-ink as a second screen to augment the back of a strong high end smartphone in a bid to stand out in the uber crowded automaton space, this prototype machine has just the one screen. an individual e-ink screen on the front of the machine — so it’s a true e-ink phone.
It’s also a true smartphone. There were two prototypes on show at Eink‘s stand, both with a 1ghz chip inside and one (the white one) with a 3g chip in it. The other had Edge connectivity. The phones run automaton but, as you’d expect, the OS has been simplified with a custom UI that strips back the functionality to focus on the applications that make sense for a fully e-ink smartphone — such as a reader app, a dialer and email. The UI also includes a web browser since certain types of webpages can be viewed on an e-ink screen. It won’t assist video of course but text-based sites can still be read.
The black prototype machine (pictured below) also includes a backlight for reading in the dark. Both screens are capacitive, but as you’d expect with e-ink the refresh rate can be a small sedate. Ghosting on the screen from past renders can be removed by shaking the machine. The technology can assist both portrait and landscape orientation so the e-ink smartphone could be turned on its side to switch the orientation to more of an e-reader sized width. Both devices felt incredibly lightweight.
Why do you want an only e-ink phone? Price for one thing. Battery life for another. Not to mention visibility in shinny sunlight. Put all those factors together and this could be the awesome machine for some emerging markets where electricity is at a premium. The prototypes are proof of concept at this point but Giovanni Mancini, director of product management for E-ink — the company which makes the screen — said the Chinese OEM which has made the prototypes, Fndroid, is talking to telcos and could launch a machine this year.
So how much would this e-ink smartphone cost? Mancini said the machine maker would set the price but in his view it would be comparable with a feature phone price tag. a gigantic theme of this year’s MWC has been smaller mobile players — from open source OSes like Firefox that are seeking to ride openness and accessibility and ride down the cost of devices, to mobile veterans like Nokia focusing afresh on construction smarter feature phones to target cost-conscious users in emerging markets. So it’s compelling to see companies toying with the concept of an entirely e-ink smartphone to cut machine costs while preserving key smartphone functions such as access to the internet and email.