Are phones getting boring? Little-known phone maker ZTE has something to say about that.
The Chinese company on Tuesday introduced the, a phone that rocks two displays — one on each side — that flip open to create a larger combined screen.
Is it weird? Yep.
But it also marks a radical departure from the slew of metal-and-glass phones that have hit the market. The big trend this year has been the removal of the frame around a display. Sure, it changes the look of your device, but it isn’t blowing anyone away.
So it’s surprising that ZTE, known mostly as a budget phone make, is the company looking to kick-start a new wave of innovation in phones.
“This is a new direction,” said Linda Sui, an analyst at Strategy Analytics. “We’re right at the corner of the foldable display era.”
We’ve already seen hints of foldable phones from other handset makers. Lenovo showed off a concept bendable phone called the CPlus that you could wrap around your wrist. Samsung has said that it is working on a foldable phone that it hopes to introduce next year under the Galaxy Note brand. It even released a slick concept video a few years ago.
But it all starts with the Axon M (the M stands for multitasking) — and getting you to take a chance on such an unusual phone.
There’s a reason phones have largely settled into a similar design — the standard slab is typically the one that does best. History is littered with phones that have gambled with a novel feature or design — think the Amazon Fire Phone, Facebook Home-powered HTC First or the Nokia Lumia 1020 — only to see them dumped into the bargain bin.
It doesn’t bode well that AT&T is the exclusive US partner for the Axon M — those previous three phones all received a big push from the carrier with little impact.
Unlike the other failed phones, ZTE at least appears ready to stick with this design for the long haul.
“We are committed to it,” said Jeff Yee, ZTE’s global vice president of product marketing and strategy. He said the company was already working on a second generation of the Axon M.
ZTE developed the Axon M at the request of Japanese carrier NTT Docomo, which was looking for a dual-screen device. AT&T saw the phone a year ago, and offered its own feedback.
Kevin Petersen, head of AT&T’s device business, said in an interview on Monday that the Axon M has the potential to start a new category, but stressed patience.
“You don’t establish a new category overnight,” he said. “You need to get it out there and get people engaged with it.”
AT&T considers this a marquee device to show off its new position as both a provider of wireless services and entertainment. The company purchased DirecTV Now to expand its video capabilities and is in the process of buying Time Warner — home to “Game of Thrones” and “Justice League” — to better establish its Hollywood credibility.
Petersen acknowledges the need to get the phone in people’s hands and vows to have the Axon M in AT&T stores. While ZTE and AT&T wouldn’t talk about expectations, Sui said she expects the phone maker to sell 2 million to 3 million units around the world, helped by its commitment from NTT Docomo, as well as carriers in China and Europe.
“Everything kind of came together and worked for us,” Yee said of the partnerships.
While the Axon M looks novel, longtime phone aficionados may recall that the Kyocera Echo employed a similar flip-out design and dual-screen setup. It was a phone that launched at a high-profile event hosted by Sprint — complete with magician David Blaine performing tricks for the audience — back in 2011.
The phone was an unmitigated disaster.
The phone couldn’t adequately handle the two screens, resulting in a buggy, laggy mess. The large frame around each display created an unsightly gap between the two screens. It didn’t help that the Sprint network couldn’t handle the traffic, even if people actually used it.
Fast forward six years, and networks are a lot faster, and people are more keen to multitask with different apps on the phone. Processing speed is fast enough to handle the two screens too. ZTE even reduced the frame around each display, although there remains a small black line dividing the screens when it’s flipped out.
“Interests and expectations have evolved,” Petersen said.
Skeptics still question the utility of the design, and whether people are that keen to multitask on the device.
“What is the killer app for two screens?” said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC. “I didn’t see it here, and I struggle to think of one now.”
There are also the concerns about the fragility of that hinge and the potential for scuffing or cracking that rear display (both use a stronger fifth-generation version of Corning’s Gorilla Glass).
Still, that ZTE is pushing into the idea of foldable phones now bodes well for consumers in the future. You may not buy into the Axon M, but thanks to ZTE laying the foundation, a foldable phone may be in your future sooner than you think.