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In Russia, Innovation Happens on Both Sides of the Smartphone

Apple is the leader in innovation, right? Think again.
December 12, 2012

There’s a general feeling in the mobile market that Apple is the world’s most innovative company. Those same folks tend to believe that Samsung is a close second.

Admittedly, making that argument makes some sense. Looking around the mobile space, Apple’s iPhone 5 looks to be the most innovative option available. After all, it combines aluminum and glass to create a nice, appealing design. Meanwhile, Samsung’s Galaxy S III combines a huge display with sleek lines to appeal to customers.

But further inspection reveals that Apple and Samsung might not be the most innovative mobile companies. In fact, the firms that are thinking outside the box might just be operating overseas.

Yota Devices is one of those companies. Recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal, the company is poised to release an Android-based smartphone next year that has not one, but two, screens. The face of the display is equipped with a standard LCD screen. On the back, the handset features e-paper technology for those who want to read an e-book in a more conducive environment.

“We created this to be different,” Yota Devices CEO Vladislav Martynov told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published yesterday. “Most phones nowadays are boring – they are just boxes. This is a phone for people who want to be outside that box.”

Ironically, being inside the box is exactly what Apple has relied on to be successful over the last several years.

When Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, the company and its co-founder Steve Jobs were undoubtedly thinking outside the box. Ugly, thick products that relied nearly entirely on physical keyboards dominated the mobile space at that time. The iPhone changed all of that, and dramatically altered the state of the mobile market.

Since then, however, keeping consumers locked into that “box” is exactly what Apple and its many competitors have done. Each year, a new iPhone with only a few enhancements comes to store shelves. That device is joined by a slew of Android-based devices that, save for a few design and processor differences, are all the same.

Uniformity has become the name of the mobile game.

Such uniformity is not only an issue for Yota. There’s a company in China, called Xiaomi, that is exciting millions across that country. Led by its dynamic chief executive and founder Lei Jun, the company has been able to grow its operation to $4 billion in market value after less than three years in operation.

In order to achieve such success, Xiaomi launches Android-based devices that match or best the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S III in style and featureset, but does so at a price that cost-conscious shoppers are happy to pay. Plus, the company only builds a small number of handsets at a time, making its products highly sought-after alternatives to the iPhone.

And yet, neither Yota nor Xiaomi are even close to matching the success of a company like Apple. Perhaps it’s because they’re only focusing on their own countries for the time being, or that they don’t have the media’s attention the way the iPhone maker does. But innovation, at least right now, doesn’t appear to be as important as it should be.

Unfortunately, consumers today either don’t care or just don’t know about all of the exciting things going on in Apple’s big (and growing) shadow.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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