PORTLAND, Ore.—Next month, the world's first multi-pane smartphone—the Sprint Echo from Kyocera—will debut in the U.S. with a wide variety of apps customized to take advantage of Echo's dual touchscreens.
Kyocera Communications Inc. (San Diego, Calif.) Tuesday unveiled its Android Developer Program at the CTIA Wireless show in Orlando, Fla., along with a wide variety of developers who pledge to have their apps ready for dual-pane action when the Echo is delivered to users next month.
At CTIA, Sprint and Kyocera are demonstrating multi-pane support for its Echo in apps from productivity, gaming, social networking and other popular areas. Gaming will include titles from Gameloft, Namco Bandai and Electronic Arts, including "The Sims." Productivity apps will include Skype and a one-finger text entry technology that works at 40 words per minute. Social networking apps will be available for Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Google Talk, YouTube, Flickr and Picasa.
The dual-pane Echo allows its touchscreens to be configured side-by-side, over-under or at an angle like a tiny laptop. The multiple configurations, accessed using the application programming interface from Kyocera's Android Developer Program, are made possible by a novel hinge mechanism.
"The real magic in the Echo is its patented hinge that allows the two screens to be placed so close together that they can complement each other, or can act as a single oversized display with minimal distortion," said John Chier, director of corporate communications at Kyocera.
Sprint's Echo smartphone by Kyocera pops open to reveal a second touchscreen that can be configured to run independent apps (right) or to spread a single image across both screens (left).
Gamers are configuring the dual touchscreens in over-under mode, so that a player's finger does not cover up the "arena" of the game, but instead uses the second lower touchscreen pane as a "control surface" while the gamer views the action on the second upper pane. However, other apps will use the dual touchscreens in side-by-side mode, for instance to run indepenent apps for email and calendar on the separate panes, or in single-canvass mode where one image can spread across the two screen—as if it were a single sheet of glass, according to Kayoko Sawada, lead designer for the Echo smartphone.
"The look and beauty of our design comes from what we called internally our 'sheet of glass' concept," said Sawada. "We wanted to balance our complex hinge mechanism with design simplicity, namely that when the two displays are used as one, they appear flat and smooth as glass."
The novel hinge allows the two touchscreens to be spread flat with just a 5.7 millimeter gap between the two, but quickly fold-up so that the phone is about the same size as an iPhone for pocketing.
Kyocera has been making its own smartphones since it introduced the PalmOS based QCP6035 back in 2001, but it has always emphasized the phone-function as primary. The Echo continues that tradition, by folding up to resemble a iPhone until the second touchscreen is needed, whereupon it can be popped out single handed.
"Design is not just about form-factor and functionality of the phone, its also about lifestyle," said Sawada. "I made sure we designed a device that was really compact, easy to carry around and that looked smart at the same time."
The Echo was conceived over three years ago—just after the Android OS was announced as an open-source alternative to Apple's iPhone. The idea was to one-up the iPhone with an open-source Android alternative that ran similar apps in single-screen mode, but which could offer enhanced dual-pane user interfaces by sliding the Echo open to reveal the second touchscreen.
The launch of Kyocera's Android Developer Program at CTIA includes a software development kit that allows developers to quickly upgrade their apps for multi-pane action. Already on-board are EA, Gameloft, Namco Bandai, MobiTV, Jibe Mobile and Telenav. Likewise, Sprint TV, powered by MobiTV, Inc.’s technology, will allow users to view ESPN, NBC, ABC and other popular channels using one display for viewing and the other touchscreen for controls. The “Sparkle” platform from Location Labs, will supply location-based services with the Telenav system that can either displaying a map on one screen and controls on the other display, or can spread a map over both screens.
I predict that Kyocera's Echo will be the first of many multi-pane devices to come. The multi-pane user interface is overrunning multi-windows on smartphone and touchscreen tablets--even Windows and MacOS are rumored to be readying multi-pane modes. On the iPad multi-panes are managed by double-clicking to bring up a film-strip showing icons for each pane that you can switch between. On multiple devices you manage multi-panes by running the same app on each device. For instance, when I watch MLB.com on my PC, I run the MLB At Bat app on my iPad to watch a tactical animation of each pitch. The I open the same app on my iPod Touch to keep track of the other games.
Well, we have had multi-pane, er, dual screen environments on both macs and pcs for nearly 20 years. Arguably, the innovation is having the pains behave like an input devices (keyboard on one, touch screen on the other) as well as output. If this device can be marketed at pricing comparable to others, it should be a hit.