Sprint Tries to Conjure Magic With Dual-Screen Echo

Though out early with the first 4G phone in the U.S., Sprint has faced increasing competition in the smartphone space as carriers load up on the latest hardware. In an attempt to generate some new momentum, Sprint unveiled a new Android 2.2. phone, the Kyocera Echo that offers a dual touch-screen design.

In a splashy unveiling in New York, complete with illusionist David Blaine, Sprint tried to hype the dual-screen design of the Echo as a bit of magic and an “industry first.” It’s an interesting concept that expands the touch screen to 4.7 inches of combined screen space, thanks to a steel hinge mechanism that connects two 3.5 inch screens. But the actual execution is a little uneven and there are of a number of questions Sprint needs to answer to ensure success.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said the Echo can run two apps simultaneously or one app can run across both screens. You could have an email app running on one screen and have a touch keyboard below in a laptop configuration. You can watch a YouTube video on one screen while previewing other videos on the second screen. Or a user can check Facebook on one screen while monitoring Twitter on the other.

The idea calls to mind Microsoft’s aborted tablet project, the Courier, which featured two screens in a book layout. And it’s also reminiscent of the Nintendo DS, allowing you to play games spread out over two screens. Sprint said it will be releasing APIs for developers to create apps that take advantage of the two-screen design. The Echo, which sports a 1 GHz Snapdragon processor with 1 GB on-board storage and an 8 GB SD card, will be available this spring for $200. It also includes a hotspot feature for up to 5 devices.

If done well, you get a whole lot more screen real estate to work with and the ability to do on-screen multitasking. Sprint calls this “simul-tasking.” Sprint said it worked to make the seam between the two screens very thin to create the feel of one large screen when the two screens are side-by-side.

The two-screen approach is a fun idea that builds off the momentum in tablets. As my colleague Kevin points out, many people like the real estate afforded on tablets but they want portability. The Echo gives more of a tablet feel while still maintaining the portability of a smartphone. And it gives people a better keyboard experience by providing more real estate. It’s still not a physical keyboard, but it makes touch-screen input more usable.

The hype surrounding the event was a little overblown and masks some questions. The phone appears to run through a fair amount of battery power because Sprint is including a second 1370mAh battery with the Echo. The phone offers one 5 megapixel camera but a second camera would have been great for video conferencing in laptop mode. It’s also a shame the phone doesn’t include 4G, which would seem like a natural addition for Sprint. Kyocera is also not as well known for Android devices so it will be interesting to see how polished the experienced is compared to experienced Android makers. The hinge itself also feels a little flimsy and I wonder if it will hold up to some extended use. When you tilt the second screen, it’s hard to avoid glare.  And perhaps one of the biggest questions is will developers actually take advantage of this design if the addressable market is relatively small? I’ve heard it’s easy to retrofit apps for two screens, but we’ll have to see.

In many ways, the Echo signals the intense competition the carriers face as they look to gain attention in the increasingly crowded smartphone market. It’s especially tough for operators Sprint and T-Mobile, who don’t have the iPhone and must rely on a mixture of Android, BlackBerry, webOS and Windows Phone 7 devices to turn heads. Sprint has had increasing success attracting more subscribers with Android devices like the Evo, the company’s first 4G device. But the pressure is on to produce a new flagship device that can lead Sprint’s smartphone line-up. The Echo should help Sprint turn some heads initially. But the operator will need to gather some developer support to really show what the Echo can do and it’ll need to do a good job selling the uniqueness of the design.

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