Over the years, every so often, companies come along with a bold proclamation: The smartphone was designed wrong. Never mind that it’s the most popular device ever created, or that it’s occasioned countless markets and upended the way we live. What if it looked like, you know, something else?
Usually such proclamations come from some dude with a Kickstarter, or as a Hail Mary from a flailing company. But now ZTE—the world’s fourth-largest phone maker—has something. Its new flagship device, the Axon M, is a dual-screened smartphone that the company imagines as the ultimate multitasking machine.
Think of it like a smartphone sandwich: screen on top and bottom, computer in the middle. Flip it open and you’ve got two 5.2-inch screens at your service. Now you’re holding a device kind of like the Kindle Oasis, with a hefty half (where all the electronics are) and a thin, light half that’s all screen. Some might call it a “foldable” phone, but that’s not true. It’s not like the concept Samsung showed off in 2014, with a single bendy screen that folded closed like a notebook. It’s not a normal smartphone that folds in half like an old Razr, which is the dream. This is just two screens, joined by a hinge. But it’s still pretty interesting.
You can use a device like this in a handful of ways. Fold the device closed and it looks like a regular smartphone (a thick one, but an innocuous one). But then! ZTE’s done a bunch of work making Android work on two different screens. One mode turns two screens into one, with a small break in the center; it’s just a giant phone. Another treats them as wholly separate things, so you can watch a full-screen video and take notes at the same time. ZTE evidently took notice of Samsung’s Note 8 branding, and its focus on the super-duper productive smartphone users who like to use more than one app at a time. No need to split a screen in half when you could just have another one.
Those are the normal-seeming ideas, but ZTE wants to reimagine what you could do with two screens. Maybe you could open the screen up halfway, flip it over, stand it up like a tent, and mirror the screen so you and someone across the table can see the same thing. Or, ooh, maybe you could play a game with controls on the bottom and the game on top, kind of like a smartphone Nintendo DS. Really, who knows what you could do when you have two screens! That’s sort of the point: ZTE’s hoping the Axon M might spark the imagination of people who suddenly have enough screen space to do more stuff, in a device that still fits in their pocket.
It’s an intriguing enough idea, but we’ve seen this play out before and it hasn’t gone well. Twice as much screen means twice as much strain on your battery—ZTE’s battery life promises include a little double-screen time, but not much. Android doesn’t intrinsically know what to do with two screens, and in a brief demo ZTE’s software didn’t seem fully baked. It had trouble switching orientations, even from vertical to landscape mode, and had some trouble running two apps simultaneously. Having glass on both sides of your phone should always make you nervous, and it’s even worse when all that glass is also screen. Oh, and when it’s open, there’s that big ol’ slice down the middle, right where all the good stuff tends to go.
However it shakes out, the fate of the Axon M should be telling. ZTE’s working with AT&T, which will promote the phone heavily, and ZTE has long since proven its ability to sell devices. But the biggest question, maybe even beyond “does it work” and “why would you want this,” comes down to whether customers are actually looking for a completely new idea about smartphone designs. Samsung’s working on a foldable smartphone for 2018, Lenovo’s shown off a prototype—ZTE makes three, and three’s a trend. A decade after the iPhone essentially determined what all phones after would look like, now could be the time for something new. A smartphone with more space, to do more stuff, and work more like a computer. Or maybe not.