Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Last week, Yandex, the Russian Internet giant, launched its first smartphone, called the Yandex Phone. The smartphone is an entry-level Android device that has a range of Yandex's software and services preinstalled, including its GPS, music and weather apps. The phone signals a new phase for Yandex.
Yandex, sometimes called "the Russian Google", was founded in the 1990s as a search engine similar to the US behemoth, but has since spread to every corner of Russia with apps that people use every day. It's the most popular search engine in the country and has recently begun diversifying to defend its market share against Google.
As virtual assistants develop into a new type of ecosystem, it's interesting that Yandex has made its digital assistant Alice a central feature of its smartphone. The company claims that Alice has about 34,000 localized skills in its arsenal and can understand Russian with "near human-level accuracy". The Alice-powered smartphone is also fully integrated with Yandex's business directory, which gives users a comprehensive list of companies all over Russia and includes detailed information and search options for goods and services. It allows the Yandex Phone to easily identify unknown business callers and lets users contact a business simply by entering the name of a company or service into the phone's search function.
Alice can also be used to manage everyday tasks. For example, users can ask the assistant to add an event to the calendar while they watch a movie or play a game, without any interruption. They can also interact with Alice remotely, as it will respond to voice prompts when within range.
The Yandex Phone features a 5.65-inch full high-definition screen, runs the Android 8.1 operating system, and is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 processor. It's also equipped with a fingerprint sensor on the back and NFC technology for contactless payments. The camera set-up includes dual 12-megapixel and five-megapixel lenses on the rear, as well as a five-megapixel front camera. The device is priced at the equivalent of $270.
We note that there has been a trend of Internet companies including the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Tencent and Baidu introducing their own hardware, in a bid to control the experience and promote their own services. Devices such as Amazon's Echo Show, Facebook's Portal as well as Google's Home Hub and Pixel phones are efforts to endorse their services, creating a form of walled garden to support an easy entry and avoid losing customers to rivals.
The Yandex Phone is a competitively priced device, but the smartphone market doesn't promise success, and Internet companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google have had a mixed track record. Handsets from Amazon and Facebook were clear failures, but Google, committed to making high-end smartphones with a strong connection to its cloud services, has soldiered on during the past two years, gaining some share in the markets where it sells its phones.
Yandex needs to show the same level of patience and expect to work through several generations of its phone before trying to measure success. The hardware business can be challenging, but this is an interesting first foray by a major player in the Russian market.