Concept phones are meant to be visions of the future, and Xiaomi is giving you a glimpse of theirs with its new MIX Alpha. The phone has a seamless glass screen wrapped around the front, back and both sides -- leaving almost no room for physical buttons.

It’s certainly unlike anything else you’ll see available today… but it comes with an eye-watering price to match. The US$2,800 phone costs nearly US$1,000 more than Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and way more than the average Xiaomi phone

CEO Lei Jun said the company spent a whopping US$70 million developing the phone, but it’s hard to see them making that money back since it’ll only be available in limited quantities when it launches at the end of the year.

That begs the question: Why is Xiaomi doing this?

Xiaomi’s MIX Alpha is basically all screen, except for that vertical column that houses the cameras. (Picture: Xiaomi)

Consumers don’t really seem to know why they would want this.

“I just want to know what the use case is for a screen like this,” wrote one Weibo user. “I thought about this for half a day and still can’t figure it out. Not that I can afford it 😂😂😂” 

“20,000 yuan, I can buy a Huawei or an Apple of any storage size,” another user quipped.

If anything, the design introduces a range of potential issues: More screen real estate means more chances to scratch or break it. It’s also likely to eat up more battery power. The all-screen design is stunning for sure, but as IDC analyst Kiranjeet Kaur told us, “It’s a pretty looking phone and that’s about it.”

Still, there are reasons why phone makers like Xiaomi would continue to spend time and resources on concept phones. For one? Bragging rights. 

“Clearly they are not looking at mass market volumes, and it’s more about grabbing consumer attention,” said Kaur.

The sheer amount of competition in the Chinese smartphone market has given rise to wild attempts at innovation. Pop-up camera modules, hole-punch selfie cameras and waterfall screens are just a few recent inventions. 

Xiaomi -- which trails Huawei, Oppo and Vivo domestically -- seems eager to show China’s picky consumers that its tech arsenal is equally capable. It showed off an under-display camera just hours after Oppo announced theirs in June. And it teased a foldable phone prototype right before Samsung was set to present the Galaxy Fold in Barcelona

“For Xiaomi, the value of MIX Alpha is more about enhancing its image as a leading innovation enterprise in the smartphone arena,” said Counterpoint Research analyst Ethan Qi.

That’s particularly urgent for Xiaomi, said Canalys analyst Mo Jia, because it’s trying to sell higher-end handsets after spinning off its budget brand Redmi.

“Huawei has claimed a global presence on premium smartphones with its P and Mate series,” he said. “Xiaomi surely wants to follow suit, as high-end smartphones generate more margin and barriers for the followers to catch up.”

Despite doubts about the phone’s practicality (and affordability), the MIX Alpha has sparked a fair amount of interest. The search term “Xiaomi surround display phone” has been one of the top-trending Weibo topics since Tuesday’s unveiling. 

“I think this is really cool! Why are there a bunch of jealous people?” wrote one Weibo user. “Lei Jun says it can be tried out in the Mi Store this weekend. I’ve almost never been to a Xiaomi shop but even I want to go and touch the real phone.” 

Xiaomi, of course, is hardly the only one experimenting with creative designs that are out of the price range of the average consumer. You could argue that Huawei’s foldable Mate X and Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, priced at US$2,600 and US$1,980, both fall into this category.

These devices, in their current forms, remain niche products. But more than just pet projects, they also allow companies to build up their knowledge. Through working on concept models like the MIX Alpha, Qi said Xiaomi “not only benefits from a rising brand image, but can also strengthen its technology reserves.”

Concept phones also allow phone makers to test the waters and see how consumers react. The idea is to “throw them against the wall and see what sticks,” said Kaur. 

And Xiaomi has done it before. The original Mi MIX from 2016 -- Xiaomi’s most expensive phone ever at the time -- was only released in limited quantities. The concept device was widely praised for maximizing the screen size by eliminating the top and side bezels (though it still had a thick chin at the bottom that housed the selfie camera). The year after, Xiaomi followed up with the more widely available Mi MIX 2 -- an extension of its predecessor.

Vivo’s Apex prototype, which introduced the pop-up selfie camera concept. (Picture: Abacus)

Similarly, Vivo’s pop-up camera module was first introduced as a prototype before it was made available to consumers a few months later. The design has since found its way into phones from other brands such as sister company OnePlus

Not all companies have the financial reserves to pursue these types of projects, though. Meizu, another Chinese phone maker, tried to crowdfund a US$1,299 concept phone without slots, buttons or ports on Indiegogo earlier this year. It failed to reach its goal, attracting fewer than 40 backers.