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MWC 2017

3 Reasons the Dumbphone isn't so Dumb

It’s hard to surprise audiences at an event like Mobile World Congress. Barring the occasional, genuinely game-changing moment, so many of the keynotes and exhibitions are about promoting an incrementally improved product or service with little cause for excitement. So it was with something akin to delight that Nokia kicked off the week by announcing the resurrection of its old-school 3310 candy bar phone.

Described by ArsTechnica’s Ron Amadeo as “made out of weapons-grade nostalgia,” the newly reborn device stays true to the brick-like original, albeit with a colour screen and a slightly sleeker design (and a brand new version of the classic game Snake). But in a smartphone-saturated market, is there a place for the humble feature phone?

“Since the iPhone and Android rose to prominence, high-quality, reliable alternatives to smartphones have all but disappeared in the developed world,” writes The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost. “And where they remained, they have become so uncool as to make their adoption grounds for public shame.”

But if the attention lavished on the 3310 this week is anything to go by, feature phones aren’t so uncool any more. In fact, they might offer a much-needed alternative to the culture created by the likes of Apple and Samsung.

A growing number of users want to unplug

Add to that the 20 per cent of consumers who have stated that they consider the cost of data to be a financial burden, and it’s hardly surprising that Nokia saw an opportunity for a comeback. Mindfulness among consumers is a growing trend, as is the “digital detox.” Having a device which does nothing but make calls and send SMS means that users can take a break from endless Facebook scrolling, but still be reached in emergencies.

Feature phones are a must-have in many countries

In the developing world, feature phones never went out of style. While smartphone ownership in India and sub-Saharan Africa is going up, being able to afford mobile data is another question entirely. And with widespread connectivity in many of these regions yet to become a reality, consumers are stuck with their trusty dumbphones. Which is why SMS-based initiatives are taking off, leveraging relatively low-tech methods to get crucial information on healthcare and hygiene to people in remote areas, or the latest weather conditions to farmers.

Having a second phone might soon become the norm 

There are a number of reasons why a cheap dumbphone might appeal to Western consumers: to use as a backup phone in case of emergencies (your average smartphone battery lasts half a day at most), a weekend phone for camping and festivals, or even a home phone, as fewer and fewer families have landlines.

Then there’s the durability factor. Drop your smartphone, and it’s likely to shatter, incurring a costly repair fee. But the Nokia 3310 and its ilk border on unbreakable — a quality shared by Caterpillar’s waterproof, indestructible range also on show at Mobile World Congress.

As Bogost speculates, if Nokia is able to shrug off the curse of the smartphone and make feature phones cool again, they have the potential to be an affordable and safe gateway device for kids and pre-teens (an attractive prospect for parents, surely).

Elsewhere at Mobile World Congress, brands were showcasing shiny new phones that will be replaced by newer models within the year. If nothing else, the return of the dumbphone offers a hit of nostalgia and some brief respite from the endless carousel of hype and forced obsolescence.

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