Letâ€™s all agree that this has not been a year of feel-good stories in tech. Whether itâ€™s Facebook privacy or YouTube algorithms, the headlines out of Silicon Valley have been a dismal parade of lapses and letdowns. So letâ€™s take a moment to appreciate the one thread development everyone can get behind: Nokiaâ€™s perfect throwback party.
You may not know the Nokia 3310 or 8110 by name, but youâ€™d recognize them in a heartbeat. Theyâ€™re two of the phones that made Nokia the dominant cell phone seller of the oughts, the candy bar and banana form factors that defined the pre-iPhone era.
Over the last year, as youâ€™ve likely seen, a company called HMD Global has resurrected both, upgrading and updating them just-so for a world that still needs feature phones aplenty. What could have been a lazy cash-grab rebootâ€”looking at you, Michael Bayâ€™s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtlesâ€”has instead turned out two thoughtfully designed and executed devices. And they couldnâ€™t have come at a better time.
A quick clarification: HMD is a company that makes the phonesâ€”both smart and featureâ€”sold under the Nokia brand, so this isn’t technically the same company that dominated the cell phone landscape through the turn of the millennium. But HMD resides in the same building as Nokiaâ€™s headquarters, and was founded by former Nokia employeesâ€”including chief product officer Juho Sarvikas, who shepherded the return of the 3310 and 8110, and started at Nokia over a decade ago. Everything about it is Nokia DNA.
That shows in its feature phone revivals. Take last yearâ€™s 3310, released nearly two decades after its namesake. It looks just enough like the original for instant recognition, but has just enough new design touches and feature improvementsâ€”smoothed over edges, a 2-megapixel camera, a web browserâ€”to be viable today. Oh, and its battery still lasts a month.
That balance took more work than you might think.
The 3310 runs a minimal suite of apps for communications. And yes, it still has the game Snake.
â€œWe actually took a long time to deconstruct the original 3310,â€� says Sarvikas. As it turned out, recreation required a certain degree of invention. â€œOne of the most difficult things with the 3310 was to make the corner of the display so close to the edge of the physical enclosure. That was one area where we had to develop a completely new solution that did not exist in this space.â€�
And the reason it didnâ€™t exist is fairly simple: Feature phones are cheap, which means theyâ€™re made with cheap parts. They all look basically the same, because the companies that make them typically buy in bulk from the same suppliers.
â€œHaving attractive feature phones, standing out on design, when the other vendors who are doing feature phones are really plain vanilla, is a smart strategy,â€� says Avi Greengart, tech analyst with GlobalData.
Thatâ€™s partly why the 3310 stood out so much; it was as much a familiar face as it was a rethinking of a whole category of devices grown stale.
A refined exterior also required some serious interior engineering; the original 3310 hadnâ€™t had to accommodate internals for 2G or 3G signals; the 2017 model launched with the former, and got a network upgrade last fall. â€œItâ€™s not about simply throwing together a nice-looking shape for the design. Thereâ€™s a lot of very advanced engineering and asset development that you need to do. Itâ€™s amazing how much a couple of millimeters matter,â€� says Sarvikas.
This yearâ€™s 8110â€”thatâ€™s the banana phone, which youâ€™ll remember best from The Matrixâ€”presented an even more daunting challenge both inside and out. Start with the shape, which outside of an ill-fated dalliance with curvature from LG in 2013 simply doesnâ€™t exist any more. The phone doesnâ€™t just curve; part of it pops down with the push of a button.
The 8110, aka the banana phone, was popular in the late ’90s. Nokia’s modern version comes with 4G connectivity and Google Assistant.
â€œHow do you configure the length versus the thickness versus the actual physical curvature of the banana,â€� says Sarvikas. â€œAs youâ€™re building the inner blocks and designing the electromechanics around that, it becomes a really intriguing exercise. You could not modify one dimension without throwing the whole thing around and reconfiguring from the beginning.â€�
The slider mechanism, too, requires balance. It needs to travel smoothly from open to shut; it needs to lock firmly but be easy to open; it needs not to wiggle when extended. And Sarvikas points to one last consideration: You absolutely must be able to spin it like a top. â€œThe spinning is the ultimate party trick,â€� he says.
The 8110 also represents a more ambitious effort under the hood; it comes with both 4G and Google Assistant on board. And yes, even with that gilding, the battery life still nudges up against a full month.
It might seem odd, in 2018, to focus so closely on a companyâ€™s feature phone efforts. Smartphones, after all, rule much of the world. In the US and Western Europe, feature phones account for less than 7 percent of sales. But in regions with limited broadband or resources generally, Nokiaâ€”again, really HMDâ€”has become once again a dominant player.
HMD sold 59.2 million Nokia feature phones in 2017, a 70 percent bump over the previous year. Thatâ€™s still nowhere near iPhone territory; Apple sold 77 million of those in its most recent quarter alone. But think what it must take to actually grow feature phone sales, to nearly double them, in a day and age when theyâ€™re in a decade-long decline. And because the 3310 and 8110 stand out so much, they can command a higher price than the competition.
â€œIs this going to make them number one? Obviously I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s going to happen,â€� says Tuong Nguyen, a mobile analyst with Gartner. â€œBut it gives them a better foothold than some of their competitors, the guys who are focusing on features or security or a super low price.â€�
Some of that resurgence comes, too, from people who see the 3310 and 8110 not just as a nostalgia trip, but a legitimate chance to disconnect from the always-on lifestyle amid mounting concerns over smartphone addiction. The 8110, in particular, connects just enough that you donâ€™t feel unmoored, but not enough to keep you glued to its 2.4-inch display.
â€œI think thereâ€™s an increasing number of people who want to buy a secondary device,â€� says Sarvikas. â€œMost often itâ€™s something you want to use to switch off a bit.â€�
A second phone, Sarvikas argues, still needs to offer what he calls â€œlifeline communications,â€� particularly messenger services that have gradually subsumed SMS. But maybe you donâ€™t need Instagram or Candy Crush while youâ€™re taking a long weekend. Maybe you just need a banana phone and Snake.
â€œFor me as a tech geek, Iâ€™m a little bit excited about the Nokia products,â€� says Nguyen. â€œIâ€™m OK with giving up many of those smartphone features to have less of a cognitive load on a daily basis. I definitely feel that I would be a lot happier, even though Iâ€™m giving up things like navigation and social networking.
The success of the retreads has also had a halo effect for Nokia smartphones, largely by reminding people that the Nokia brand, well, still exists.
And theyâ€™ll continue to. A ton of iconic Nokia designs await revitalization; Greengart has his fingers crossed for the 8800, which features prominently in John Wick Chapter 2. And Sarvikas says theyâ€™re nowhere near done.
â€œThereâ€™s so much to draw from, and there are so many cool emerging technologies,â€� he says. â€œI donâ€™t think weâ€™ll run out of fun things to do any time soon.â€�
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