Remember the old, unbreakable, candy bar brick of a phone that literally everyone had in the early 2000s? The one that played Snake? That was the Nokia 3310, and the company sold more than 100 million of them. With Nokia having a tough time in the smartphone era, it’s decided to look the past with a new version of the Nokia 3310 designed to play on your nostalgia for the days when a handset could last three weeks and a phone’s primary purpose was being a phone.
The updated 3310 is what you’d call a feature phone, with that “feature” being that it makes calls. It takes the style and simplicity of the classic edition and adds a few bells and whistles for the modern age. The phone still sports a few weeks of standby charge and a now mind-boggling 22 hours of talk time, and it even has an updated version of Snake. It’s small and light, with actual physical buttons, plus a 2.4-inch screen. It plays MP3s, holds two SIM cards and has a SD card slot for expanded memory. There’s even a web browser if you’re desperate, but considering it tops out at 2G speeds and you’d have to type numerically, you’d better be really desperate to open that thing up.
On the surface, the “new” 3310 is a laughably bad device by modern standards. So, why is it making headlines like crazy and generating a mountain of buzz? First, there’s nostalgia. The device reminds a whole lot of people of the first time they ever had the freedom to walk around with a phone in their pocket. There’s no doubt that nostalgia is a currency. But, looking to the feature list, the new 3310 taps into a niche that some people are starting to want: A phone that can do a few things well, instead of a whole lot of things only to die by lunch time.
Early reportage on the 3310 seems to indicate there’s a place for a device like this, possibly as as a secondary phone used for travel or nights out to avoid the constant distraction (and battery-life) of a smartphone. It also easily fits in your pocket, unlike most smartphones today that sport tablet-size screens. Plus, it’ll be a good option in emerging markets thanks to the $52 price. It’s cute, but can’t do much. Which is the point. The biggest appeal seems to literally be its limited capabilities. Do people really want something that can’t do all that much on purpose?
It raises the interesting question of the evolving appeal of devices that are limited by design. And it’s not just with phones. Writing apps designed to essentially turn your laptop into a distraction-free typewriter are gaining popularity by the day, while Nintendo just launched its new Switch videogame console without so much as a Netflix app (though that will likely come later), instead opting to keep the focus on what it’s designed to do — play games. Throwback instant cameras like this one are enjoying a resurgence, despite the fact that the iPhone 7 Plus can beat most entry-level DSLRs. Even sales of print books are starting to recover after being decimated by e-books, and the print medium itself is seeing a resurgence (Paste itself just launched a revamped version of its print edition, as one prime example). Then there’s the fact that vinyl music sales have climbed so high distributors can barely keep up with production demand anymore.
We live in an age where we can literally have anything at our fingertips, but that also means literally everything is at your fingertips. It can make for information and sensory overload, and makes it harder to be present in what you’re doing when all you can think about are the millions of other things you could be doing instead. It’s the sentiment behind physically putting a record on a turntable and dropping a needle. It’s the reason we use apps to quiet down Slack and Twitter while we write. It’s the reason we want to hold a physical book in our hands and read that one story from beginning to end. And yeah, it’s the reason we may want a “dumb” phone that won’t constantly ping us with Facebook notifications and tempt us to Instagram that beach photo instead of just being present and enjoying the sunset.
No, digital media, e-books, smartphones and all the like we use in our lives aren’t going anywhere. For the most part, they’re great — that’s the reason we use them so much. You can’t beat the convenience of having an entire library in your pocket, or the whole Spotify catalog on your phone. But, there looks to be some space for a feature-focused resistance; devices that do a few things well and are content to be that way. Put simply: There’s something refreshing about having a phone that you know will actually work without needing a charge the next day. Or knowing the screen on my paperback copy of Ready Player One isn’t going to break if I accidentally drop it.
The 3310 could be an interesting test case for this feature-focused resistance, and if Nokia actually pulls it off, it could be the start of something fascinating. Let’s just not go too crazy — it’s not like we need a new Motorola RAZR, or anything.