The first time I attended Mobile World Congress was in 2011, the year when smartphone manufacturers ran out of ideas and tried to convince us all that phones really needed 3D screens. Those phones made so little impact on the world that they’re pretty much forgotten nowadays. In fact, they were pretty much forgotten before they were released.
That experience highlighted to me that despite what the tech industry might prefer, consumer trends are decided by… consumers. All the marketing muscle in the world can’t make the public embrace a bad idea — even if multiple manufacturers push it simultaneously.
Also that year, I attended a muted and decidedly boring Nokia press ‘event’ where nothing much of note occurred. The company’s smartphone business was injured and limping towards an eventual sale to Microsoft, as the iOS and Android ecosystems started to bed into customers’ purchasing habits.
What then do we make of this year’s Mobile World Congress, where the phone manufacturers seem largely out of ideas again (marginal improvements all round!) but the Nokia brand is interesting again?
Still retro after all these years
HMD, the company that has licensed the Nokia brandname for a line smartphones that first launched last year, has revealed a range of mid-range handsets and a $749 flagship. No matter how good they may be, it’s hard to muster more than a shrug. Nokia still feels like a brand of yesteryear. Indeed, these not-quite-cutting-edge devices are likely to appeal to people who want that kind of old-school dependable name at the expense of the bells and whistles an iPhone or Galaxy S device might offer.
Most of the mainstream press excitement has been around HMD’s latest revival of a classic Nokia device. This year it’s the 8110, originally released in 1996 and colloquially known as ‘the Matrix phone’ thanks to its placement in that movie in 1999. Even with in its new incarnation with updated innards, it’s resolutely a feature-LESS phone compared to most devices on the market.
The Nokia 7600, from 2003: adventurous, ridiculous, or both?
If you’re going on a digital detox, it might be the device for you, but I expect most of the people pleased by the 8110’s return will stick with their iPhones, Galaxies or Nexuses once they’ve revelled in nostalgia for a few minutes. For all we talk about simplifying our lives, most of us couldn’t function without a proper smartphone now.
Without the buzz around that retro remake to bolster them, the other new Nokia phones would be nothing much to write home (or a think piece) about. Nokia is yesterday’s brand paired with some phones that offer nothing particularly exciting. Compare this to how brave Nokia was a decade ago. Sure, some of their designs were a bit silly looking back (remember the Tamagotchi-like 7600?), but the modern idea of phone innovation is some slightly different glass and a slightly better camera.