Let’s all agree that this has not been a year of feel-good stories in tech. Whether it’s Facebook privacy or YouTube algorithms, the headlines out of Silicon Valley have been a dismal parade of lapses and letdowns. So let’s take a moment to appreciate the one thread development everyone can get behind: Nokia’s perfect throwback party.
You may not know the Nokia 3310 or 8110 by name, but you’d recognize them in a heartbeat. They’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 you’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 reboot—looking at you, Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—has instead turned out two thoughtfully designed and executed devices. And they couldn’t have come at a better time.
A quick clarification: HMD is a company that makes the phones—both smart and feature—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 Nokia’s headquarters, and was founded by former Nokia employees—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 year’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 improvements—smoothed over edges, a 2-megapixel camera, a web browser—to be viable today. Oh, and its battery still lasts a month.
That balance took more work than you might think.
“We actually took a long time to deconstruct the original 3310,” says Sarvikas. As it turned out, recreation required a certain degree of invention. “One 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.”
And the reason it didn’t exist is fairly simple: Feature phones are cheap, which means they’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.
“Having attractive feature phones, standing out on design, when the other vendors who are doing feature phones are really plain vanilla, is a smart strategy,” says Avi Greengart, tech analyst with GlobalData.
That’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 hadn’t had to accommodate internals for 2G or 3G signals; the 2017 model launched with the former, and got a network upgrade last fall. “It’s not about simply throwing together a nice-looking shape for the design. There’s a lot of very advanced engineering and asset development that you need to do. It’s amazing how much a couple of millimeters matter,” says Sarvikas.
This year’s 8110—that’s the banana phone, which you’ll remember best from The Matrix—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 doesn’t exist any more. The phone doesn’t just curve; part of it pops down with the push of a button.
“How do you configure the length versus the thickness versus the actual physical curvature of the banana,” says Sarvikas. “As you’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.”
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. “The spinning is the ultimate party trick,” 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 company’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, Nokia—again, really HMD—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. That’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 they’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.
“Is this going to make them number one? Obviously I don’t think that’s going to happen,” says Tuong Nguyen, a mobile analyst with Gartner. “But 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.”
'The spinning is the ultimate party trick.'
Juho Sarvikas, HMD
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 don’t feel unmoored, but not enough to keep you glued to its 2.4-inch display.
“I think there’s an increasing number of people who want to buy a secondary device,” says Sarvikas. “Most often it’s something you want to use to switch off a bit.”
A second phone, Sarvikas argues, still needs to offer what he calls “lifeline communications,” particularly messenger services that have gradually subsumed SMS. But maybe you don’t need Instagram or Candy Crush while you’re taking a long weekend. Maybe you just need a banana phone and Snake.
“For me as a tech geek, I’m a little bit excited about the Nokia products,” says Nguyen. “I’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 I’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 they’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 they’re nowhere near done.
“There’s so much to draw from, and there are so many cool emerging technologies,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll run out of fun things to do any time soon.”