In retrospect, the story of all these devices’ downfall is an obvious one. BlackBerry and Palm had failed to guess that smartphones would appeal to a general audience, not just to business users. They’d also mistaken the physical keyboard for a requirement. And all the rest of them, flip or clamshell or candy-bar, had assumed that phone calls and text messages would define portable handheld computing.
Instead, in 2007, Apple made a general-purpose touch-interface computer in the form of a thin glass rectangle, which others have copied and adapted ever since. 10 years later all anyone does, pretty much, is stroke and fondle one of these things, all day long. And for the privilege, consumers pay big bucks, continuously, to keep up with planned obsolescence reinvented as seasonal fashion.
The shame of a habit can only emerge once it has reached ubiquity. Even though the risk of compulsive obsession with smartphones was clear halfway into their ten-year life, the trauma of that obsession is only starting to dawn on people.
There are reasons. Years of odious abuse on services like Twitter and Reddit have finally mestastasized into resigned admission. The logic of amplifying information based on popularity, as Google and Facebook do, has finally revealed its obvious downsides. The demand of constant, unceasing attention from apps like Snapchat and games like Candy Crush Saga has begun to feel like the unpaid labor it always was.
For years, internet-driven, mobile computing technology was heralded as either angel or devil. Only recently has it become possible to admit that it might be both. Cigarettes, after all, produce pleasure even as they slowly kill.
Given the rising angst of a society run by technology, Nokia might have picked the perfect time to introduce an antidote to the smartphone. But even under today’s conditions, it is tempting to see the new Nokia 3310 merely as another example of retro nostalgia. Ha-ha, what if you could get a dumbphone instead? It would pair perfectly with a milk crate full of vinyl albums. But it’s also possible that the 3310 marks the start of a new period of technological mobility. One that offers a sense of how even the most entrenched technological habits might yet turn out differently.
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Phones like the Nokia 3310 never went fully extinct, despite the geological devastation of the iPhonecene. Thanks to their low cost, feature phones have remained popular in the developing world, where they have always been more common than traditional computers. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, smartphones only overtook feature phones sales in the last two years. HMD Global, the Finnish company that licensed Nokia technology and branding back from Microsoft sees more opportunity in these markets. Late last year, the company unveiled two new, $25 feature phone models, marketed to the billions of feature phone users in Europe, the Asia Pacific, India, the Middle East, and Africa.