Why Nokia’s feature phone nostalgia stole the thunder from this year’s flagships

Mobile World Congress kicked off over the weekend with press conferences from Samsung, Sony, LG and Motorola. But all anyone seems to care about is a 17-year-old device. A reboot. A candy bar feature phone whose main selling point is its ability to play Snake, eclipsing BlackBerry’s own nostalgia-themed KeyOne smartphone. That feels like as bold an indictment of the mobile industry as any.

It’s strange, really at first glance. It’s not like feature phones ever truly went away. They didn’t suddenly vanish from the Earth rapture-style the minute Steve Jobs showed off the first iPhone. You can still buy them cheaply. And yet, HMD’s Nokia 3310 seems to have garnered more excitement at the show than any new flagship, including LG’s G6, a device on which the South Korean handset maker seems to have hung its fortunes.

Funny, really, that LG noted during its press conference that the future of mobile innovation will be about usability than specs, just before talking up its fancy new aspect ratio, perhaps the speckiest spec of them all. LG was right, of course, the smartphone war has too often been waged as a war of specs, but the company’s execution was off.

Ten years after the iPhone came along and transformed the mobile industry, consumers and pundits alike have grown weary of a war over incremental updates like display resolutions and megapixels. After ten years of hard fought iteration, what is arguably the stalest phone of the show feels strangely like a breath of fresh air.

Call it smartphone fatigue. The churn of the yearly upgrade cycles and the flood of me-too handsets seems to have hit a breaking point, so much so that the solid gimmick of reviving a feature phone nearly old enough to vote in the US overshadowed a handful of the year’s biggest smartphone announcements.

I’d like to suggest that the sentiment is symptomatic of some larger trend to return to simpler technological times, that the 3310 in the beginning of a nostalgia movement among smartphone buyers akin the vinyl movement of the last several years. But really, the only larger trend the 3310 is indicative of is our desire of a break from the endless parade of pomp around minor smartphone upgrades.

So appreciate HMD’s weird little device for what it is: a momentary respite from the smartphone churn before this game of Snake starts eating its own tail yet again.