I make a lousy futurist, and an even worse cool-hunter. (Trust me. If you’ve ever seen how I dress, you’ll understand that I have absolutely no business talking about fashion trends.) But I’m going to go out on a limb and predict the rise of mobile phone nostalgia.
I’m not talking about the rPhone… though I desperately want one, or at least a full set of the brass cylinders used in the integral French music box. Or about the Phobile, which looks like something very much worth owning, though not especially helpful. (A competitor to the makers of the Phoblia – Mockia – also offer a truly wonderful model, called the Banokia. You should click that link.) No, it’s my belief that the rise of the iPhone is going to help convince some mobile users that they want phones that do less, but do it very well.
David Pogue’s wonderful (and very funny) video overview of the iPhone is going help convince even people to spend tomorrow night standing in line waiting to pay $500 for one of these shiny things. There’s a second group of people (which includes me) who desperately want one, but are waiting for the price to drop, the battery life to increase, the size to shrink. And there’s a third group of people who aren’t going to buy one because they don’t want their phone to display their photos, show them videos or play music.
A good friend of mine recently upgraded her phone – a clunky, eight year old Nokia 3210 – to a sleek Nokia 6265i, a sexy little number that looks like it’s wearing a black cocktail dress and heels. She switched back about a month later, begging her office manager for her old phone back. The reason? The old phone did a far better job of making and receiving phone calls, as the new phone was distorted, hard to hear and had worse battery life.
One instance doesn’t make a trend, and neither does a second… but I was intrigued to hear Nathan Eagle from MIT’s Media Lab mention that his girlfriend had desperately wanted a particular older model of mobile phone, and that he was able to visit “cellphone alley” in Nairobi and get a custom-made phone for her, picking the innards of the phone she wanted and her choice of case, paying about $15 for the device.
What’s interesting to me is that these phone hackers weren’t offering just new phones, but a wide range of used phones, some of which make more sense in a developing world environment. If you don’t have electric power in your house, you really, really want a phone with long standby time and a quickly charging battery. Five megapixel camera? Probably a bug rather than a feature if you’re looking for low cost and long battery life. Nokia has actually designed a phone specifically for these environments, the 1100, which includes a flashlight. (Why a flashlight? Ever walk around a developing world city late at night? My friend Tomas Krag refers to the flashlight as the “integrated sewer avoidance system”. It’s a very key feature.)
Earlier today, I considered emailing Eagle and asking for directions to cellphone alley for the next time I’m in Nairobi. As much as I want to play with the iPhone, what I really want is to make sure that I can buy a replacement for my beloved Nokia 6820 when it finally bites the dust. There’s really nothing sexy about it – it just does what I want a phone to do and does it remarkably well. I realize that clinging to this phone in the age of the iPhone is approximately equivalent to using a Mac Classic for your word processing… but I remember Nicholas Negroponte giving a talk where he claimed he was far more productive on his old Mac Plus than on a contemporary laptop, because while the laptop was faster (in terms of processor speed), it was so packed with cruft that it ran more slowly. (It’s worth reading this side by side comparison of a 1986 Mac Plus with a 2007 AMD DualCore.)
There may be hope for those retrophoners in the crowd – Retrobrick has a lovely selection of antique analog and digital mobile phones, including the Motorola 3300, which looks like you could use as a chock for a truck tire. (According to the site, this phone actually works with a modern SIM card, giving you the potential to turn lots of heads as this phone rings and you fish it out of your briefcase.) The Nokia 3210 isn’t listed on the site, but the Ericsson T28 is, a remarkably sleek and light little device, which might make a nice entry into retrophonehood at only £25. A trend? I don’t know, but now I know where to look when my 6820 finally reaches the end of the line.