Dumb-phones are the future… Why Nokia's relaunch is more than just nostalgia

Nokia 3310


Don’t get me wrong, I do feel that sense of genuine nostalgia at the thought of playing Snake again, but aside from that I’m really not wedded to the idea of retro phones. Sure you could forget to charge it for about a year and still be fine, but that was at a time when a phone was really for, well, phoning people. Unscientifically, I use my current phone approximately a squillion times more per day on average, so on balance that’s probably about the same.

However, regardless of how well the relaunched Nokia 3310 goes down with dewy-eyed Gen X-ers (like me) or hipster Gen Z-ers, I am convinced that dumb devices are the future. By dumb of course I don’t mean terrible monochrome displays or pull-out aerials, I mean not focusing on embedding increasingly sophisticated technology within the device itself and instead emphasising the role of the device as simple intermediary between you and the digital world.

I say this not because there’s any superiority or resurgence in old school technology, but for three very pragmatic reasons that mean the devices we’re using are becoming less and less important as components in our experience as consumers.

1.       The AI services we’re increasingly using don’t sit on your device

Bots and AI-driven services rely on sophisticated processing that for the most part takes place in the cloud. Near ubiquitous connectivity makes this a realistic prospect in a way that my 1990s self could only have dreamt of while passing the internet cable between machines (and disconnecting the fax to achieve this). That means the slab of metal and plastic you carry now is more about having a means to interact with external services than having anything clever built-in. Increasingly anything you do can simply be passed to intelligent services that process the outcome and send the results back. We’ve seen the potential of this even with streaming high-end gaming, so it’s unlikely that your latest productivity app or phone game is going to pose much difficulty. A decent resolution screen, camera and fast connectivity are hardly a high bar to set for the hardware we’ll need.

2.       Conversational interfaces laugh at your puny UI

The second reason is that many on device experiences become redundant when we have the opportunity to interact in a way that’s far more intuitive than your interface will ever be… through natural language dialogue. Conversational experiences (CUI) are beginning to transform the way that we can engage with online services, and given that this feels more natural whether you’re a kid playing with an AI Barbie or a baby boomer booking a restaurant, it’s no surprise that the top downloads for 2016 were messaging apps. These messaging interfaces typically don’t require fancy hardware, just a keyboard or microphone, so the barrier to entry is pretty low indeed.

3.       Cross-device platforms and transitioning across devices are winning

In our multi-channel, multi-device world we are becoming normalised to starting tasks on one device and completing on another. I regularly start watching something on a mobile but pick it up via the Playstation or an iPad when at home. In this setup the ‘slab’ is merely that, a receptacle for data that varies in size based on my context and preference. In this environment, the complexity (processing data and maintaining a synchronised ‘state’) doesn’t sit with the device it sits with the cloud service, reinforcing that the future demands on the device won’t increase in relation to the demands of the services you access through them.

We’ve become addicted to the concept of ever-evolving and improving smartphones, each iteration ratcheting up the specs and features in a crippling arms race. However, when you combine ubiquitous super-fast connectivity and powerful AI cloud-based services then the logical conclusion would appear to be that the devices are not where the action will be happening.

So bring on the dumb phones please.


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