At the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, we saw two formerly great smartphone brands — Nokia and BlackBerry — try to win their way back into consumers' hearts with the relaunch of decidedly old-school gadgets. BlackBerry Mobile, whose name is licensed to Chinese electronics maker TCL, introduced its newest throwback with the BlackBerry KeyOne, an Android phone that looks like an updated, more modern version of the BlackBerry 9900. Nokia, now run by HMD Global, just decided to straight-up bring back the 3310 form-factor, but with a colour screen, a camera and crazy battery life.
I'm a huge fan of retro gadgets — the NES Classic Edition was one of my favourite pieces of tech from 2016 — but I'm decidedly against this trend of brand revivals in the name of nostalgia. It's one thing to launch a retro console that lets you play classic games on the cheap; it's another to try to compete with actual smartphones simply on the basis of a name that was popular 10 years ago.
In fact, this resurgence of nostalgia tech really underscores a giant problem with the tech space in general: Innovation. Rather than trying to bring out an innovative and cutting edge smartphone in 2017, it seems like TCL is hoping that people too afraid of change to buy an iPhone already will suddenly appear in great numbers. Newsflash: A "at or under $799" Android phone with middling guts, whose only standout features are the keyboard and BlackBerry's much-hyped "security" stack, probably isn't going to bring legions of fans back to the brand. Plus, BlackBerry (the old one) already tried the nostalgia play with the Priv back in 2015. No one bought the phone, which is part of why BlackBerry outsourced all their mobile devices to TCL in the first place. A keyboard phone gets headlines but has little to offer consumers.
And that's because most people have moved beyond the physical keyboard. Sure, there might always be holdouts, but after years of development, virtual keyboards are simply better. A keyboard limits how much video you can watch, how much text is displayed on a screen and makes taking photos sort of a pain. TCL makes some decent Android devices, especially for the price. It's disappointing to see the BlackBerry Mobile brand focused so much on throwback, rather than trying to actually innovate in form factor or design.
The case with Nokia is almost sadder. I loved the 3310 when I was a kid, and I was sort of jazzed about a return to the form factor, but the actual product is a very cheap dumb phone that looks similar to something I carried around in Year 12 of high school. The market for this thing, even as a throwback accessory, seems incredibly small. Yes, there are parts of the world where a 2.5G dumb phone can make sense, especially when access to electricity is limited, but the big differentiator between the new Nokia 3310 and the other dumb phones sold under the Nokia brand name over the years seems to be the design. Plus, if you're going to go cheap, you can still do better than what the 3310 is offering.
And for anyone hoping that the Nokia brand would be ready to go head to head with other flagship phone makers when it comes to Android devices, think again. HMD's line of Android-based Nokia devices are very much aimed at low-end and emerging markets. I appreciate that the phones seem to have good build quality and are running stock Android, but consumers hoping for a modern, Android equivalent of the N8 or Lumia 800 will have to look elsewhere.
Again, Nokia was once one of the most innovative phone brands on the planet. Even with smartphones, Nokia made some excellent products back in the day. In fact, the N95 had features, like video recording and copy paste, that the iPhone wouldn't get for several years. It's sad to see a company that was innovative right until the bitter end reduced to a nostalgia play in 2017.
And let's face it, nostalgia tech is bad. I get it, we've reached peak smartphone and basic hunks of glass and metal are boring. But the solution isn't to simply throwback to a simpler time. Instead of focusing on what used to be cool, innovation should be moving forward to new form factors, interface motifs and ideas.
Last year, Motorola trolled us with a great throwback ad that made it seem like it would be coming out with a modern smartphone in a flip form factor. But it was all just a tease for a phone no one wanted. All the nostalgia play did was remind us that Motorola used to be cool, and now it's struggling to find an identity in the smartphone world.
Moreover, these nostalgia tech plays NEVER work. Recall that TCL bought the Palm brand back in 2015, with the intention of reviving it for a new generation of users. But a year later, TCL seemed to realise that the market for Palm Treo fans was a lot smaller than it thought, and it shelved the plans entirely.
Sony, a company that has gone through a lot of ups and downs over the years, has repeatedly tried to revive the Walkman brand — a brand the iPod murdered more than 15 years ago — over and over again. Each attempt is a little more ridiculous and a little more sad.
And of course, the most notable example of what happens when a gadget company is simply mined for nostalgia is Polaroid. At CES 2017, Polaroid had a sprawling booth littered with bad ideas — including Polaroid-badged low-end Android tablets and VR headsets. In the case of Polaroid, all of that licensing does nothing more than depress the genuinely neat stuff the company is pumping out.
We should hope for better from our tech than what has happened to Polaroid. TCL and HMD should hope for more than that too. It's not a good thing that most of the headlines around MWC this year have been tied to ageing smartphone brands trying to stir up interest in tech we forgot about a decade ago. I want the next generation of great smartphones, not reminders of a long-begone era.