A 17-year-old Nokia phone is all anyone’s talking about at Mobile World Congress

February 27, 2017, 11:53am

It was widely leaked ahead of time, but the relaunch of the Nokia 3310 feature phone has been the biggest story to come out of Mobile World Congress, the world’s most important smartphone trade show, taking place in Barcelona this week. But this story is more about the stagnating smartphone industry than the rising nostalgia for a simpler time.

The original Nokia 3310, launched in 2000, became one of the best-selling mobile phones ever, with its low price and durability driving sales of over 126 million units. The new model, launched Sunday by HMD Global — which is licensing the Nokia brand — hopes to tap into the nostalgia people have for the phone. Pitches play up its monthlong battery life, low price (around $50), iconic ringtones, and the ability to play a new version of Snake, the pre-cursor to “Angry Birds” and the original mobile phone time-waster. (Once king of the mobile phone market, Nokia failed to fully recognize how big smartphones would become, and ultimately sold its mobile phone business in 2014 to Microsoft in a doomed deal worth over $7 billion.)

By today’s smartphone standards, the 3310 looks like a relic with outdated specs (it doesn’t even have 3G), a tiny screen (that isn’t even a touchscreen), and physical keys. But that’s kind of the point: HMD believes there’ll be plenty of demand from people seeking to lighten their digital load.

Though the 3310 is grabbing all the headlines, HMD also launched three Android-based smartphones to compete in the mid-to-low end of the market. These and dozens of other phones launched at the event so far face a market that’s seen growth slow dramatically in the last 12 months — growth in 2016 was down to single figures compared to over 11 percent in 2015 and 27 percent in 2014 — with competition so fierce that only a handful of companies are making any real money.

Still in the game with high-profile devices in Barcelona: South Korean company LG launched its flagship model for 2016, the G6, which features a large 5.7-inch screen with a unique 18:9 aspect ratio. Huawei, the Chinese company aiming to overtake Apple as the world’s second-biggest smartphone maker by next year, also launched its big phone for 2017, the P10, which builds on the success of last year’s P9 with improved camera technology and new color options.

There were also new phones from Sony, Oppo, and even a BlackBerry-branded phone, but the fact that most of the media attention has been on a so-called “dumb phone” shows that real innovation in the smartphone market is a difficult thing to get right.

Analysts warn all the fuss HMD has made over its gimmicky 3310 could make people forget it makes smartphones, too: “The launch of the new reimagined Nokia 3310 feature phone threatens to overshadow HMD’s modern smartphones,” IHS lead mobile analyst Ian Fogg told VICE News in an email. “HMD must avoid the Nokia brand being seen as purely a nostalgia brand.”