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The retro mobile phone?

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.

7 thoughts on “The retro mobile phone?”

  1. grady and I were asked to be in the pogue video while we were at the NYT’s “farewell 43rd street” party last week, and we declined. what fools we were!

  2. eh so my 1100 was specially made for these environments? nice to know.

    I used to think mobile phone cameras where a bug. but now I see them as essential tools of citizen journalism.

    bluetooth was this silly network people used to waste time. but it turns out to be the perfect way to spread viral political propaganda without being caught.

    so who knows maybe the silliness that is the iphone will actually have a positive effect.

  3. I still have my T28. It does everything I need a phone to do, ie makes calls. And I can use the bluetooth to do all the whizzy internet stuff on my (very small) palm TX via a local rate dial-up ISP number.

    However I’m using my K750i because, as Alaa points out, the potential of images is so great. Also it too has a torch, surprisingly powerful and easily accessible and very useful in London.

    But I’m sooooooo desperate for an iPhone. Maybe in a couple of years when they’ve added the torch feature which is currently sadly lacking :-)

  4. I’d also make a similar leap and look at retro-automobiles. In the third world, there’s a preference for toyota and other used cars (from the 90’s – not the latest models) that are not too high tech. You need a comfortable, fuel effecient car, with simple systems and which is easiy repairable by a roadside mechanic – not a high-tech car that requires a computer diagnotics machine to determine why there’s a problem with the engine or suspension

  5. Ah this reminds me of my mum who – at her age of 64 – doesn’t want to change her current Nokia 3310 into a modern one with a coloured display and cam.

    As for Kenya, at least, getting a GPRS enabled phone (= a modern phone) makes sense as it’s still the most convenient way of getting online. Hence the many dealers on Moi Avenue & Tom Mboya Street in Nbo who offer these mainly unlocking services – also since most phones sold there are in fact imports from Dubai & Co: used phones that have been refurbished and somtimes even require some flashing of the internal firmware.

    Interestingly, many ppl actually buy these fancy phones with lots of nice features (because they like to show off) – but have no idea on how to download shot pics & videos from their phone to a computer. I call them the “geek sapeurs”. The are the very same ones that will pull out their phone every 5 seconds, playing with it like little boys.

    Coming back to the iPhone – I think what really rocks is the GUI and Apple’s marketing, but other than that I prefer a phone that just works and does the most basic jobs without hanging. My Nokia 6230i, for instance, always does a warm start whenever I start the internal mp3 player. The TFT screen is bright enough, though, to substitute the missing LED :-).

    I would like to see more energy-generating phones instead of just fancy GUIs and apps. Something where the electric energy is generated the moment you need it and not stored in a draining battery.

  6. “You need a comfortable, fuel effecient car, with simple systems and which is easiy repairable by a roadside mechanic – not a high-tech car that requires a computer diagnotics machine to determine why there’s a problem with the engine or suspension”

    Renault makes a car designed for developing countries, the Logan:

    “The Logan is based on the B platform that is used by the third generation Renault Clio, Renault Modus and the latest version of the Nissan Micra. It has 50% fewer parts than a high-end Renault vehicle and has a limited number of electronic devices. In addition to making the car less costly to produce, this also makes it easier and cheaper to repair. As with many low-cost vehicles, a large amount of soundproofing was omitted, meaning that road vibrations, engine sound and wind noise are noticeable for the passengers.

    Some parts are also much simpler than those of its competitors. For example, rear-view mirrors are symmetrical and can be used on either sides of the car, the windshield is flatter than usual, and the dashboard is a single injection-molded piece.

    The developers have taken into account several differences between road and climate conditions in developed and developing countries. The Logan suspension is soft and strong, and the chassis sits visibly higher than most other superminis to help it negotiate dirt roads and potholes on ill-maintaned asphalt roads. The engine is specially prepared to handle lower quality fuel, whereas the air conditioning is powerful enough to lower temperature several degrees (above 40ºC are common in the Middle East and Mediterranean Sea).”

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