Mobile World Congress is all about the latest technology, so it was with some surprise among nearly all the top tech and telecoms executives that it was a so-called dumb phone from the early noughties which basically won the event
But could the classic Nokia 3310 feature phone (with addictive game Snake, naturally) be just the first? Should the world be preparing for the return of the 8110 - aka, the Matrix phone?
Jon French, vice president for Western Europe of HMD Global, the Finnish firm staffed by many a Nokia veteran which is bringing the brand back to phones via a brand licensing agreement, indicated to City A.M. nothing can be ruled out.
“We’re going to continue to have fun, we’re having fun now… there’s a lot of energy and a lot of passion and we’ve got a tremendous amount of assets,” he said, though would not be drawn on any specific plans for devices.
HMD is not revealing its goal for any of the new Nokias in terms of sales. “We don’t honestly have a business plan” said French, but believes it will be commercially successful, rolling out to 20 countries and 500 trade customers globally from day one.
“And that’s possible because of the love and the familiarity of the brand,” he said. “My hope is that it will do very very well.”
“We know that we can be very successful in this business. We want to be one of the world’s biggest companies. This partner model we’ve got, the knowledge that we have, the customers that we’ve got, people want us to come back. We genuinely think we can be one of the world’s largest players.”
He’s been on the receiving end of hugs over the phone’s return from people he’s never met before and shows a glimmer of pride in hearing that executives here to talk about themselves are being asked about the 3310’s return. And any concern over whether remaking the iconic phone will overshadow it’s three new smartphones is shooed away.
“The things we will advertise around the phones to customers are true to the brand,” he says, and they will all go to market at the same time in the second quarter. “You want them to understand it’s part of the story, it’s not the story itself.”
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Neither is French concerned about competition or the state of the smartphone market: analyst Ben Wood at CCS Insight called the 3310 stealing the headlines “a damning indictment” of the market which it has labelled the “sea of sameness”.
“You’ve got to be laser focused on yourself. I’ve been asked quite a few questions about the competitive landscape and you can’t answer that. You have to put all your time and effort and all your focus [into yourself] as a startup. 450 people is not a lot of people for a global company. If you think about that [what else is going on] you’ve ‘become distracted from what you’ve got to do yourself,” he said.
French was head of Samsung in the UK for six years and boasts an impressive CV with stints at HTC, Microsoft and Beats. He started his career at Nokia in 1997 and thinks he was probably the last employee hired into it before it was disasterously taken over by Microsoft in 2014. You might say he’s come full circle.
For now the “startup” is concentrating on innovation, which includes a rare move by a smartphone maker. The three smartphones run pure Android, Google’s operating system unadulterated by any additional features traditionally added by other manufacturers.
While some may dismiss the resurrection as a gimmick, French is confident that it is in fact, fulfilling the needs of customers aching for a digital detox in an overwhelming world of multiple screens and streams of content.
“It’s about that time when you need a device, and you don’t need £800 worth of tech in your pocket, and maybe you want to take your wife for dinner, and really take your wife for dinner. Or you wanna play with your kids, and you really want to play with your kids,” he said.
“With a smartphone I can do anything anytime. I have a huge amount of technology in my pocket, which I can use in any given scenario,” he says of the three other mid-range Nokia devices unveiled, but which have been somewhat overshadowed by their predecessor.
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“The 3310 is almost a compliment to the smartphone” says French, a companion phone almost. “It’s a way to be connected as valid as a smartphone keeps you connected as well. It’s no different.”
“There is that instance when you think, you know what, I don’t need all that. And I want something that I know is going to work. I know the battery is going to last. I know I’m going to turn it on and I charged it last month and it’s still going to be there for me. And that’s the usage scenario,” he said.
“Everyone loves all the devices and I’m not saying they love this one more, but they smile when they see this one.
“It is nostalgia. It’s clearly got an emotive quality to it and you can see it triggering memories. I’ve been showing this to customers the last couple of days or so and they’re trying to remember the key lock,” he said. And for those with a vague recollection of the action, it’s menu, star, remember? HMD soon want you to, anyway.