One of the most surprising unveilings at the recent Mobile World Congress was the Nokia 3310, a reboot of a 17 year-old feature phone that stands out as intentionally basic amidst a dizzying world of smartphone bells and whistles. This phone boasts no cinema-quality camera, no super-fast internet, and no Candy Crush. In exchange, it offers a month-long battery life, a simplified user interface, and a price point of $49.
To me, this phone is a signal to emerging markets that the mobile industry has not forgotten that much of the world—about 37 percent of people in developing markets and 24 percent of people in developed markets, according to GSMA—will still not be using a smartphone by 2020. These populations are not making the shift for reasons like cost, battery life, and connectivity limitations. For them, the Nokia 3310 is a promising announcement.
In his research on the technology infrastructure surrounding digital financial services, CFI Fellow Leon Perlman points out that while feature phones are not disappearing any time soon, the choices for feature phones and options for people who need them repaired are shrinking. Perlman’s research, which will come out later this spring, underscores the need for the mobile industry to continue to provide valuable infrastructure to people who have not switched to smartphones. He cites the continued prevalence of USSD-based mobile money interfaces, which feature phones can utilize and which do not require internet connection, as a major incentive for continued investment in technology infrastructure for feature phones. If people cannot safely and effectively access their mobile wallets without switching to shiny new smartphones, mobile money will cease to be as inclusive as it claims to be.
Skeptics dismiss the re-launch of the 3310 as mere nostalgia or a “digital detox” fad in an environment where connectivity is currency. But for a smallholder farmer living in a rural area with limited or intermittent electricity, the phone could be a lifeline to send and receive money, get independent commodity pricing quotes while negotiating a sale of crops, or keep in touch with family members who have migrated. This phone is a welcome acknowledgement from Nokia that the world has not forgotten that there is, and will continue to be, a market for simple and sturdy feature phones.
What’s more, the phone has two SIM card slots. In markets with competitive mobile environments, people use multiple SIM cards for multiple phone numbers and mobile wallets so they can take advantage of various networks’ discounts and promotions. I heard an anecdote last year about a research team that was asking people about their savings activity. One respondent pulled a SIM card in a small plastic bag out of his shirt pocket and said it was where he saved. No one in his social network knew about the savings, and he choose to keep the savings on a network that he never used to make calls simply so that he would not be tempted to draw from it frequently. For this man, having two SIM card slots in his phone would mean not having to keep the savings in a small plastic bag in his pocket. He could effectively have two mobile money accounts with two different purposes on his phone at all times.
My prediction is that while the phone will be snatched up by nostalgic consumers and hipsters looking to detox from our highly connected world, its most grateful customer will be low-income consumers in environments with limited connectivity.
Of course, essential to mention is the last reason you should care about the new phone: it comes with the game Snake. I for one am looking forward to getting my name on the leaderboard by not letting my snake eat its tail without first filling up the screen.
Nokia 3310 image from Nokia’s website.
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