- By Suzanne Bearne
- business reporter
Robin West, 17, is an anomaly among her peers: she does not own a smartphone (smartphone).
Instead of scrolling through apps like TikTok and Instagram all day, she uses what’s called a dumbphone.
These are basic handsets or feature phones with very limited functionality compared to for example an iPhone. In general, you can only make and receive calls and text messages. And if you are lucky, you can listen to the radio and take very basic pictures, but certainly not connect to the internet or apps.
These devices are similar to some of the early handsets purchased in the late 1990’s.
Mrs West’s decision to part with her old smartphone two years ago was made on a whim. While looking for a replacement device in a thrift store, she was attracted to the low price of a “cell phone” (also called a cell phone).
His current device, from the French company MobiWire, cost him only 10 euros. And since it does not have the functionality of a smartphone, she does not have to worry about an expensive monthly data bill.
“I did not notice until I bought a cell phone how much the smartphone took over my life,” she says. “I had a lot of social media apps on it, and I didn’t do that much work because I was always on my phone.”
The Londoner adds that she is not thinking of buying another smartphone one day. “I love my brick – I do not think it limits me. I am certainly more proactive.”
Mobile phones continue to enjoy a revival. Google searches for them increased 89% between 2018 and 2021, according to a report by software company SEMrush.
And while sales figures are hard to come by, a report says global purchases of dumbphones are expected to hit one billion units last year, up from 400 million in 2019. That compares with global sales of 1.4 billion smartphones last year, after a 12.5% decline in 2020.
Meanwhile, a 2021 study by accounting firm Deloitte said one in 10 mobile phone users in the UK had a dumbphone.
“It seems that fashion, nostalgia and their appearance in TikTok videos have a role to play in the revival of dumbphones,” says Ernest Doku, mobile expert at the price comparison site Uswitch.com. “Many of us had a dumbphone as our first cell phone, so it’s only natural that we feel a sense of nostalgia for these classic handsets.”
Sir. Doku says it was the 2017 relaunch of the Nokia 3310 handset – first released in 2000, and one of the best-selling mobile phones ever – that really triggered this revival. “Nokia pushed the 3310 as an affordable alternative in a world filled with high-specific mobiles.”
He adds that while it’s true that dumbphones cannot compete with the latest high-end models from Apple and Samsung in terms of performance or features, “they can surpass them in just as important areas as battery life and durability”.
Five years ago, Przemek Olejniczak, a psychologist, replaced his smartphone with a Nokia 3310, first because of the longer battery life. But he quickly realized that there were other benefits.
“Before, I always sat glued to the phone, checking everything and anything, scrolling through Facebook or the news or other facts that I didn’t need to know,” he says.
“Now I have more time for my family and for myself. A huge plus is that I am not dependent on liking, sharing, commenting or describing my life to other people. Now I have more life privately.”
New Tech Economy is a series that explores how technological innovation will shape the new economic landscape.
Olejniczak, who lives in the Polish city of Lodz, however, admits that the change was initially difficult. “Before, I used to check everything, like buses and restaurants, on my smartphone when I was traveling. Now it’s impossible, so I learned to do all these things in advance at home. I go there like I’m used to . “
One of the manufacturers of mute phones is the New York company Light Phone. Slightly smarter than the norm for this type of product, its handset allows users to listen to music and podcasts and is connected to Bluetooth for headphones. Still, the company promises that its phones “never have social media, news-clickbait, email, Internet browser or any other anxious endless stream.”
The company says it had its best year ever in terms of financial results in 2021, with sales up 150% compared to 2020. And that is despite the fact that its handsets are expensive for stupid phones – prices start at 99 CFA59.053 (£ 75).
Light Phone co-founder Kaiwei Tang explains that the device was originally created as a secondary phone for people who, for example, wanted to take a break from their smartphone for a weekend, but now half of the company’s customers use it as their primary device.
“If aliens came to Earth, they would think that cell phones are the superior species that control humans,” he says. “And it will not stop, it will only get worse. Consumers realize that something is wrong and we want to offer an alternative.”
Mr. Tang adds that the company’s largest customers are surprisingly between 25 and 35 years old. He says he expected buyers to be much older.
Prof Sandra Wachter, a technology expert and senior researcher in artificial intelligence at the University of Oxford, says it’s understandable that some of us are looking for simpler mobile phones.
“One can reasonably say that today, a smartphone’s ability to connect calls and send short messages is almost a secondary function,” she explains. “Your smartphone is your entertainment center, your news generator, your navigation system, your calendar, your dictionary and your wallet.”
She adds that smartphones “will always catch your attention” with notifications, updates and breaking news that constantly disrupt your day. “It can keep you going, maybe even be restless. It can be overwhelming.”
Professor Wachter adds: “It makes sense that some of us are now looking for simpler technologies and believe that mobile phones can offer a return to simpler times. They may allow more time to focus fully on a single task and focus on it in a more focused way. They can even reassure people. Studies have shown that too many choices can create unhappiness and restlessness. “
But back in London, Robin West says many people are confused about his choice of motive. “Everyone thinks it’s just a temporary thing. They say, ‘So when are you going to get a smartphone? Are you going to get one this week?’
Additional reporting from New Tech Economy series author Will Smale.