“Because it just works,” is the standard, almost verbatim reply from people who still use their old Nokia 6310i cellphones told me in 2007. Despite an ever-advancing industry that pumps out new feature-laden handsets at a rate of furious innovation, there is a large contingent of people who cling faithfully to this iconic handset. The recent rumours of a possible relaunch of the equally iconic Nokia 3310 is reminiscent of the love that people had for these workhorse Nokia phones.
In 2007, the year the iPhone was launched, the Nokia 6310 was already an amusing anachronism in a world of increasingly powerful cellphones; many of which even then had the processing power, functionality and internet connection speed that a few years previously would have defined a desktop computer, a top-end one at that.
But the Nokia 6310 epitomises a curious tipping point in the evolution of the cellphone where it achieved a finely balanced nexus of functionality versus usability; and included that all-important feature so seldom seen on newer phones since: battery life.
It might be stretching it to call the 6310 the greatest cellphone ever made – except if you are one of the die-hard users – but it is certainly one of the greatest in the history of the industry; along with icons like the Motorola’s StarTac and Razr, the Nokia Communicator series, and the original, game-changing iPhone.
Launched in 2001, the 6310 was updated in 2002 as the 6310i and was discontinued in 2005. Later models like the Nokia 6600 (launched in 2003) became the first camera phone to sell over a million units, while the 6100 and 6610 (2002) were the first colour-screen phones to reach that million mark. The 3310 would sell 126m units, while Nokia’s best-selling phone was the very basic 1110 series, which has sold over 250m units.
There is something inherently cool in the 6310, and it is coveted like other redundant but still ground-breaking technology that have become collector’s items: Casio’s calculator watch, the Atari games console, Ericsson’s all-in-one landline phones with the circular dial below, and many others, have all become legends as breakthrough devices.
Sadly, although my Ericsson phone still works (a gift from my friend Judd), the telephone networks no longer support its analogue system, while my 6310i lies in a cupboard, broken by a careless assistant. For the record, I never owned a Casio calculator watch.
The 6310 was a kind of digital Swiss Army Knife of its day, and was, for a long time, the most powerful handset you could get in South Africa. This was an unofficial title it would hold onto for a long time, even after the earliest Nokia Communicators arrived, heralding the smartphone as we know it.
The 6310 combined several new and then innovative technologies, and combined them superbly with a robustness and battery life that frankly hasn’t been replicated. It had Bluetooth, then a new fangled wire-replacement technology for hands-free kits and for using your phone as a cellular modem for your laptop. It let you save more than the paltry 200 contacts your SIM card allowed at the time, and it let you save multiple numbers under one contact, including email addresses. To send an email, you had to type the recipient’s email address at the beginning of the SMS and had to send it to a special number, that rerouted it into the email universe. It was very cool at the time.
The 6310 also used the fastest data transfer of its day, called general packet radio services (GPRS), which at about 56 kilobits per second (kps) was roughly the same speed as a dial-up modem.
It introduced another ground-breaking technology called predictive text, a new way of entering letters to spell words that is today a mainstay of the SMS-mad world. Using the T9 predictive text dictionary, it even allowed you to enter upper and lower case letters, instead of the default capped texts. It was clever enough to capitalise the second word of a contact, guessing it would be a surname. In an SMS it would cap the word only after a full stop. And it had several days worth of battery life. Better yet, it clipped into the 6110 and 6210 car kits that had become popular.
It was a business phone that lived up to the early promises of all these technologies, combined them in a compact, hardy device and not only did they all work seamlessly, the phone just kept on going.
Six years after its release, Phillip de Wet was still using his 6310, despite having tried a plethora of alternatives. A former technology journalist who is now associate editor of Mail & Guardian newspaper, and who has had his fair share of exposure to new smartphones and other whiz-bang gadgets, De Wet was the most eloquent of a range of fanatically loyal 6310 users who swear by their phones, even then in the face of newer, slimmer and feature-laden models. “It’s for people who need a workmanlike phone rather than a f**king fashion statement,” he told me in 2007, just as the iPhone-led smartphone revolution was taking off.
“I’ve tried other phones. I’ve tried clamshells. I’ve tried sliders. I’ve tried multimedia phones,” he adds. “My most recent attempt was an HSDPA phone and other devices. But I’ve remained one of the club, one of the elite group of people who will use nothing else.”
He explains by way of an anecdote about how he was interviewing a black empowerment multimillionaire that he never met before: “As he was getting out of his million-rand luxury automobile, dressed in his bespoke Seville Row suit, with silk tie, etc, his phone rang and he took his 6310 out of his pocket; and that told me everything I need to know about him.”
De Wet says he was often asked why he didn’t go for something even simpler, like a Nokia 1100. “They assume in their pitiable ignorance that I am a Luddite that only wants to make phone calls,” he retorted. “Which is a mistake, I leverage the technology on the phone a lot. I use it as my GPRS modem for my laptop with Bluetooth. I use the voice dialling. The predictive SMS text is great.”
His laptop then was a suitably top-of-the-range MacBook Pro and only geeks would understand what technical prowess it took some years earlier to sync his then Windows-running iPAQ handheld with his old iMac long before third-party software was freely available to do this.
I have long argued that while new phones offer greater functionality and faster connection speeds, these extra antennae suck up battery life. “Get a car charger,” is my stock reply to requests for advice on new phones and how to buy one with sufficient battery life. With new 3G technologies like high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA), WiFi and Bluetooth being standard on top-end smartphones you do get significantly faster internet access but also greatly reduced battery performance.
De Wet says the 6310 “is at that technology sweet spot right where I need it. HSDPA sucks away too much battery life too quickly. That’s the rational thinking”.
But he adds “the irrational answer is it just works, it never breaks. I’ve dropped it out of aircraft, admittedly on the ground, half driven over it with my car. It really does appear to be indestructible”.
He adds to the list of his cellphone abuse: “I once fully submerged it then dried it out with a hairdryer, it just started working again.”
Laurence Brick, creative director of Loads of Living, for years kept his 6310 as a spare phone, and often ends up using it for weeks or months at a time. He’s using it now after his current phone broke. “It’s simple to use, strong and it just goes on forever,” he told me, before pinpointing the key feature: ”It just works.”
And it remained notably popular, said Michael Palmer, the managing director of the Nelson Mandela Square Vodashop, who used to gets regular requests for the phone, which is not insignificant considering his shop on the bridge between Sandton City must be one of the most highly trafficked cellular shops on the continent.
“It’s the best phone they ever made, customers tell me. People are begging us for them,” he said, adding that some people who still own them used to take their upgrades but still use it.
“They love it more than their husbands or wives. They would rather swap their wives than their 6310s.”
Indeed, a South African living in London told me he buys refurbished 6310s on eBay every time his current phone needs replacing, and a quick Google search (in 2007) found them for sale for £70 in the UK.
De Wet says the phone has more to it than just its features. “Depending on how geeky you want to go, the user interface is essentially perfect. I haven’t picked up a single irritation with it ever,” he said triumphantly, before adding he is still using the same battery he got with the phone six years ago. “I get four working days out of it and that’s four hours a day on the phone. That Motorola Razr that I tried I couldn’t get a full day’s battery life out of it. I couldn’t go to the office without a charger.”
Sound familiar? That’s why the Nokia 6310 remains one of the most popular phones ever.
* This article originally appeared in Business Day’s Weekender in 2007.