The Nokia 3310: An iconic device that defined the reliability of the 2G voice era

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For something that is still only a rumour, the much-speculated return of Nokia’s iconic 3310 cellphone caused a not-insubstantial wave of media attention last week.

There is a nostalgic for Nokia that belies its current status as fallen giant of the pre-smartphone era, a sad reputation it shares with Motorola (the first dominant phone maker) and BlackBerry (whose CrackBerries mostly invented mobile email).

There was a time, when it was making these iconic 3310 phones, that Nokia sold two out of three cellphones in the world. It was riding the mobile wave, as the world lapped up cellphones and the ability to make calls and send SMSes from anywhere.

The 3310 was most people’s first phones, as the outpouring of sentimentality on social media and radio shows demonstrated. My first cellphone was the Nokia 2110, an equally iconic phone that I have in my archive of old phones (along with the 6310, Motorola’s StarTac and later RAZR, an original iPhone and others).

Nokia ultimately sold 126m of the 3310, whose single button was used both to start and end a phone call, or send those rudimentary texts. This was even before the T9 predictive text dictionary that pre-empted the words it guessed you were typing.

Why was the 3310 so popular? It wasn’t just because it was many people’s first phone. It was a durable phone with great battery life – a joke circulating on social media a few years ago was about someone who tried on a jacket they had last worn in 2001 and found the 3310 still have “two bars of battery left” – and had the ease of use that Nokia was renowned for.

Being tough enough to withstand the multiple drops and tumbles that all phones still experienced certainly helped with its legendary status, as did the rudimentary mobile games that people still longing discuss. The most renowned of these was Snake II, which was played on the 3310 in a way Angry Birds and Pokémon Go are now.

The 3310 also allowed you to send longer SMSes, conjoining three texts into one message, a foretaste of the messaging bonanza that was to come when smartphones brought us WhatsApp, iMessage, WeChat and Facebook Messenger.

Better still, the 3310 differentiated itself from its equally rugged predecessors (the 3110 and 3210) with Xpress-On covers, an early attempt at customisation that would peak with the smartphone covers of all descriptions we have now.

Back then, those covers – which former 3310 owners have been enthusing about on social media – were the height of fashion, perhaps the first instance of the clever way of selling additional accessories that so defined first the iPod-economy and now the smartphone market.

Ultimately what the nostalgic 3310-ers remember most was that the phone “just worked”. It was a general hallmark of Nokia’s reliable phones from the 2G voice era. Today’s smartphone have vastly more complex operating systems that can do infinitely more (including playing an app-based version of Snake) as mobiles have evolved from voice-centric talking boxes to data-orientated internet terminals. It’s this brand nostalgia that Nokia is surely hoping to capitalise on when it relaunches next week itself at Mobile Work Congress, the largest cellular conference in the world. Such brand loyalty is gold, like a good game of Snake on a 3310.

This column first appeared on Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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