Inside Nokia’s 3310 and 8110 Feature Phone Nostalgia Trip

Let’s all agree that this has not been a year of feel-good stories in tech. Whether it’s Facebook privacy or YouTube algorithms, the headlines out of Silicon Valley have been a dismal parade of lapses and letdowns. So let’s take a moment to appreciate the one thread development everyone can get behind: Nokia’s perfect throwback party.

You may not know the Nokia 3310 or 8110 by name, but you’d recognize them in a heartbeat. They’re two of the phones that made Nokia the dominant cell phone seller of the oughts, the candy bar and banana form factors that defined the pre-iPhone era.

Over the last year, as you’ve likely seen, a company called HMD Global has resurrected both, upgrading and updating them just-so for a world that still needs feature phones aplenty. What could have been a lazy cash-grab reboot—looking at you, Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—has instead turned out two thoughtfully designed and executed devices. And they couldn’t have come at a better time.

Retro Magic

A quick clarification: HMD is a company that makes the phones—both smart and feature—sold under the Nokia brand, so this isn’t technically the same company that dominated the cell phone landscape through the turn of the millennium. But HMD resides in the same building as Nokia’s headquarters, and was founded by former Nokia employees—including chief product officer Juho Sarvikas, who shepherded the return of the 3310 and 8110, and started at Nokia over a decade ago. Everything about it is Nokia DNA.

That shows in its feature phone revivals. Take last year’s 3310, released nearly two decades after its namesake. It looks just enough like the original for instant recognition, but has just enough new design touches and feature improvements—smoothed over edges, a 2-megapixel camera, a web browser—to be viable today. Oh, and its battery still lasts a month.

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That balance took more work than you might think.

The 3310 runs a minimal suite of apps for communications. And yes, it still has the game Snake

Nokia

“We actually took a long time to deconstruct the original 3310,” says Sarvikas. As it turned out, recreation required a certain degree of invention. “One of the most difficult things with the 3310 was to make the corner of the display so close to the edge of the physical enclosure. That was one area where we had to develop a completely new solution that did not exist in this space.”

And the reason it didn’t exist is fairly simple: Feature phones are cheap, which means they’re made with cheap parts. They all look basically the same, because the companies that make them typically buy in bulk from the same suppliers.

“Having attractive feature phones, standing out on design, when the other vendors who are doing feature phones are really plain vanilla, is a smart strategy,” says Avi Greengart, tech analyst with GlobalData.

That’s partly why the 3310 stood out so much; it was as much a familiar face as it was a rethinking of a whole category of devices grown stale.

A refined exterior also required some serious interior engineering; the original 3310 hadn’t had to accommodate internals for 2G or 3G signals; the 2017 model launched with the former, and got a network upgrade last fall. “It’s not about simply throwing together a nice-looking shape for the design. There’s a lot of very advanced engineering and asset development that you need to do. It’s amazing how much a couple of millimeters matter,” says Sarvikas.

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