The growing trend for 1990s nostalgia is everywhere – from the re-emergence of ‘90s fashion (erm.. for some of us Gen Xers that never actually went out of fashion) to physical formats like vinyl going stronger than ever. Perhaps we are seeing a growing ‘backlash’ against the 24/7/365 ‘always-on’ hyper-connected culture most of us find ourselves living in.

What of phones we loved and which revolutionized our lives way back then by being able to make calls on the move (not texting yet though obviously – that was a noughties thing)? Well, don’t call it a comeback – the retro phone never went anywhere and is hotter than ever!  

Move over Samsung – the Motorola Razr is back!

We have seen a good year or two of speculation and we assumed Samsung has established ownership of foldable smartphone segment (yes, it’s a thing) with its stunning Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 … but hold on! Motorola is alive and well and storming back into contention with a reboot of its legendary device and launch of the Motorola Razr 5G – clearly aiming to get some sales due to its undeniable nostalgic appeal. The device launched in China a few weeks back and sold out in minutes (jealous!).

Lenovo (Motorola’s new owner) is naturally keen that the new device will continue to be a hit and is now launching a wow-factor new special edition of the handset in partnership with Montblanc. For those unaware of it, Montblanc is a Hamburg-based, German luxury good manufacturer which makes products such as watches, bags, headphones etc and it clearly sees great value in this partnership.  

The new Razr goes on sale soon – as covered by Forbes, the new Motorola Razr 5G’s price is being slashed before its official October 2nd launch date – it will be super interesting to see what happens next!

Nokia still alive and well

Talking of nostalgia and the first smartphones we owned, we can’t go much longer without mentioning the Finnish-originated brand Nokia. Yes, it is still with us! The retro phones trend saw Nokia launch a new version of its classic 3310 in 2017, followed by a remake of its 8110 model (you know it, the sliding ‘banana phone’ made famous by Keanu Reeves in The Matrix – and one of my great friends in the world Alex who was by far the coolest person in Stockholm when owning one at the time – not an easy thing to achieve in that beautiful city! I owned the full-length leather coat worn by Mr Neo in the same film – not sure that was so cool…anyhow… ) in 2018.

Both have landed to mixed reviews in this era of smartphone dominance, with some confusion over their purpose, compared to the latest iPhone or android OS phone! Designed to be ‘back to basics’ and disconnect us from constant notifications – however, they do also offer ready access to email and the internet so won’t make their users feel disconnected from their world. Tech Advisor called the relaunched 3310 “a play for nostalgia”, but HMD, the company that manufactures Nokia brand phones, said the 3310 was its best-selling feature phone of 2017.

Carphone Warehouse described the demand for the phone in the UK as “astonishing”… As the article says “The Nokia 3310 isn’t perfect, but we still want one!” Yes, yes I (we) do! TechRadar described the 8110 as “a bit of fun” that “takes a playful classic and brings it up to date”. While it seems that these retro devices are not being received as serious entries into the phone market, they are clearly popular and being snapped up by nostalgia and novelty seekers.

HMD Global, which now owns the Nokia Mobile brand saw the phone maker recently raise $230m secure cash from (former rival) Google, Nokia and Qualcomm – hopefully indicating further exciting developments are ahead!

BlackBerry is back

Ah, BlackBerry. Honestly, some people never actually let BlackBerry go. Their reward? A 2021 comeback complete with, YES, A KEYBOARD! Remember those?

I can’t believe I have yet to mention BlackBerry in this article! After enjoying soaring popularity in the late noughties, the launch of the iPhone in 2007 led to BlackBerry losing almost all its market share by 2017. BlackBerry phones are still made, and these days they look more like a standard smartphone. They use Android technology, but retain the iconic keyboard (OH HOW I MISS THAT KEYBOARD EVEN NOW!). The most recent offering is the BlackBerry KEY2 LE, launched in August 2018 – but how many people are so keen on having a keyboard these days? A quick Google search brings up a slew of negative YouTube reviews, and as Tech Advisor says, “…the BlackBerry KEY2 is very much a phone for a select few people who still must have a keyboard – and no one else.” I might still get one.

In late August, BlackBerry owners were fearing the worst – that TCL, which had been making Android phones under the BlackBerry brand since 2017, was “no longer selling BlackBerry-branded mobile devices”.  Tears were shed, but 12 days before the deadline Texas tech company Onward Mobility stepped in with promises of a new 5G Android BlackBerry in 2021. Yes!

Small phones back next?

Of course mobile phones since the early 1990s, Zoolander style phones, were also getting smaller and smaller at one point, such as the tiny Ericsson T66 and Nokia 8210.  Funded by Kickstarter and originally launched in 2018, the next generation of the world’s smallest 3G smartphone is now available for sale on Kickstarter – the Zanco Tiny T2. Business Insider UK is quoted on Zanco’s website as saying of the original that “The T1 is four times smaller than iPhone but 1,000 times cuter.”  The concept is for it to be an ideal backup or emergency phone and “so small you can keep in your bag, pocket or glove compartment as a secondary phone and perfect for joggers, runners, walkers, cyclists” – anyone who wrestles with a large screen smartphone will see this as a constant problem they might well empathize with!

It will be interesting to see if there are any more developments in this space (and just for the record this is absolutely not a deliberately vague reference to unsubstantiated sources who are currently being cited in numerous pieces of online speculation and unconfirmed rumors about things that may – or may not – happen in this area very soon. Clear? ;)).

A Smartphone backlash?

The rise (and rise) of smartphones has clearly transformed our lives. Perhaps inevitably, most people have fallen in love with the sudden ability to run their whole lives – and businesses – wherever they are (even in bed!). However, as Jon Stone comments in The Informer, “…now, people are considering if always being connected to everything is all it’s cracked up to be.” And they are resorting to simpler devices. It is perhaps not surprising that ‘phone detox’ is now a commonly used term – even appearing in the Oxford dictionary (so it must be real!). Many people are choosing to take a break from their phones, or from social media, or instigate ‘device free’ times for the family at evenings or weekends. Screen-free parenting coaches are even springing up across the U.S..

What does this all mean?

Good question! This is a complicated topic spanning emerging socio-cultural norms and a phenomenon in smartphone use, whose implications I feel we are really only starting to understand.

There are clearly multiple signs that ‘old school’ phones are coming back and we are seeing a new trend emerging – and the increasing evidence that smartphone usage may have consequences means you need to tread carefully of course.

As a starting point as to how you might use the ideas in this article in your own business. More broadly I would suggest considering what this consumer desire for ‘retro’ and nostalgia means for your own products and services – are there any product or services you could potentially bring back also?

Also give some thought to if there are any partnerships – like the Razr/Montblanc one – that make sense to you in this area? Could it help you reach an entirely new audience?

Have fun thinking this through and let me know how you get along!

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