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Ironically, in the week that the world’s Technorati gathered at Mobile World Congress to celebrate the latest advances in smartphones, one of the most read articles on FT.com was about exactly the opposite: the enduring popularity of the ‘dumb phone’.
Simple handsets that do little more than make and receive calls are a small but vibrant niche for the mobile phone industry. Some 44m basic phones were sold in 2015, accounting for 2 per cent of the global market, according to Strategy Analytics, the research group.
Many of those 44m are Financial Times readers, it would seem. We ran a poll asking people if they ever longed for a phone without an internet connection.
More than 35 per cent of the more than 3,900 people who responded said they had an internet-free phone. A further 32.5 per cent said they had a smartphone but hated it. Only 13 per cent said they loved being connected.
Of course the readership of the article was likely to be heavily weighted towards those who liked dumb phones, and as commenter John_uk points out, anyone reading the article on a smartphone would not have been able to leave a comment, because our mobile app still does not allow this.
Nevertheless, the strong response showed we had touched a nerve. Many readers went into loving detail about old handsets that they missed, or in some cases still used.
Some of the phone models that kept being mentioned included the Nokia 6310i, the Nokia 8210, the Motorola Razr, the Motorola Tundra and the Au Talby in Japan.
Stephen T declared 1994 to 2007 to have been the golden age of mobile phone industrial design.
Why were our readers still so attached to “dumb phones”? For many it was a reaction to the exhaustion that comes from having to be always connected. As Bisley put it: “Being connected to everyone and everything all the time is a burden, rather than an advantage — it is necessary to be left alone in order to get anything done.
Thrift was another motivator.
As were size, durability and long battery life.
And a few — reflecting a post-Snowden era of suspicion — were worried about the possibility of being spied on through a smartphone.
And there were some other theories:
We wondered at first whether the enthusiasm for smartphones was age-related. The average Financial Times reader is, after all, over 50. But the stereotype of the Luddite oldie did not always hold true. Some retired readers were the biggest smartphone enthusiasts because the technology was not, for them, tainted by the tyranny of office email.
The piece had an equally strong reaction from our fans on Facebook, the majority of which are under 35.
Amid the nostalgia for old handsets was a recognition that it was becoming difficult to do without the smartphone in the modern world. Telecoms operators are switching off older 2G networks and it is getting difficult to find a mobile connection plan that does not include data. Smartphone features such as maps and search, meanwhile are proving useful.
For some readers, the solution to smartphone addiction was simply self-discipline — learn to switch the thing off when you do not want to be contacted. As Felix Drost wrote: “If you can’t deal with [a smartphone] or are addicted to one, maybe you shouldn’t really blame the phone but . . . something else?”
Others are dreaming of some kind of technological halfway house.
An idea, perhaps, to pass on to the mobile phone manufacturers exhibiting at Mobile World Congress?
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