- Suzanne Bearne
- Business reporter, BBC News
Robin West is 17 years old and a different person from the rest — she doesn’t have a smartphone (smart phone).
Instead of scrolling through apps like TikTok and Instagram all day, she uses the so-called “dumb phone”.
They are basic cell phones, ordinary phones, with very limited functions compared to, for example, an iPhone. Typically, you can just make and receive calls and exchange SMS text messages. And, if you’re lucky, you can listen to the radio and take pictures very simply, but it certainly won’t connect to the internet, nor will it have apps.
These devices are similar to some of the first cell phones that people bought in the late 1990s.
West’s decision to ditch his smartphone two years ago was an impulse one. She was looking for a replacement at a used phone store when she was lured by the low price of a brick-sized phone.
His current device is from the French company MobiWire and cost just 8 pounds (R$ 51). And since it doesn’t have the functionality of smartphones, she doesn’t have to worry about high-value monthly internet access bills.
“It wasn’t until I bought a ‘dumb’ phone that I realized how much the smartphone was taking up my life,” she says. “I had a lot of social media apps and couldn’t do my chores because I was always on the phone.”
West, who lives in London, does not believe he will ever buy another smartphone. “I’m happy with my brick—I don’t think it imposes limitations. I’m certainly more proactive.”
“Dumb” phones are making a resurgence. Searches for them on Google jumped 89% between 2018 and 2021, according to a report by US software company Semrush.
Sales figures are hard to come by, but a report claims that global sales of “dumb” phones were on the cusp of hitting one billion units last year, compared to 400 million in 2019. world 1.4 billion smartphones in 2021, after a 12.5% reduction in 2020.
Furthermore, a 2021 study by the accounting group Deloitte found that one in 10 mobile phone users in the UK has a “dumb” phone.
“It seems that fashion, nostalgia and the fact that they appear in videos on TikTok are helping to bring about a resurgence of ‘dumb’ phones,” according to Ernest Doku, a cell phone expert at price comparison site Unswitch.com. “Many of us had a ‘dumb’ phone as our first cell phone and it’s only natural to feel a bit nostalgic for these classic devices.”
Doku claims that Nokia’s 2017 relaunch of the 3310 model — first launched in 2000 and one of the best-selling cell phones of all time — really fueled this renaissance. “Nokia offered the 3310 as an affordable alternative in a world full of very advanced cell phones,” he said.
He acknowledges that “dumb” phones can’t compete with the latest models from Apple and Samsung in terms of performance or functionality, “but they can beat them on equally important issues like battery consumption and durability.”
Five years ago, psychologist Przemek Olejniczak switched from his smartphone to a Nokia 3310, initially due to its lower battery consumption. But he soon realized there were other benefits.
“Before, I was always stuck on the phone, checking anything and everything, browsing Facebook or the news or other facts I didn’t need to know,” he says. “I now have more time for myself and my family. A huge benefit is that I’m not addicted to liking, sharing, commenting, or describing my life to other people. Now I have more privacy.”
But Olejniczak, who lives in Lodz, Poland, admits the move was initially challenging. “Before, I checked everything, like buses and restaurants, on my smartphone [durante a viagem]. Now that it’s no longer possible, I’ve learned to do all this in advance at home. And I got used to it.”
‘Superior species that controls humans’
The Light Phone company, from New York, in the United States, is a maker of “dumb” phones. A little smarter than the standard for these products, their handsets allow users to listen to music and podcasts and connect them to their Bluetooth headphones.
But the company says its phones “will never have social media, click-throwing news, email, web browsers, or other endless feeds to induce anxiety.”
The company claims that it recorded its best financial performance in a year in 2021, with sales increasing by 150% compared to 2020. This, despite the high cost of its devices, in terms of “dumb” phones. Their prices start at US$ 99 (R$ 478).
One of the founders of Light Phone, Kaiwei Tang, says the device was initially created for use as a secondary phone – for people who wanted to disconnect from their smartphone on the weekend, for example. But now half of the company’s customers use the device as their primary phone.
“If extraterrestrials came to Earth, they would think cell phones are the superior species that controls humans,” he says. “And it’s not going to stop, it’s only going to get worse. Consumers are sensing something is wrong and we want to offer an alternative.”
Tang adds that, surprisingly, the company’s main customers are between the ages of 25 and 35. He expected his clients to be much older.
For technology expert Sandra Wachter, a senior researcher in the field of artificial intelligence at the University of Oxford, UK, it is understandable that some people are looking for simpler cell phones.
“It can reasonably be said that these days, a smartphone’s ability to complete calls and send short messages is almost a secondary function,” she explains. “The smartphone is your entertainment hub, news generator, navigation system, calendar, dictionary and wallet.”
She adds that smartphones always “want to get our attention” with notifications, updates and breaking news constantly interrupting your day. “It can keep you apprehensive and even agitated. You can feel overwhelmed.”
Wachter adds: “It makes sense that some people are now looking for simpler technologies and believe that ‘dumb’ phones could represent a return to simpler times. They could give people more time to focus on a single task and them more objectively. They might even calm people down. Studies have shown that too many choices can create unhappiness and turmoil.”
Back in London, Robin West says many people are still baffled by their choice of cell phone. “Everyone thinks it’s a temporary thing. They say, ‘So when are you going to buy a smartphone? Are you going to buy one this week?'”
With additional reporting by Will Smale, editor of BBC News’ New Tech Economy series.
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