Goldstuck on Gadgets

Big smartphone comebacks rich with heritage

August 16th, 2017
This month, two iconic phone brands made their return to South Africa. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK asks if Nokia and BlackBerry can win their way back into our hearts.
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They say you can never go back, but two iconic phone brands want to prove the cliché wrong. Nokia won the world’s technology heart in the 1990s and early 2000s with basic but elegant phones that kept pushing the boundaries of what early handsets could do. BlackBerry gained executive adoration when it perfected email on the phone, and won over the youth market with its pioneering Messenger product.

Both failed to recognise the significance of the touchscreen revolution, and confused past popularity with future invulnerability. Both crashed and burned.

Numerous attempts have been made to revive them, but most relaunches failed to recapture the magic of old.

Now, in the space of a few weeks, both have released new handsets that dig deep into the heritage of the brands, in the hope that it still resonates with users.

Nokia has delivered the “reimagined” 3310, a new version of the phone that captured the youth market at the turn of the century. It was a device with extraordinarily long battery life, as well as especially long SMS messaging: As opposed to the usual 160-character limit, it allowed for messages of more than 400 characters. This option caught on like wildfire among the young, and helped generate sales of more than 120-million units.

The new 3310 looks very different. It is bright, with a wide range of colour options, and more curvy. The curves extend from the overall shape of the device to the quirky 2.4-inch colour screen to the control buttons.  At first site it appears overly toy-like, but the impression quickly gives way to a sense of fun.

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A 2 megapixel camera with LED flash and video capability, and LED torch, combines with FM radio, MP3 playback, and a 3.5mm AV connector for earphones to emphasise its positioning as a lifestyle device. The revival of the original Snake game – the first ever game on a mobile phone – adds to the sense of fun.

Thankfully, it leaves behind the Nokia legacy of a different charger for every device, using a standard micro USB port, along with Bluetooth 3.0 for wireless connectivity. Its most serious drawback is that it does not support Wi-Fi, meaning a mobile data account is essential for connectivity.

The biggest wins on the phone are its 31 days standby time, 22 hours talk time, 51 hours MP3 playback, and FM radio playback of up to 39 hours. With that package, a recommended retail price of up to R750 appears reasonable.

While the absence of Wi-Fi hints at a gap in the understanding of where the phone market has moved, Nokia cannot produce the handsets fast enough to keep up with global market demand. This further, suggests, however, that its output is not what it was back in the year 2000, despite the fact that Nokia phones are being built for its parent brand, HMD Global, by the giant Foxconn factories in China.

The same may be said of the output of the new BlackBerry phone, which has been licensed to the Chinese smartphone maker TCL Communication, best known for its Alcatel phone brand and manufacturing Vodafone branded devices.

BlackBerry, now a security software specialist, has licensed the handset brand to TCL, which has created a division called BlackBerry Mobile to build and market the handsets. Its first new model, the KEYone, in effect reinvents the BlackBerry phone.

However, it exudes that heritage word. It carries the classic BlackBerry physical keyboard and, like Nokia, uses the term “reimagined” to give it an updated spin. It functions as a touchpad, and can be used to scroll through pages or pictures, as well as take photos. It allows up to 52 customisable shortcuts, for those who want to personalise a device to the nth degree.

It uses BlackBerry’s secure version of the Android operating system, while still offering the full Android 7.1 Nougat edition. It also retains the previous BlackBerry handsets’ Hub, which consolidates messages, email, SMS and messages from other social media accounts in one place.

Like the 3310, BlackBerry always prided itself on battery life, and the KEYone  maintains the tradition with what TCL says is the largest battery ever found in a BlackBerry smartphone – a 3505mAh giant. It promises 26 hours of mixed use, outdoing even the 3310.

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As with Nokia, however, there are still question marks around the capacity of the new entity. It has launched the device country by country over the past two months, with South Africa far back in the line. By contrast, the most successful smartphone launches usually see devices released worldwide with minimal lag between territories.

“Working for BlackBerry Mobile is like working for a start-up,” points out Bob el-Hawari, the brand’s head of carrier operations for Middle East and Africa. “It means we are rolling out progressively, but it gives us the freedom to innovate very quickly. We will use our role as a challenger brand to disrupt the market.”

The KEYone will retail for R9649, which positions it as one of the best-priced high end phones on the market.

However, both BlackBerry and Nokia have a major marketing challenge on their hands to convince their loyal old users that their respective heritages are still relevant.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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