Quirky and cheap: No wonder HMD sells more Nokia dumb phones than smartphones

Nokia 2720
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HMD Global, the company that sells Nokia-branded phones, is one of the few companies still investing in feature phones, and it has announced three new models — the Nokia 110, the Nokia 2720, and the Nokia 800 Tough. Sounds like madness, doesn’t it? After all, we typically lust after smartphones with multiple camera lenses, big OLED touchscreens, and processors with enough power to run a city. Not alphanumeric keypads and plastic bodies.

So why does HMD care? Digital Trends joined a select group of journalists at a meeting with Chief Product Officer Juho Sarvikas and Chief Commercial Officer Per Ekman in London, where we gained further insight into this new wave of feature phones and why they still matter. They really shouldn’t be dismissed as dreary old relics.

Big sellers

hmd global nokia feature phones interview 2019 110 colors
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“We sell more feature phones than we do smartphones today,” said Per Ekman. “We do believe there is value in our feature phones.”

Interest in feature phones isn’t restricted to the first time buyer as you may expect; HMD is happily exploring new niches. This is evident in the new line-up: the $20 Nokia 110, the 110 euro (~$120) Nokia 800 Tough, and our favorite new addition, the 90 euro (~$98) Nokia 2720 Flip. The Nokia 110 is as basic as phones get, yet it still has an MP3 player, a headphone jack, games including Snake and Doodle Jump, plus a VGA camera and a battery that will play music for 27 hours straight. It’s also cute, tiny, likely indestructible thanks to the plastic body shell, and the pink finish looks fantastic.

The Nokia 800 Tough is billed as the most robust Nokia phone ever made, which is quite a feat. It has IP68 water- and dust-resistance, so it can survive 30 minutes spent in 1.5-meters of water, and it’s built to meet the MIL-STD-810G military standard, so it can remain intact from a 1.8-meter fall. Plus, it looks great in the camouflage finish. Beyond the toughness, the battery lasts for 43 days in standby mode, the most ever squeezed from a Nokia phone.

Finally, there’s the Nokia 2720 , a recreation of the old 2720 Fold flip phone made in 2009. It joins the Nokia 8110 banana phone and the remade 3110 in HMD’s fun series that draws on its heritage. It’s a “smart feature phone,” and runs KaiOS with WhatsApp, Google Assistant, and 4G connectivity. The outside screen measures 1.3-inches, and the inner screen is 2.8-inches, set above big, easy-to-press keys. The flip motion is as wonderful as you remember, and the ergonomics are superb.

Low-cost and fun

hmd global nokia feature phones interview 2019 110 blue hand
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The three feature phones are also joined by two new smartphones — the Nokia 6.2 and the Nokia 7.2 — but what’s with the focus on so many dumb phones?

“It’s so much cheaper to produce a 2G feature phone than even the lowest-cost smartphone,” Ekman said. “This also applies to 3G and 4G phones too.”

But it’s not just about economics.

“It’s fun to make these, and we want to continue,” Sarvikas added. His words echoed what also heard from the Nokia design team earlier this year.

Surely though, there’s not much growth in feature phones? This is accurate, but Ekman clarified the statement saying that even though the feature phone market is declining, there are some key categories that never decline, and it’s these segments HMD is interested in. The company is the world’s number one feature phone manufacturer, and it wants to continue leading in what it calls “value pockets.”

Take a close look at the phones it announced. The 110 is the perfect low-cost phone for people who simply want to stay connected, whether it’s as an emergency phone kept in the car, or as a primary device in places where affordability is key. The Nokia 2720 is more design-led, with a better feature set, for those who want more, but not from a smartphone (or the price of a smartphone). Finally, businesses and even governments have expressed interest in phones like the Nokia 800 Tough. Niche products for niche customers and all could sell in serious numbers.

“We sell more feature phones than we do smartphones today.”

Where and how many? HMD sells its feature phones all over the world, but most are purchased in India, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and parts of Asia. The highest number of sales come from areas where affordability is the top factor in a phone purchase, and while it has sold hundreds of millions of the $15 Nokia 105 around the world, the cool Nokia 3110 and 8110 are also big sellers, with more than 10 million models combined being snapped up since release.

Digital detox

hmd global nokia feature phones interview 2019 800 tough
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

HMD Global is also seeing interest in its feature phones from an unexpected place: hotels.

“There’s quite a big interest,” Ekman said, explaining how hotels provide them to guests as a part of a digital detox program. “They offer it as a value piece to their customers because there is a lot of discussion about people using their phones during dinner, rather than talking.”

The idea is that you leave your smartphone behind, but carry the feature phone with you on your trip, ensuring you remain reachable without the distractions. Although HMD couldn’t discuss the hotel chains providing these phones to guests, it did confirm partnerships are already in place and working. Hotels around the world already offer smartphones for complimentary use by guests, as a way of avoiding local SIM card issues, and some cruise companies provide special phones on-board ships too. But as they’re smartphones, they do not help people disconnect.

The feature phone as a way to avoid work emails and social media temptations is not a new idea either. Companies like Punkt or Light also provide simple, well-designed phones like the MP-02 for people eager not to succumb to the temptation of Instagram or Facebook. The cute, retro styling of the new Nokia 2720 fits neatly into the category too, as it’s a desirable conversation-starting companion. It could also find a home in the hands of older phone buyers who want large buttons and clear, simple interfaces, too.

They may not grab headlines like the Galaxy Note 10 or iPhone 11, but the feature phone still has a place in the modern connected world, and HMD’s latest range shows how these simple phones don’t have to be dull and undesirable, either.

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