First, Some Phone Nostalgia

This phone had an actual joystick

Recently a friend asked me for advice on choosing a phone. It was hideously difficult – I don’t think it’s ever been harder to pick a phone than it is now. I miss the days when you couldn’t go wrong with a Nokia.

My first ever phone was a Motorola M3688, which was as charming as it was inept. Its sole apparent advance over Motorola’s previous model: It had a flip to cover the keys. It didn’t fold in half, you understand. It just had a plastic bit to cover its big rubbery buttons that you had to flip down if you wanted to dial. It served no clear purpose whatsoever, but that was the sort of design frippery that wowed us at the turn of the century. I can’t be sure now, but I think it may have swayed me to choose this one over the splendid Nokia 5110. A lesson to designers and marketers everywhere: shit sells.

It was massive by modern standards. Nowadays I keep my phone in my front left pocket. If I did that with the M3688 it looked like I was pleased to see everybody. Despite the mass though, they were vulnerable. If you dropped one, it flew into pieces. Though admittedly once you reassembled it it usually worked again. (They were less resistant to moisture; in the end I lost mine to submersion.)

After this it was Nokias all the way, or almost. The great 5110 (stolen), followed by what I consider to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing phones ever, the 3210, which also brought predictive texting (also stolen). This was followed by the 3310; though a lot less appealing in looks this introduced a raft of great features like vibrating alert (still have, still works).

But then I took a wrong turn, and bought a Sony Ericsson – the V600i. Now I am possibly being unfair; the problem with swapping between Nokias and Sony Ericssons is that they are so similar. It is the tiny differences in key layouts and so on that you will find too irritating to bear. But on the whole this wasn’t a very successful phone. Every plus had its concomitant minus. It was very attractive and impressively compact, but the keys were too small and – stupidly – glossy to use comfortably. It was my first camera phone, but at 1.3 megapixel resolution it was barely worth having. It was a 3G phone – the first affordable one on the market – but its tiny screen, weak camera and hopelessly basic browser meant there was really nothing you could do with that fast data.

Vodafone seemed to think they could get us streaming video – to 1.8″ screens. My devious plan, in the days when 3G or even GPRS data modems were still expensive business toys, was to hook it up to my laptop to feed my Internet addiction when I couldn’t get Wi-Fi. But I hadn’t done the research; though it could get 3G data, and though it had a data transfer cable to connect it to a PC, it couldn’t share the connection over the cable. Dumb bastard. (Still have, though I can’t find charger.)

My first actual smartphone was a Nokia N70. It ran the Symbian operating system, and could do real smartphone stuff like syncing contacts and calendars. I know, not impressive in this age of apps, but a huge leap still. At last it could be used as a tethered data modem, but 3G modems with much better data pricing were now coming out so there was little point. (Stolen – though only after it had been retired to spare phone status.)

And it was a good enough camera phone to get me hooked on the spontaneous kind of photography the things allow; soon I wanted a better one. The 5 megapixel Nokia 6220 Classic was that, plus it added GPS to the mix and finally made Web on a phone comfortable. In almost every respect this phone was really an N82, one of Nokia’s top models, squeezed into a smaller and (visibly) cheaper package. The only real sacrifice was Wi-Fi. In brief, a good mid-range smartphone at a great price.

And thus, irrelevant.

The dinosaur metaphor is irresistible. The landscape they once ruled has changed suddenly and utterly. The comet of course was the iPhone, and Nokia are left blinking and wondering what the cold white stuff falling from the sky is. Compile a list of the ten best-loved phones today, and there might not be a single Nokia on it. It isn’t that they got worse. I would argue in fact that Nokia still make the best phones, as phones. Their problem is that a lot of people don’t want phones any more. They want repurposable social connectivity stroke mobile media Swiss army… things. What are they even? The phone is evolving, and it’s not yet clear into what. Nokia certainly didn’t seem to know.

But never mind what’s next for Nokia. What the hell phone am I going to buy now?

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