In Israel, at the start of 2022, imports of dumbphones, literally “stupid phones”, of the Nokia brand had recorded a 200% increase in sales compared to the previous year. In France, in 2021, 18% of people equipped with a mobile had chosen it as non-smart. In the United Kingdom, one in ten telephone holders have chosen a “feature phone”, the other name for these mobile phones which are only used to make calls…
Several avenues can explain this movement – low purchase cost, solidity, desire to move away from screens after a pandemic which has led to many living online… But the market for dumbphones took an upward slope, just before the health crisis linked to Covid-19: from 400 million units in 2019, it had almost doubled in 2020, with 735 million sales worldwide. A Counterpoint study predicted one billion sales for 2021, which seems consistent with the figures available today – Statista estimates the size of the market in value terms at 9.52 billion euros in 2022.
Nostalgia and the search for disconnection
Since their replacement by smartphones, the first notable peak of passion for classic phones dates from 2017. That year, Nokia released a new version of its famous 3310, with T9 keyboard, slightly larger screen than at the beginning of the 2000s, removable battery… and Snake, of course. Nostalgia for the pre-iPhone and Android era is in full swing: Google searches for phones without internet are surging. After all, the Finnish manufacturer was already trying to surf on consumers’ desire for “digital detox” – in 2016, a study showed that 90% of smartphone owners were victims of the phenomenon of phantom vibrations, which makes them believe that their phone vibrates for no reason.
Since then, the problem has only grown: on average, in 2021, humans spent 4 hours and 48 minutes on their phones every day. So the offers of devices that prevent doomscroller (refreshing your networks without stopping, even if it makes you feel bad) have multiplied, sometimes for prices quite close to those of smartphones. Design and minimalist, the Light Phone is sold for 300 euros. The Punkt MP02, which does not even offer GPS, but has a note-taking application, is available for 329 euros. Of what interest to the 21% of French people who declare themselves unable to do without their telephone? Not sure, illustrates the youtubeur Cyrus North, because switching to an offline tool can create new problems – slowing down online purchases, for example, while more and more banks use their mobile applications to authenticate the Internet user. And then, the time spent on smartphones is not so much due to the telephone as to what we do there: hanging out on networks or applications which, for the most part, are completely accessible from a computer.
Accessibility, monitoring… ecology?
No, the real reason for the increase in sales of feature phones lies elsewhere: in their very low price. We’ve mentioned the more “premium” offerings, which are a bit cartoonish, but most of these items are available at low prices. A model like the Nokia 150, for example, is sold for 25 euros, a price better suited to populations in developing countries than those of smartphones. This explains why market growth is mainly driven by Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Contrary to Western issues, feature phones In some cases, they even become their users’ first access to the Internet: in India, the Reliance Jiio company builds “smart basic telephones” which give access to applications adapted to low-memory telephones.
An opposing concern is that of security. In Israel, the purchase of unconnected phones jumped in the wake of the Pegasus affair, named after the spyware found on the phones of ministers, activists and journalists around the world. This jump could be explained by the absence of networks like WhatsApp, Facebook or Instagram, known to collect user data for advertising purposes, suggests the Times of Israel. But SMS, the only means of written communication from a basic telephone, are far from being known for their security.
The last argument likely to explain the renewed interest in these objects is environmental. Not only the feature phones are stronger than smartphones – didn’t we talk about “fridge” twenty years ago? But the duration of their batteries is much longer, which is particularly useful in areas where the electricity supply is uncertain. In short, while it remains a very small minority in the global market for mobile telephones, the dumbphone seems to be the ideal candidate for anyone who wants an easy-to-use tool, which is not likely to distract from notifications, economical and durable.
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