The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was set against such a nostalgic glow from the Nokia 3310 that even the newest smartphones failed to catch the imagination. But can the nostalgia last longer than a snake chasing its own tail?
Nokia yesterday, LG today and probably Samsung tomorrow – MWC’s winners
Barcelona // In the end, we all fell under the spell of the Snake charmer.
The Mobile World Congress is where the industry comes to get a first look at the latest smartphone innovations, discuss the future of the mobile ecosystem, and ponder the practical implications for our everyday lives as the world around us gets ever more connected.
This year, however, the big story was the Nokia 3310, resurrected from the technological dark ages – aka, the year 2000. Designed to largely disconnect its owner from the outside world, it’s a “feature” phone with few features beyond a classic retro design and a battery that never runs out.
Oh, and Snake, of course. Mobile reviewers rejoiced at the return of the game that delayed our essays and maimed our thumbs, choosing to overlook that (a) it’s not actually that good a game, and (b) those of us who love it have been able to play it for years on our smartphone via myriad app downloads.
Still, to complain about people going gaga over the Nokia 3310 is like moaning about why people watch cat videos, and misses a fundamental point about consumer technology: a powerful brand with emotional appeal will trump engineering prowess every single time. Nokia’s original genius in the 1990s was to transform the mobile phone – a barely functional brick-like communications device used by engineers and bankers – by way of a friendly user interface, fun design and a pixelated snake, changing the way humans interact forever.
By bringing back the 3310, HMD Global (the new owner of the Nokia brand) is reminding consumers of an era when mobile technology truly became personal for the first time. It’s hard to see nostalgia for such an era lasting that long, as even nostalgists like to WhatsApp or check their Facebook status, but HMD will have sold a fair number of devices by then. Set against such a nostalgic glow, the minor updates on display on the newest smartphones failed to catch the imagination, with just a few exceptions.
HMD’s other new handsets – the Nokia 3, 5 and 6 – at first glance offer little to differentiate them from dozens of other Android smartphones.
The BlackBerry KeyOne’s restored keyboard works well, but isn’t going to reverse the brand’s decline in popularity. Huawei’s P10 and P10+ are fine devices but offer limited improvements, while Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium with its 4K HDR display hardly set the world alight. That’s not to say there wasn’t cool innovation on display: the XZ Premium’s ability to record video at 960 frames per second drew gasps from even the most cynical journalists, as did Oppo’s new 5x optical zoom, coming soon to a smartphone near you.
Perhaps the best innovation, the one that customers actually want, came from LG. Its new G6 squeezes a beautiful 5.7-inch display into a bezel-free slim form factor, allowing you to comfortably tap out a message with one hand. Coupled with a smart design and two 13MP rear cameras, the G6 was the techie’s choice of smartphone from this year’s MWC, giving LG a much-needed winner after the failure of last year’s G5.
LG’s cause was boosted, at least temporarily, by the lack of smartphone offerings from its great South Korean rival. It’s hard to call Samsung’s launches at MWC a disappointment; its Galaxy Tab S3 and Galaxy Book tablets are fine devices that on first inspection are up there with Apple’s and Microsoft’s best.
But after Samsung’s VR flavoured launch last year of the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge (still the world’s best smartphone), this year’s launch event, offering only a sneak peek of what presumably is the S8, could only come as a bit of a letdown.
The respite for LG and other manufacturers will prove short- lived however. Samsung has confirmed a smartphone launch in New York on March 29, with leaked images suggesting an even larger screen to that of the G6, while retaining an elegant and usable form factor.
Still, LG can take some satisfaction from the fact that it outshone its competitors at MWC, and has the best new smartphone in the world, at least for another four weeks until Samsung’s launch event.
Nokia nostalgists, meanwhile, will take comfort from the fact that the 3310s on display at MWC won’t need to be charged between now and then.
Mobile World Congress coverage
■ In pictures: The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter