Nokia 8110 Matrix phone points the way back to the future for smartphones

A banana-yellow retro phone may be one of the most forward-looking devices on display at MWC because it puts design front and centre again.

It says a lot about the state of the smartphone industry that one of the devices making the biggest splash at this year's Mobile World Congress is a banana-yellow feature phone paying homage to a 1999 handset.

The Nokia 8110 4G is an updated version of the iconic slider phone that featured in The Matrix. It was dubbed the 'banana phone' because of its unusual shape, and the new model happily plays on that by coming in bright yellow as well as a more Matrix-like black.

The phone packs 4G but runs KaiOS rather than Android (which means that while you'll get Snake you won't get that many other apps on that 2.4-inch screen). It's a fun device and at €79, or about $100, it could be a surprise hit with nostalgia fans and those looking for a basic handset with a little more elegance.

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Image: HMD Global Oy

Apart from the rejuvenated Matrix-phone, four other Nokia handsets running Android were unveiled at at MWC: a new flagship, the Nokia 8 Sirocco, and the Nokia 7 Plus, Nokia 6 and entry-level Nokia 1.

Nokia was once a mobile phone titan, not only shipping in vast quantities but also well known for its audacious design. However, the Finnish company never really managed to make the transition to smartphones and was overtaken by faster rivals like Apple and Samsung. Nokia sold its smartphone business to Microsoft, but even the Lumia range of Windows phones couldn't turn the unit's fortunes around, and Microsoft effectively exited the smartphone business after a couple of years.

But there's still a lot of goodwill -- particularly in Europe -- for the Nokia brand, and for the company's approach to industrial design. For Nokia, the hardware was never the problem: it was iOS and Android that it couldn't beat.

Nokia phones are now made under licence by Finnish startup HMD, which continues to put design at the heart of its brand strategy. And with a spread of devices from a €749 flagship to a €79 piece of nostalgia, HMD is serious about covering the market.

High-end Nokia phones run Android, and because HMD is part of Google's Android One programme this means leaving Android pretty much untouched -- no additional design flourishes (which users mostly hate) or additional features (which mostly just eat up battery life).

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The Nokia 8 Sirocco

Despite only starting selling smartphones in the second half of the year, HMD is challenging existing players like HTC. Ian Fogg, senior director at IHS Markit said that given that the company only started shipping models internationally at the very end of Q2, its smartphone volumes in 2017 amounted to more on an annualized basis than brands such as Sony or Lenovo.

Nobody buys an Android phone because of vendors' tweaks to Google's software. That's no longer a competitive differentiator for smartphones: you either buy Android or iOS. The smartphone industry has been running out of ideas for some time, which is exactly why a nostalgia play like the Nokia 8110 4G is working.

Cameras are where the competition is now: nobody wants to waste their time taking bad photos. That's why HMD bringing back the much-loved Pro Camera mode in handsets with Zeiss optics is going to be welcomed by fans.

But I think industrial design is returning as a competitive differentiator too -- especially as curved, then bendy, then foldable screens become a reality. Nokia's banana-phone might be a bit of fun (I can't see many people adopting it as their business device of choice), but as new materials become available we might see that spirit of playfulness returning to smartphones. In which case, HMD could be well positioned to exploit it.


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