Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

In an age of ever more powerful smartphones, is there still room for the humble feature phone? Many were sceptical when HMD Global heralded the return of the Nokia brand by declaring it would bring back the much-loved 3310, a device that electrified the market at the turn of the century.

It had sold more than 120million units, making it one of the bestselling cellphones of all time.

Those who remember it talk fondly of its battery life and durability, and tend to forget what initially made it a hit among the youth: it allowed text messages more than twice as long as the mandatory 160-character limit of an SMS.

When HMD bought the rights to the brand from Microsoft last year, the new owner sought to leverage the loyalty the Nokia name had inspired by bringing back an iconic device from its heyday.

The "reimagined" 3310 does not look much like the original, though, with gaudy plastic colours.

It also costs a lot more than most basic phones, starting at around R650 - the price of a decent entry-level smartphone.

But it shares two prime characteristics: an absurdly long battery life, offering 31 days on standby and almost a full 24-hour day of talk time; and a durability that means it can withstand a battering that would put many high-end devices in the cracked-screen sickbay.

So, even though it is not designed or priced to compete with the most basic phones on the market, and sells on little more than nostalgia and retro appeal, it is proving to be a massive success.

"Yes, it's a profitable device," HMD Global CEO Arto Nummela told Business Times during a visit to South Africa last week for the local launch.

"We cannot make them fast enough. In the UK it sold out in eight minutes. We are either No1 or No2 across the world in the feature phone segment."

He acknowledged that the idea had been to get the market talking, but insisted that it was not merely a gimmick.

"When we created the new company, we wanted a dialogue with our fans. We already opened that dialogue a year ago.

"We asked them: 'If Nokia has a next chapter, what should we do?' Many said: 'Bring the old devices back to life.' The 3310 was the No1 ask, but we decided to make it fresh and unique, a bit more cute, while retaining that standby time and long life."

HMD also reintroduced the first popular mobile game, Snake, and collaborated with Facebook to make it widely available.

"Facebook wanted to tap into young consumers, so we thought, let's have a game that reawakens young consumers' interests. So far there have been sixmillion downloads."

The bottom line is that Nokia is once again the biggest feature phone brand in the world.

However, it would prefer that kind of position for the more profitable Nokia 3, 5 and 6 Android smartphones.

"Our main focus is to be a leading brand in the Android space," said Nummela.

There's no reason that can't happen - if it can repeat its battery life and durability trick.

• Goldstuck is the founder of World Wide Worx. Follow him on Twitter @art2gee

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