The popularity of dumb devices, no-frills, and cheaper smartphone alternatives are witnessing a steady rise.
According to a Counterpoint Research report, the feature phone segment worldwide could have generated about 16 billion USD in the past three years in wholesale hardware revenues (1). And this hype has grown thanks in large part to relaunches of feature phones like Nokia’s 3310 handsets and TikTok.
Reports suggest that dumb devices are likely to continue enjoying a revival (2). For instance, a report by SEMrush, a software firm, highlights that Google searches for dumbphones leaped by 89% between 2018 and 2021.
While the exact sales figures are hard to come by, the above-mentioned Counterpoint report indicates that international purchases of feature phones were due to reach one billion units last year, up from about 400 million in 2019. These numbers are almost in line with global sales of 1.4 billion smartphones last year, after a 12.5% decline in 2020 (3).
Meanwhile, a study conducted by Deloitte in 2021 highlighted that one in ten mobile users in the United Kingdom had a dumb device.
“It seems fashion, nostalgia, and them appearing in TikTok videos have a part in the dumbphone revival,” explained Ernest Doku, a mobile phone expert at price comparison platform Uswitch (4). “Many of us had a feature phone like our first device. Hence it is natural that we feel nostalgic towards these classic handsets.”
Doku further explained that it was in 2017 when Nokia had relaunched its 3310 handsets, first released in 2000 and one of its biggest-selling phones of all time. It sparked the revival of dumb devices. “Nokia hustled the 3310 as an affordable alternative in a world full of high-spec smartphones.”
While it is true that dumb devices cannot compete with the latest premium Samsung and Apple phones when it comes to functionality and performance, they can outshine them in other important areas like durability and battery life, said Doku.
Another maker of dumb devices includes the New York company, the Light Phone (5). Their feature phones are slightly smarter than the norm for dumb devices as they allow users to listen to podcasts and music and connect to headphones via Bluetooth. However, the company pledges that its phones “will never have clickbait news, social media, emails, web browsers, and other anxiety-including infinite feed.”
The company recorded its strongest financial performance in 2021, with sales up a whopping 150% compared to 2020. It is despite its phone being expensive for dumb devices; prices start from 99 USD.
In a conversation with BBC, Kaiwei Tang, co-founder, and CEO of the Light Phone, joked that many people are controlled by their smartphones (6).
“If aliens come to earth, they will think that smartphones are the superior species that control humans, and it is unlikely to stop anytime soon. It will only get worse, consumers realize it, and we want to offer an alternative,” said Tang.
He also added that the firm’s main customer base is the 25 to 35 age group. Tang finds it surprising since he was expecting buyers to be much older.
According to prof and tech expert Sandra Wachter, a senior research fellow in AI at Oxford University, it is understandable if some of us prefer simpler phones (7).
“One can reasonably say that these days, a smart device’s ability to connect calls and send a message is almost a side feature,” explained Wachter. “Your smartphone has become your entertainment center, navigation system, news generator, wallet, dictionary, and diary.”
“Hence, it makes sense that some of us are looking for alternatives, devices with simper technologies, and these dumb devices offer a return to simpler times,” explained Wachter. “It may leave more time to completely focus on a single task and engage with it more purposefully. Since studies have shown that too many choices can create agitation and unhappiness, dumb devices may even help people calm down.”
Overall, as we see more decline in attention spans and worsening privacy concerns, we may see the consumer demand for simpler or dumb devices spreading across multiple industries.
The Rise of Dumb Devices
The movement, as discussed, is coming as a backlash to unhealthy and highly tech-dependent lifestyles that relies on smartphones (8).
Today, one in ten mobile users in the United Kingdom uses dumb devices. At the same time, sales of smartphones continue to witness a drop (9).
Below are some reasons why some of us prefer dumb devices over smartphones:
- Growing price gap
- Less data consumption translating to cheaper mobile plans
- Dumb devices are hard and durable compared to their smart counterparts.
- Dumb phones are openable.
- Feature phones limit overall phone usage, offering better work-life balance.
- Better battery life
- Improved attention span
In addition, low stock availability and component shortages could also see a further decline in smartphone sales.
Light phone dumb devices were initially created for people to use as a secondary phones without any social media, email, or web browser. And since it has witnessed a 150% product jump, we can expect the secondary phones market to grow further.
The scenario seems even more likely as smartphones increasingly become substitutes for bank accounts and personal IDs (Suggested Reading: We May Soon Have Global Digital Identities, Digital Identities For Everyone and Their Ramifications).
There have also been increased concerns about privacy, especially if we consider Apple’s soon to be rolled out divers’ license feature for its iPhones in numerous US states (10).
From Phones to Cars: Making Everything Dumb
Besides phones, there has also been increasing demand for prioritizing accessibility and simplicity in cars (11).
Like budget smartphones, today’s cars are dumb where they need to be smart and smart where they need to be dumb. Consequently, there is a demand to make a car that’s pretty much all dumb. In other words, they can get ready for LCDs, touch screens, and bloatware.
Carmakers also struggle with user interfaces with animations showing reclaimed energy from brakes, color-changing speedometer, and other menus like fan speed. Not only are these interfaces non-functional, but also ugly!
Dumb cars could come without the media, and navigation means we won’t need much of the computation capacity needed in a modern car. However, there are still certain safety features that should be included in every car; smart or dumb. It includes features like blind spot and lane exit warnings, traction control, automatic emergency brakes. While these features need some CPU power, they should be included in every car since they save lives.
People are all demanding cars that are not as overbearing as the rest of the smart devices they already own. They are overwhelmed by notifications, reporting errors, sending more notifications, dinging, asking permissions, and asking for updates!
These features complicate user experience and hurt the driver’s attention span.
Besides people, data security is also a problem for both the auto industry and government officials. No wonder we see more people asking for dumb cars (13).
As privacy concerns increase about invasive smart car software, more people may hold on to their older and featureless cars. Also, we may see the second-hand market for dumb cars becoming more profitable.
There have also been similar privacy concerns around interconnected devices in smart homes (14). As 5G networks keep expanding, huge amounts of data will be transmitted much faster between connected devices than it does now (15) (Suggested Reading: 5G Rollout, Impact on IoT Industry, and The Rise of New Opportunities). All of this can prompt a further backlash against smart devices.
While people are looking for a way to decrease their dopamine dependency on smartphones, on the flip side, futurists have also started to challenge the dumb devices counterculture.
According to Elon Musk, technology is already connected to us spiritually. “Your smartphone is already an extension of you.” And to explore this concept further, Musk is also focusing on researching and creating “implantable brain-computer interfaces” with his latest venture, Neuralink.
Still, it does not address the primary issues of smartphone usage like procrastination and information overload. Dumb devices offer a practical solution to these issues, allowing people to make the most of their time.
Of course, we don’t deny that tech was created for good, and advances in technology are one of our greatest achievements in this century. At the same time, dumb devices counterculture focuses on making productivity cool again.
In short, if the trend for dumb devices continues, we are likely to see more people opting completely out of the connected future. At the same time, whether dumb devices make it into the mainstream market or not, it won’t stop the tech revolution any time soon.