Dumbphone sales are currently experiencing a revival as a growing number of consumers are developing a taste for these legacy icons in a society brimming with stimuli overkill that rushes toward a 24/7 surveillance state and the internetification of things.
Contrary to the current trend of handheld communication devices getting “smarter,” there is a considerable countermovement emerging with people who have tossed their latest smartphone model, replacing it with a good ol’ fashioned dumbphone, which is basically only fit for calling and texting.
“I didn’t notice until I bought a ‘brick phone’ how much a smartphone was taking over my life,” said 17-year-old Robin West in a report by the BBC. “I had a lot of social media apps on it, and I didn’t get as much work done as I was always on my phone.”
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“I’m happy with my brick,” she added. “I don’t think it limits me. I’m definitely more proactive.”
West does acknowledge that flashing her dumbphone causes some raised eyebrows from time to time. “Everyone thinks it’s just a temporary thing,” she said. “They’re like: ‘So when are you getting a smartphone? Are you getting one this week?'”
Meanwhile, the demand for dumbphones as evidenced by Google searches has steadily risen by 89 percent from 2018 to 2021, according to the BBC, citing figures provided by SEMrush, a keyword and ranking tracking company.
At the same time, many dumbphone users bought one out of wistfulness. Ernest Doku, who works for a consumer services broker, told BBC: “It appears fashion, nostalgia, and them appearing in TikTok videos have a part to play in the dumbphone revival.”
“Many of us had a dumbphone as our first mobile phone,” Doku explained. “So it’s natural that we feel a sense of nostalgia towards these classic handsets.”
Doku pointed out the successful Nokia 3310 relaunch of 2017, an event he credited for the 1G cellphone revival.
“Nokia pushed the 3310 as an affordable alternative in a world full of high-spec mobiles,” he said.
And while dumbphones may not be emblazoned with the latest glitzy gadgets, he noted, “They can outshine them in equally important areas such as battery life and durability.”
A smarter light phone
One company that creates basic not-so-smart phones is Light Phone, a startup based in New York. Its phones are slightly more capable than early dumb ones, with additional features such as the ability to serve as an MP3 player and having Bluetooth and GPS functionality.
Their website advertises that their phones are “designed to be used as little as possible,” and that they “will never have social media, clickbait news, email, an internet browser, or any other anxiety-inducing infinite feed.”
Co-founder Kaiwei Tang said the company started out developing classic handhelds for people to have a break from their smart, gadget-loaden environment as an alternative to the smartphone relentlessly calling for attention.
“If aliens came to earth, they’d think that mobile phones are the superior species controlling human beings,” Tang told BBC, illustrating his point. “And it’s not going to stop. It’s only going to get worse. Consumers are realizing that something is wrong, and we want to offer an alternative.”
But now it turns out that most of their clientele feel it’s smart to use their dumbphone as their primary cellphone while dumping their smartphone.
And this trend seems to be catching on—even though the bricks aren’t exactly cheap, starting from $299, unless you sign up for a 1-year plan—sales increased by 150 percent in 2021 year over year, according to Light Phone.
Estimates say dumbphone sales hit 1 billion pieces in 2021, 600 million more than in 2019. By comparison, 1.4 billion smartphones were sold last year after a 12.5 percent retraction in 2020.
“Light is not just another tech company. We build all of the tools from scratch to ensure there are absolutely no third-party apps tracking you,” the website stated.
“In this time of ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ and the ‘Attention Economy,’ the Light Phone represents a different option. You are the customer, not the product. This is a phone for humans.”