Few companies are better positioned to make a less-smart phone than Nokia, a company that defined and dominated the global cellphone market until about the time when the iPhone arrived. In early 2017, Nokia announced a new model, the 3310, based loosely on a predecessor of the same name first released in 2000, a.k.a. “the Brick,” one of the most popular cellphones in the world. It is not the purpose of the 3310 to offer much of anything new, but it can at least offer a challenge: You joke that you miss your old phone, so here’s a chance to buy one. I did: It works; it makes and takes calls; it sends and receives texts. It can, with extraordinary difficulty, summon Google. But its familiarity belies how ill adapted it is to even a conscientious smartphone objector. I almost instantly wished, for example, that I could trade the newly added camera for GPS mapping, a smartphone feature that has been an unobtrusive improvement in my life. The 3310 is at its genuine best when it falls like a smooth stone into your pocket, where, rather than constantly buzzing at the periphery of your consciousness, it sits inert, ready mostly to be ignored.
There are newly designed less-smart phones that better split the difference: the Light Phone 2 and the Unihertz Jelly, a full-fledged but strategically miniaturized Android handset. Each is well equipped for the moment, gesturing, in some element of its design, to the contradictory and possibly unresolvable feelings of the disaffected smartphone user. Each also got off to a strong start, identifying at least a sliver of demand with viral crowdfunding campaigns: The Light Phone raised more than $1.5 million on Indiegogo for its second iteration; the Jelly raised close to $3 million on Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
The Light Phone promised detoxification and escape, taking and encouraging a performative approach to smartphone anxiety — a conspicuously consumed juice cleanse, a loudly anticipated fast, a week away “off the grid.” It was, in its first iteration, capable only of making calls. (The 2 will allow texting and might include basic mapping and ride-hailing. Social media, the company says, is a “no go.”) In essence, it’s a luxurious protest, a wellness-oriented alternative to powering up an old flip phone or strutting out the door devil-free.
If the Light Phone suggests that the problem with your iPhone is that it does too much, the Jelly instead proposes that it’s too good at doing what it does: too easy to get lost in, like a TV; too easy to do work on, like a laptop; too easy to turn to in a moment of silence or inactivity. The Jelly has all the basic stuff: It runs a version of Google’s Android, it has high-speed data and it supports the same apps available to any other smartphone user. But its anti-innovation is brutal: It has a tiny, 2.45-inch screen. Its approach to smartphone moderation is to make the process of using it difficult enough that, in more marginal cases, it’s simply not worth it. It’s an engagement machine with the resistance turned up as high as possible. Messages become shorter. Reading becomes more deliberate. An idle check of the phone is associated less with the rush of refreshing an app than with the tedious process of opening one in the first place. As an individual strategy, the device supposes that helplessness might be solved, or at least replaced, with frustration.