3 min read

Why Dumbphones Are Making A Comeback

One of the most surprising things I saw in Dubai, and now Japan, was the use of dumbphones. You might remember the limited capabilities of dumbphones from pre-2008. It’s probably been some time since you owned a phone without GPS. However, upstarts like Punkt MPO2 (pictured below) are offering these regressive cell devices for people who want a break from the ultra-connectivity of smartphones.

These phones are extremely popular overseas. Don’t ask me why. I’m still pondering that myself. But if I had to guess, I’d say it has to do with actual connectivity.

Mobile internet isn’t that great overseas. Or at least not as reliable as here. It’s very costly to get something analogous to the ubiquitous mobile wireless internet that we have in the USA. This means that social media, email, etc. isn’t always at arms reach. Sometimes you just don’t have the connection to be glued to your device.

Thus, when people are in transit in Japan (particularly on trains, the most common form of transit) they’re reading a book, or newspaper, playing a game, or listening to music on an MP3 player. Yes, those still exist and are actually quite popular too in Japan. Although they’re now called digital media players or DMPs.

From my travels, I’ve realized that the feeling of always needing to be spending every second consuming, working, or socializing on the phone – so as to not waste a second – just doesn’t exist elsewhere. It’s a uniquely Western (mostly American) behavior.

But that’s not to say we’re not aware of our addictions.

Flip Phone Comeback

Even here in the states, I’ve noticed a small bubbling of interest in reverting to a flip phone/dumbphone. I think the simplicity is alluring.

Recently, a college kid went viral describing the benefits of using a flip phone when she goes out – more presence, “retro” photos, and less likely to drunk post on social. She and her friends have all made the switch, and at least 17 million people have heard her case for the change.

I also just read a story about the Luddite Club – a group of teenagers who feel technology consumes too much of their lives. Although the club only has 16 members, many have opted to delete social media and get rid of their smartphones.

In many ways, it makes sense because what was once new becomes old, and what was once old becomes new. It happened to vinyl records, and dumbphones are making a reprise.

I’m not trying to make this out to be bigger than it is. I don’t think dumbphones are a serious threat to smartphones.

I do, however, think Western society has generally come around to the realization that a lot of our troubles regarding mental health, fitness, and social life stem from the smartphone.

That’s why I believe periodic digital detoxes are becoming increasingly important. You can make a digital detox whatever you want it to be. Whether that’s a cold turkey quit of devices for some time, locking yourself from distractions, deleting apps and cleaning your home screen, I think it’s important to reflect on your device usage and take a break.

Personally, dumbphones are alluring to me. I don’t think I can make the switch, given my work needs, but I’d love to regain some of the calmness that this review of the Punkt MP02 gained by switching:

Taking the SIM card out of my iPhone and putting it into my [Punkt] MP02 for the first time was an almost-infuriating experience. Not because of anything the MP02 did wrong, but because of what it intentionally doesn't even attempt to do. While the MP02's "Apostrophy OS" was simple enough to get used to and I enjoyed the feel of pushing buttons again (tactility FTW!), there was only so much you could do with the phone. T9 text messaging is painful. Most people don't even want to talk on calls anymore. I found myself putting it down and not picking it up very often.

Then I went to visit my parents. Two hours later when I left, I felt like I had the best visit with them that I've had in years, where we actually talked. As I was driving home, I realized it was because I didn't look at my phone the whole time. It wasn't buzzing in my pocket with a constant stream of notifications that would send me down a rabbit hole of switching between meaningless apps.

The next day I went for a walk. I didn't stop to look at my phone once, nor pull it out to take any photos. I just enjoyed nature and the fresh air. It was an invigorating experience.

Then I sat down on the couch and picked up a book to read. I read for four hours straight. I can't remember the last time I've done that, but I'm sure it was probably reading the first Harry Potter books when they were originally published. – Kevin Michaluk