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Tech Nostalgia: Clever Ploy Or Not?

Nostalgia may be a great way to create a buzz in a crowded market, but it isn’t the smartest way to sell consumer tech

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As the dust settled on the announcements from MWC last month, two announcements kept coming back to me for how decidedly old-school they were, somewhat of an oddity in an industry which keeps hyping up the fastest and the latest in tech.

First, BlackBerry launched its KEYone smartphone, a device that looks like a throwback to the Bold 9900 of yore but runs the Android OS instead of BlackBerry OS. Look, we’re in 2017, and BlackBerry’s still hoping there are enough faithfuls who’ve held a candle out for the brand all these years, only to deliver a smartphone with strictly average hardware and a physical keyboard as its USP. Software keyboards have evolved and matured to the point where they are inarguably better than their physical counterparts, yet instead of innovating on design and value, BlackBerry chose to take the route of nostalgia instead. Sure, it makes for a good story to tell and the headlines practically write themselves, but if the Priv and the Passport are anything to go by, there’s little in it to offer a consumer who’s clearly moved on from the past. Even in its erstwhile strongholds, the enterprises that fueled BB’s growth ten years ago, Apple and Samsung have worked hard to become established (and quite frankly preferred) options in the space. It doesn’t help that people associate having a BlackBerry as being “out of style”…which raises the question, is the nostalgia play really worth it?

The other one was Nokia, which brought back the iconic Nokia 3310 that was the first phone for many of my generation, only this time with a colour screen, a camera and an insane month-long battery life. It’s a device whose raison d’être is to appeal to the dormant warm fuzzy feelings all of us should theoretically have for having once owned and loved a Nokia, and it was this appeal that completely overshadowed Nokia’s other launches at the show. Instead of looking at a fresh start, free of the baggage of mistakes of the last decade, Nokia made the past the star of the show. The troubling bit is that while the Nokia 6, 5 and 3 that were launched at the show sound like good phones in their own right, they aren’t unique enough in any discernible manner to distinguish themselves from any of the other budget handsets we’re already so used to seeing. There isn’t even that cohesive design language one would associate with a Nokia. Think about it, if you were to replace the Nokia branding with any other budget player’s logo, nothing would look out of place. I’ll say it out loud — coming from the brand that launched revolutionary devices like the N95, the E71 and the Lumia 800, a brand that never really took design decisions because they were “safe” or “everyone’s doing it this way”… I’m a tad disappointed.

Nostalgia then may be a great way to get buzz in a crowded market, but it isn’t the smartest ploy to sell consumer tech, certainly not in any sustainable fashion. I mean, look at Sony, who year-on-year tries to slap on the Walkman branding onto yet another device that consumers don’t buy. The sooner the talented teams at Nokia and BlackBerry realise that their strengths lie not in their laurels and legacy but in investing in new design, new form factors and new ideas, the sooner consumers will welcome them back into their lives. Simply showing up with an Android phone bearing a badge from a long-bygone era won’t cut the mustard anymore, and its going to take a lot more than nostalgia to woo today’s discriminating smartphone buyers.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tushar Kanwar

The author is Technology Columnist and Program Manager in Bengaluru, India

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