The Mobile World Congress usually points out the direction that mobile tech is heading for the year. The direction for this year? Backwards.
For a bit over a decade, the world has gotten used to (and possibly fatigued by) the annual cycle of incremental improvement of mobile hardware. A slightly bigger screen, a slightly faster processor, a slightly better camera... a slightly increased price tag and just as much pressure as a consumer to want to keep up. It's understandable that one of the major themes of this year's MWC was the throwback.
The Nokia 3310 is back. Snake is back. The Blackberry + keyboard is back. And Staedtler's released a new stylus - kinda like an Apple pencil, except it looks, weighs, and feels like an actual pencil and it's made by possibly the world's premier pencil-maker.
But do these reboots also mean that innovation is taking a step back as well? Not really. Sure, the 3310 doesn't stack up against flagship phones when you compare them spec-to-spec (although you'd be hard-pressed to find a smartphone these days that has anywhere near its month-long standby battery life), but the buzz the likes of the 3310 generated highlight a trend that goes beyond simple brand loyalty. There's an increasing shift in focus from hardware spec to usability. The 3310 is a phone, first-and-foremost, and it fulfills that function just as well, if not better than any other smartphone without also distracting the user too much with other fancy features.
Take the Staedtler S-pen as another example. Its style might not be as futuristic as the standard S-pen or Apple pencil, but it has captured something that is perhaps a lot more important - it is familiar. The Noris-style pencil is something we've all actually felt at some stage in our lives and its design has been perfected over decades - if not centuries.
Again, what does this mean for technological innovation? Forget the gimmicks and focus on the user. Today's hardware is already good enough where making the computer-human interface less obvious is already a key goal for many applications. Remember, a user doesn't need a touch screen to interact with a voice assistant, and a user can speak into a 3310 just as well as they can speak into a flagship smartphone.
Usability is the new clock-speed. Familiarity is the new screen resolution.
The established modus operandi in the tech industry is to make new things look like they’ve arrived from the future. Just look at Sony’s extremely angular, reflective, and super-specced Xperia XZ Premium that was just announced here at MWC. But there’s also been a counter movement that seeks to make the latest tech feel more organic by enveloping it in leather and wood cases, as Moto did with its phones, or giving it a familiar design from the past. Sometimes, that latter effort is just for show, but when it comes to input mechanics, it often proves helpful and functional.