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Nokia 3310 and NES Classic: Nostalgia is the new black

In an attempt to win your heart (and wallet), these phones, consoles and cameras purposely appeal to your sense of nostalgia.

Josh Miller/CNET

I am refreshing, refreshing and refreshing again the online ordering page for the Nintendo NES Classic Edition. I'm hoping for an "add to cart" button, but in less than two minutes it's sold out and I miss my chance. To quote Charles Bronson: no dice.

My reason for buying was simple. I spent a big part of my childhood playing the original NES with friends. It was responsible for many happy memories. So last November when Nintendo released the Classic Edition, a new version of the '80s Nintendo Entertainment System, I had to buy it (or at least try to) because of a nostalgia-fueled reflex.

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Phones, cameras and video game consoles use nostalgia in different ways to appeal to consumers.

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May the nostalgia be with you

Nostalgia invokes powerful, positive emotions. It has sold movies, cars, toys, music and clothes for decades. People flocked to see "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" not just because it had Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Chewbacca, but also because it felt close in tone, story and setting to the initial Star Wars trilogy from 40 years ago. The film let older fans raised on the original movies revisit their childhoods while also introducing Star Wars to an entirely new generation. It was a stunning success, earning over $2 billion worldwide.

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Nostalgia is now being used to sell tech, an interesting trend for an industry that places "new" above everything else. Even as they're focused on constant innovation, more tech companies are adding retro features and familiar experiences to new products.

Marlene Morris Towns, an adjunct professor of marketing at Georgetown University, says, "This is a newer phenomenon in technology in that the tech world has always been about pushing forward." However, she says, the reasons it's happening are the same as in other industries. What's old is new again.

But how can a product both move forward and embrace the past? A tech product, even if it tries to pull the heartstrings, still needs to be innovative. It needs to offer a balance of nostalgic emotion and modern technological features.

Hello, 2005 is calling

Earlier this year at Mobile World Congress, a huge wireless industry trade show held annually in Barcelona, two of the most talked-about phones were the Nokia 3310 and the BlackBerry KeyOne. Yes, this was in 2017, not 2005. Both are reboots of famous phones that captivated our attention more than 10 years ago. They're both new in a way, but their identities depend on rekindling past experiences by bringing back familiar names and features.

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The new BlackBerry KeyOne (left) and the original BlackBerry Bold (right).

Josh Miller/CNET

In an era in which we largely tap away at touchscreens to type, the BlackBerry KeyOne is a brand-new Android smartphone with an actual physical keyboard. While there have been a few BlackBerry phones released over the last few years — the Priv, the DTEK50 and the DTEK60 — none of them seemed to capture the essence of that old BlackBerry design better than the KeyOne.

In its heyday, BlackBerry design was a perfect blend of hardware and user-friendliness. A BlackBerry was defined by its small keyboard that let you confidently double-thumb fast replies to texts and emails. And before scrolling with your finger on a touchscreen was a thing, BlackBerry had a scroll wheel on the side letting people speed through an inbox full of new messages with addictive ease — coining the term CrackBerry. A BlackBerry phone's physical design had an appealing seriousness about it in the same way designer casual clothes from Brooks Brothers do.

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The new Nokia 3310 has made such splash, that there are now rumors it will be available in the US.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Chinese company, TCL, that licensed the BlackBerry name aimed to create the paragon of a modern BlackBerry phone. On the other hand, the Nokia 3310 phone seems to have had an entire bottle of nostalgia poured on it. Brought out of retirement by the Finnish company HMD, which licensed the Nokia name, the 3310 didn't add much in the way of modern features or tech. Aside from a color display and a camera, it is essentially the same as the original Nokia 3310 from 2000 — yes, the year 2000. Heck, it even has the game Snake.

Whether nostalgia alone can sell either phone remains to be seen. Can you really envision yourself using the Nokia 3310 for a year or two? Will it still be exciting after the nostalgia wears off? Even if the 3310 and the KeyOne make us feel warm and fuzzy by reminding us of our earliest cell phones, they will be going toe-to-toe with cutting-edge handsets from the likes of Apple, Samsung, Google and LG.

Das Wesentliche

While BlackBerry and Nokia are two of the more mainstream examples of nostalgia-influenced tech design, digital cameras have utilized nostalgic designs and experiences for over a decade.

Ten years ago digital cameras fell into one of two categories: cheap point-and-shoots with small sensors or big, bulky dSLRs with large sensors. Enter Leica, the German camera manufacturer that's been making film cameras since 1913. Its M rangefinder camera has been around since the 1950s and has one of the most iconic designs of any consumer product ever made.

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Part of the M10's appeal is that it brings the user experience Leica perfected for its film cameras into a digital world.

Josh Miller/CNET

In 2006, Leica released the M8 — a digital camera that looked exactly like a Leica M film camera. The M8 had a large sensor, brass body and manual controls. Though it had the same-size sensor as most dSLRs, the M8 weighed half as much and was about half as big. Leica appealed to the nostalgia photographers felt for the simple elegance of its M film cameras by making the M8 look and function just like one.

Leica released the fourth generation of its digital M camera, the M10, in January of this year. The M10 continues to feed photographers' nostalgic hunger for a pure shooting experience and a classic design. "So whilst some customers may feel a certain nostalgia when using a Leica, we call it the focus on the essential, or in German, 'das Wesentliche,' " says Roland Wolff, vice president of marketing and corporate retail of Leica Camera.

Fujifilm sought a similar nostalgic look and feel for its X100 series of digital cameras. The original X100 released in 2011 packed a large sensor into a retro-looking body with analog controls, winning it a lot of attention and awards.

On February 16 of this year, Fujifilm released an updated version of the camera, the X100F. It packs a newer sensor, Wi-Fi and a faster processor into the same retro-looking body of the original X100. Yuji Igarashi, general manager of Fujifilm North America's Electronic Imaging Division, says that nostalgia and innovation were equally important factors in its camera design.

That balance of old and new has been a successful formula for both Fujifilm and Leica and will be important in order for any tech product to successfully incorporate nostalgia.

Film is the new vinyl

Kodak is using nostalgia to save an entire medium: film. Before the phone took over as the default camcorder of choice, we used beautifully boxy little Super 8 film cameras to document parties and family get-togethers. And much like the resurgence of vinyl records, shooting on film is making a comeback among people nostalgic for the warm look and unique visual character that it delivers.

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Kodak is using a combination of digital and analog in its new Super 8 camera.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Earlier this year, Kodak announced a new Super 8 film camera that records onto 8mm film cartridges (instead of an SD card like a digital camera does). But despite its analog heart, the new camera has modern comforts like a digital display and internal rechargeable battery. Kodak even has a mail-in program to develop, process and scan your 8mm film cartridges — in return you get digital video files and your developed film.

The new Super 8 film camera is all about making it as convenient as possible for someone to shoot on film. Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke says, "Thematically, this camera is about converging the old and the new, craft with technology, analog and digital."

While I don't expect to see everyone shooting on Super 8 film cameras tomorrow, this is a smart way to address people's craving for film. Who knows, maybe 8mm film cameras will become the new turntables?

Back to the future

As we're still in the early stages of this nostalgia tech trend, there is a lot of experimentation trying to make it work. But whether the trend appears in literal re-creations like the Nokia 3310 or more inspired designs like the Leica M10, the ultimate judge of its success will be if people buy these products.

This leads to a bigger question: What does the nostalgia trend mean for tech? Has the industry simply run out of original ideas (echoing a current charge against Hollywood with its seemingly endless series of reboots) or is there a deeper reason to embrace nostalgia? Maybe consumers see nostalgic gadgets as a way to escape their increasingly complex reality by reliving a simpler time.

For me, though, I just knew I wanted that Nintendo NES Classic Edition. And after trying for three months, I finally got one. The cable on the controller is short so I sat cross-legged on the floor a few feet away from the screen — just like when I was a kid. Within moments, the opening dada-duh-dadda-duh-dahs of the Super Mario Brothers theme song played and I was in heaven. Now I just need to decide if I'm going to get an SNES Classic this fall.

This story appears in the Summer 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.