Nokia's nostalgia trap: The hot old-is-new-again 3310

With the 3310, Finnish startup HMD got a stunt to get people to notice its Nokia comeback story. Now comes the hard part.

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Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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The good news: The throwback Nokia 3310 candy bar phone is one of the most buzzed-about items at the Mobile World Congress trade show.

The bad news: The throwback Nokia 3310 -- and not the new Nokia phones -- is one of the most buzzed-about items at the show.

The Nokia 3310, which originally launched at the turn of the millennium, is the latest attempt to tug at our heartstrings, part of a broader trend bringing back iconic shows and products from our youth. The miniaturized Nintendo Classic was a hard-to-find item during the holidays, and '80s stalwarts "Full House" and "Voltron" are both enjoying a revival with new episodes on Netflix.

It's no coincidence that following the press conference held by HMD, the Finnish startup building Nokia phones, people made a beeline for the table with the 3310 phones.

It's an effective way to get people talking about your products at a crowded trade show like Mobile World Congress, which this year featured attention-grabbers like LG's newest flagship phone and a supposed "Gigabit Phone" from ZTE. And for HMD, which was founded and staffed by many former Nokia executives, attention is a valuable commodity.

"The frenzy of nostalgia around the updated 3310 will deliver some much-needed consumer awareness that Nokia-branded devices are back on the shelves," said Ben Wood, an analyst at CCS Insight.

But here's the rub: Relying too much on that storied name and the novelty factor of a phone that's nearly two decades old (even if the company did update its look) bring their own issues: They threaten to overshadow what you're doing today.

"They have a juggling act," said IHS analyst Ian Fogg. "How does HMD leverage the old brand and at the same time do brand-new things?"

Juho Sarvikas, chief product officer of HMD, isn't concerned that the Nokia brand might get relegated to a novelty item and believes the new 3310 will give the startup a chance to do "some fun things on social media."

Why not?

It's clear HMD put some thought into the new 3310, which has more rounded curves and new bright colors but retains much of the DNA of the original candy bar phone.

"We thought, what the heck, let's do it," HMD CEO Arto Nummela said during an interview in a small hotel room off the main Las Ramblas drag in Barcelona on Saturday. "We wanted to have fun with it."

Get a close look at the rebooted Nokia 3310

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The 49 euro ($51.75) 3310 boasts 22 hours of talk time and a month of standby time, 10 times the original's capabilities. Yes, it comes with Gameloft's updated version of the original Snake game, as well as the iconic Nokia ringtone.

While conventional logic would argue that the people who have a fondness for this phone would be the least likely to buy it -- most of us have moved on to slightly more sophisticated devices -- HMD believes the 3310 could win the company new Nokia fans in emerging markets, where basic phones are still common.

Sarvikas said it could also work as a secondary "digital detox" phone you use while on vacation. It's much harder for your boss to reach you over the weekend if your phone can't get e-mail. (The boss could call you, but who does that any more?)

What's in a name?

HMD's ambitious revival of Nokia will serve as a test of how much influence the brand still holds over consumers.

If China is any indication, HMD has reason to be optimistic. When the company launched the Nokia 6 there last month, 1.3 million people registered for the product in the first four days.

Surprisingly, most of them weren't old Nokia diehards. Nummela said that 74 percent of the people who signed up were 30 or younger -- people who potentially never owned a Nokia phone before.

HMD is starting with midrange to low-end pricing (the phones range from 139 euros, or $147, to 299 euros, or $316) because it sees that segment as the biggest opportunity to make waves. The thinking is that in a sea of me-too budget phones, you're more likely to choose the one with a brand you recognize.

The company doesn't think it's just tapping into a brand's former sway over consumers. TCL, which is similarly trying to revive the once-beloved BlackBerry brand, believes it's important to move forward with that name.

"I don't use the word 'nostalgia' as I use the word 'legacy'," Steve Cistulli, head of TCL's North American business, said in an interview on Saturday. "When you take that legacy and move it forward, that's where we have a lot of the passion ingrained."

HMD takes a similar tack. "We're more relying on attributes and a similar philosophical approach," Nummela said. "It's less about doing something that already existed."

CNET's Katie Collins contributed to this story.