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‘Dumbphone’ fans disconnect in face of smartphone dominance

‘Dumbphone’ fans disconnect in face of smartphone dominance

Dumbphones also referred to as feature phones, are essentially throw-back handsets without big screens and a mountain of app
Jose Briones poses for a portrait at his apartment in Littleton, Colorado, on March 24, 2023, while displaying a collection of smartphones that he discontinued using in 2019. Photo by Jason Connolly / AFP

Shunning his smartphone for a “dumb” one changed the way Jose Briones engages with the world — and he likes it that way. The 27-year-old Colorado resident turns to CDs when he wants music, instead of streaming it. When he has to get someplace, he prints out directions before setting out or, if needed, falls back on the sometimes-forgotten practice of asking a stranger which way to go.

Briones is far from alone in reconnecting with the analog world by relying less on finding life’s solutions via the internet on his phone. He hasn’t forsaken the internet entirely, however. Briones helps moderate a Reddit forum devoted to so-called dumbphones, which had 17,000 thousand “enthusiasts” as members as of Monday. “People who want to regain their time and attention, and have a deeper more purposeful life, I think that is who this message is resonating with,” Briones told AFP.

Dumbphones also referred to as feature phones, are essentially throw-back handsets without big screens and a mountain of apps. They are reminiscent of the pre-iPhone era when mobile phones allowed users to call another line, an astounding breakthrough made when the first mobile phone call was dialled on April 3, 1973 — 50 years ago. An array of handset makers cater to that market with feature or “minimalist” phones that go beyond just calls and text messages to allow for a couple of apps. A Reddit forum member with the screen name Melanin_King0 told of finding it easier to cope with mental strain and of feeling better overall since switching to a dumbphone about three weeks ago.

“When I was constantly on my smartphone, I felt like my brain would fog up,” Melanin_King0 said in an exchange with AFP. “It would be harder to do anything and scrolling on Instagram’s Reels and TikTok was sapping my motivation.”

Another Reddit user – Retro chic? – said that carrying a smartphone caused “background anxiety” and more superficial connections with friends and family. The young hipster crowd is also giving dumbphones a try, thinking of them as cool or retro, according to Briones. Many members of the “dumbphones” forum have made the switch away from smartphones but keep some conveniences such as email, Spotify, Google Maps, or Microsoft Teams, Briones noted. But “not many people come and say they want to keep TikTok, Instagram and Facebook,” Briones said.

Many aficionados keep a smartphone on hand for their jobs. Briones said he transfers his sim card into an iPhone or tablet when his job is packed with video meetings and travel, but that he relies on his dumbphone about 80 per cent of the time. “In my work with non-profits I deal with a lot of emails, reminders, nudges, and scheduling volunteers,” Briones said. “That is depleting; you want to step away from that in your personal life.” Though the trend may be small, some companies cater to those seeking to break the hold that smartphones have on their lives. On their website, the Brooklyn-based makers of the Light Phone promise to never offer social media, internet browsing or an “anxiety-inducing infinite feed” on their minimalist handsets.

They can be used as wireless hotspots though, and include the option of adding a few tools like a house-made music player or map app. Light has seen sales climb, as has rival Punkt, chiefs of the companies said in a CNBC report. “It’s time to create some healthier boundaries in our relationship with technology,” Punkt founder and CEO Petter Neby said. Sales for dumb or feature phones are small and shrinking, according to analysts, as cheaper smartphones are made available to buyers on a budget, especially in developing countries.

The sales trend has been consistently downward despite a slight “uptick” last year in the United States, said IDC Worldwide Device Trackers research director Nabila Popal. “I realize some people — perhaps more so Gen Z — are talking about the negative impact that always being ‘connected’ has on their mental health, and hence returning to old school feature phones,” Nabila told AFP. “When looking at the bigger picture, feature phones are on the decline and the recent renewed interest from some folks isn’t about to stop this trend.”

Despite their niche popularity, dumbphones are ultimately likely destined to “go the way of the dodo,” —  it’s just a question of when — creative strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi predicted.

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