The Next 20

When Cellphones Became Cool

How the Nokia 3210 started the mobile revolution—and what it tells us about the next world-changing gadget.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images; Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images; Yuya Shino/Getty Images for Tokyo Game Show; Discostu/Wikimedia Commons.

It was 1997, and cellular phones were already boring.

A captivating, futuristic novelty when Motorola first demonstrated the technology in 1973, the mobile phone had quickly run up against a series of constraints. Size, cost, processor power, infrastructure: The obstacles to mass adoption were dispiriting, as they often are for new technologies on the downslope of their first hype cycles. Nevertheless, an industry gradually emerged, catering to business executives for whom the exorbitant cost (Motorola’s DynaTAC cost $4,000 in 1984) only reinforced its value as a status symbol. As the 1990s wore on, the devices slowly shrank, the cost of minutes eased, and cellular coverage widened.* Yet the perception of cellphones as gawky business gizmos remained, until a brash designer with a taste for simplicity came along with a phone that changed everything.

The designer wasn’t Jony Ive, and the phone wasn’t the iPhone. It was a man named Frank Nuovo, and the phone he created was one that few remember by name: the Nokia 3210. But if the device’s name doesn’t ring a bell, you might remember it by its iconic shape, its interchangeable covers, its classic ringtones, or even the mobile game it made famous.

Today, when a new phone is announced, it rides a titanic wave of press and marketing hype. There are rumors, leaks, live blogs, thinkpieces, takes and countertakes, embargoed reviews and teardowns and stress tests. When Apple launched the iPhone 7, the Wall Street Journal broadcast on Facebook a live video of its reviewers dunking it in a fish tank to check the company’s claims of water resistance.

In the late 1990s, new mobile phones incited no such frenzy. There was no launch event for the Nokia 3210, and few major publications bothered to review it. In retrospect, however, it may have done as much to spark the mobile revolution as any handset in history. The 3210 and its successors redefined the role of technology in our lives, not through feats of engineering so much as feats of marketing and design. By rethinking the configuration of key components in the phone and paying attention to how young people were using it, they took something awkward and ungainly and made it simple and chic. It’s a lesson worth heeding for those trying to build the next big breakthrough device.

But let’s get back to 1997. The leading manufacturer at the time, U.S.–based Motorola, structured its product cycles around fundamental advances in the technology, namely the chipsets that powered the phones and the telecommunications infrastructure that carried the cellular signal. When a new chipset was ready, it would release a new range of phones. The same was true at Nokia, the Finnish underdog that was running second in sales and reputation. Nokia’s young, hard-charging leaders were looking for an edge over the company’s larger rival. They saw, perhaps before others, the convergence of technological advances that could make cellphones accessible to the masses at last, including 2G digital networks that allowed people to send text messages. But there was a problem: A lull in Nokia’s product-development cycle meant that there were no new chipsets around which to build a fresh device.

That sounds like a recipe for stagnation—old phones dressed up in new clothes. But Nuovo viewed it as his moment.

Traditionally, mobile-phone companies had viewed engineering as a core competency, but they often outsourced the design. Nokia, in contrast, had made a major commitment to in-house design by hiring Nuovo away from the firm Designworks and giving him his own team and studio in Calabasas, California. He saw the absence of a clear mandate for the company’s next phone as an excuse to get creative. “It was a moment when design and configuration could be optimized by spreading around the existing components in new ways,” Nuovo recalls. “We started thinking, ‘Let’s innovate on the shape and form.’ ”

In late 1997, Nuovo convened a multimonth “vision process” called Vision ’99. He split his designers into teams and commissioned them to come up with radical new concepts—not for the company’s next phone, but for seven entirely different phones, each built around a different demographic and use case. The market segments they chose—“luxury,” “premium,” “business/classic,” “fashion,” “sport,” “expression,” and “youth”—were commonplace among designers and marketers in other industries. But no one had ever diced the cellphone market along those lines, because the presumption was that most of those categories weren’t part of the cellphone market at all.

“We took it on ourselves to tell a story of what the mobile phone industry could be, beyond just a business product,” recalls Alastair Curtis, the British designer who was tasked by Nuovo to lead the vision process. He says the team was inspired, not by other mobile phones, but by consumer devices such as Casio’s G-Shock watches and Sony’s Walkman. “We were all kind of fearless,” he says, a little wistfully. “Everything was up for change.”

From the beginning, Curtis says, the concept for an “expressive” phone that could be personalized to the user’s taste “took on a momentum of its own within the project.” The team designing it had no established template from which to work, because no major cellphone manufacturer had built a device with young people in mind. They were faced with the question: How do you take a notoriously uncool thing and make it cool? Their concept would become the Nokia 3210.

Pre-production prototypes of the Nokia 3210.


The designers started by rethinking the least cool component of all: the antenna. Not only did it look dorky, it made phones uncomfortable to carry in your pocket. Unable to imagine a way to dress it up, Nokia’s designers decided to simply make it disappear, placing it inside the phone. It’s the kind of bold choice, made by designers in the heady freedom of their studios, that drives engineers nuts. Peter Roepke, who led the Denmark-based project team tasked with making the 3210 a reality, confirms that the hidden antenna was a tough sell. “All phones had external antennas,” he says. “Consumers had the perception that it could not work well without one.” As for the engineers on his team, “they were completely against it.” But they came through with a stroke of brilliance, redesigning the phone’s battery pack so that the antenna could fit alongside it.

That made the phone wider and bulkier, which ran counter to the industry’s prevailing fetish for thinness. (One of Nuovo’s first design triumphs at Nokia was the ultrathin 8110, released in 1996, which was so sleek that it was featured in The Matrix.)* But it also made the 3210 shorter and curvier, giving it a shape that nestled perfectly in a pocket. At the same time, it allowed for a wider screen, one that was friendlier and easier to read. “I remember talking with Alastair about the ‘hips’ on the phone,” Nuovo says. “We wanted to make it sexy.”

The experimentation extended to the body of the phone. In an industry first, the designers made both the front and back covers easily removable, so users could match their phone’s appearance to their taste, their outfit, or even their mood. It sounds like a minor frill. But Curtis believes it was crucial to the 3210’s runaway success, for a surprising reason: Third parties around the world began producing custom covers for the device, and mobile-phone retailers began using those brightly colored pieces of plastic to catch the eye of customers. “It used to be when you went into a mobile-phone retail space, you’d have the Nokia phones, the Ericsson phones, the Motorola phones. Now you’d walk in and there’s a whole wall of replaceable covers,” made specifically for the 3210 and another Nokia phone, the 5110. “We were winning consumer minds with that wall space,” Curtis says.

The phone continued to sell itself once it was in consumers’ hands. Embracing its role as a toy and not just a utility, Nokia installed on the phone a simple but infamously addictive game called Snake. (It had made its debut on another recent Nokia model, the 6110.) For the first time, the phone began to double as a personal entertainment device, a way to pass the time when you had nothing else to do. “This was a huge turning point, not only in the style of phones, but in the use of phones,” says Nuovo.

Members of the Vision ’99 team that designed the Nokia 3210. Frank Nuovo is second from left; lead designer Alastair Curtis is second from right.


So how did Nokia foresee all this? Its focus on design was certainly part of its success. But it also helped that the company’s market was so international. In the mid–1990s, while Motorola was dominating the U.S. market with its analog phones, Nokia was making a big, risky bet on a digital telecommunications standard called GSM, which it helped to pioneer as part of a European consortium. That made possible new features such as SMS, or text messaging, which Nokia introduced in 1992. In the United States, business customers had grown comfortable paying hefty monthly rates for sizeable chunks of talk time. But elsewhere in the world, people began buying cheaper phones and economizing on minutes, often via pay-as-you-go schemes. One way they found to save minutes was to communicate largely via text. The 3210 was especially conducive to texting, thanks to its use of two new features: T9 predictive text, which made typing much faster, and preinstalled “picture messages,” the forebears of the graphics and emoji that are so popular in messaging today.

In a memorable 1999 Wired cover story headlined “Just Say Nokia,” Steve Silberman traveled to Finland and found its teens walking around with their faces glued to their Nokia handsets, texting each other constantly. Their lexicon, he observed, had adapted accordingly:

In the last couple of years, Finnish teenagers have quit referring to mobile phones as jupinalle – “yuppie teddy bears” – and started calling them kännykkä or känny, a Nokia trademark that passed into generic parlance and means an extension of the hand.

The company announced the 3210 on March 18, 1999, calling it “a mobile phone for ultimate convenience and personalization” and launching a marketing campaign aimed at a much younger audience than was typical for the industry. It went on to sell some 160 million units, making it one of the best-selling phones of all time. No iPhone has ever been that popular. It helped Nokia surpass Motorola as the world’s leading mobile-phone manufacturer, a title it held until Samsung finally eclipsed it in 2012.

Nuovo’s experiments with market segmentation were critical to the company’s rise. Without them, there would have been no 3210, nor any number of other phones that followed the consumer-friendly path it blazed. But as Nokia’s hold on the industry grew, its divide-and-conquer strategy became entrenched, and it overextended itself, catering to every corner of the market. That became a problem when a brand-new rival emerged with a singular focus on a particular kind of device. Apple’s iPhone, released in 2007, did for smartphones what Nokia had done for feature phones—make them pretty, easy to use, and accessible to the masses—but with a twist. While Nokia and others were churning out dozens of different types of hardware, Apple built just one iPhone and focused its resources on superior software.

Dragged down by their clunky Symbian operating system, which Nokia co-owned with Ericsson and other rivals, Nokia’s phones gradually lost their edge—first in cachet, and eventually in sales. The company sold its handset division to Microsoft in 2014 for $7.9 billion, a fraction of its former value. Within two years, Microsoft essentially stripped it for parts, selling the feature phone business and the Nokia handset brand to Foxconn for just $350 million earlier this year. Virtually everyone involved in the 3210’s creation had long since departed.

Yet the device itself has proven more durable. You can still buy and use a 3210 today, and you might even find it has a few advantages over today’s high-tech smartphones. The battery can go for days on a single charge, and you don’t have to worry about it bending or cracking. “When you dropped these things, they didn’t break,” Nuovo says with pride. “They bounced.” The 3210’s direct successor, the 3310, was so beloved that it has spawned worshipful memes and nostalgic BuzzFeed listicles.

In hindsight, the 3210 was not a triumph of market segmentation. If anything, it was a triumph of market unification. With their “expression” phone concept, Nuovo, Curtis, Roepke, and their colleagues set out to reimagine the cellphone for young people, but they ended up reimagining it for everyone. Simplicity, ease of use, and fashionability turned out to be more universal values than even they had anticipated.

Their story is a reminder that, for emerging technologies, the road to mainstream acceptance is rarely linear. There’s a temptation for pioneers to keep building the same type of device for the same early adopters until the underlying tech improves enough to justify their original vision. That can blind them to new ways of organizing, packaging, and marketing the technology that’s already available.

It’s a lesson worth noting for the companies vying today to build gadgets like smart watches, smart glasses, smart earbuds, and virtual-reality headsets. All of these, today, are ungainly and uncool, and none has fundamentally changed how we live. But with the right design at the right time, today’s jupinalle could be tomorrow’s känny.

*Correction, Sept. 20, 2016: This article originally misstated that widening satellite coverage was a factor in the development of cellphones. It was widening cellular coverage, not satellite coverage, that helped to make cellphones more appealing. (Return.) It also misidentified the 1996 Nokia phone featured in The Matrix as the 8810. It was the 8110. (Return.)