Basic

The second of Dieter Rams’s ten principles for good design says:

Good design makes a product useful — A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic criteria. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could detract from it.

Last week, I powered-down my three year old untethered iPhone 4S that I paid good money for in 2012. It was losing battery so much that as a phone it stopped being useful. If Apple thinks their three-year recycle strategy would get people to buy shiny new iPhones — by sticking to designer vanity thinness and refusing to add battery bulk to make it usable, then I’d like to remind them that there are people like me.

For the record, in the last six months or so, I was charging it so often at home, in the car, and then again at my desk, that for the convenience of carrying a device, this was insane. In the last three months alone, I’ve had to leave my iPhone behind at home numerous times, because I wasn’t diligent enough to charge the damn thing. All the updates that Apple has been sending couldn’t make it any less of a power hog than it originally was with iOS 6.x. And with iOS 7.x, it got worse by an order of magnitude. I considered getting the new iPhone 6, but then I saw a significantly more powerful 6+ that my wife owns has other glitches, aside from the un-pocketable size that Apple now sells. There may be people who pay for novelty or for being crash test dummies, but I’m not one of them.

So, after three years of using an iPhone, I am back to using a simple phone. It’s been a week since I purchased Nokia 215. It feels fantastic in hand, feather-light at 78g, keyboard with key lighting that is razor-sharp, and it’s still on its maiden charge, and will go on for another three days easily. I mean, life ought to be more than just battery anxieties. Right?


Jul 17: It’s not hard to imagine the challenge of switching from a smart-phone to a basic one. It’s harder in reality. At long pauses, either in awkward silences or in moments of quietness, you will want to check something. Updates, messages, pings, notifications you will miss. You will want to research something on the fly while shopping. You will want to check your to-do, your calendar, or your email while rushing to a meeting or on your way to work. You will want to hail a cab home, which is only on a smart-phone. You will want to send a quick message to a loved one from work, or while travelling. What you realize is that your bare bones feature phone has at best a messaging system that is based on SMS. It does not sync your calendar, and it does not have a usable interface to type like the way you are used to on an iPhone, for example. At every one of those moments, you will feel handicapped. So, it certainly takes a certain wilfulness to resist the urge to switch back. This is part of the hurdle. Our minds are conveniently mapped to what we use everyday. Getting used to the 3×4 keypad again, and new ways of doing some of the old things can prove to be inconvenient at best.

On the other hand, if you are the type that gets overwhelmed routinely by the onslaught of your ever pinging, vibrating phone, then you may actually like the switch, because all those annoyances go away, and you’ll feel less bloated, less anxious. There are other initial inconveniences, of course, but only until you get used to the user interface. To me, this was the hardest. The last feature phone I used was a Nokia, and before that it was a Sony. Between the two, my fingers were better wired for Sony, thanks to its smart and delightful short-cuts, timed menus, requiring lowest number of keystrokes to get something done and then back out. Nokia, on the other hand, was solid on technology, just no heart in UI.1

In a feature phone, from text entry to unique keys, which are multi-purpose, short-cuts enable ease of use. This can be confusing, but you’ll get the hang of them all, once you do it a few times. Here are a few:

Keypad shortcuts in Nokia 215
ButtonAction
Power Volume (ringer); Bluetooth; Turn off; Lock.
Nav.left New Message
Nav.right Calendar (view)
Nav.down Contacts
Nav.up Speaker volume (calling); Torch (double-click)
Call Call register (all)
1 Voicemail
* SIM (for Dual), and other odd settings; Cycle words in predictive text (while typing)
0 Web browser
# Profile toggle switch (Silent, General)

In my eleven years of using feature phones between 2001 and 2012, I have never used predictive text to write messages before. Now in 2015, I am having such a time using this previously unused gem. With every keystroke, I tell myself, “Keep the faith, and the word you’re looking for will appear soon,” and it finally does. It’s a delight to see that this hugely underpowered phone includes a Markov-chain like algorithm to produce accurate words.

Oct 4: I was so taken by Nokia 215’s portability that I decided to buy its smaller sibling, the Nokia 130. I put it to use for much of August, and frankly for such a small device, even though it lacks the software UI finesse of 215, it feels great in hand.

The world, however, has changed so dramatically in connectivity in the last few years that not having a hand-held computer is as much liberating as it is a handicap. While the former can be addressed with behaviour, the latter really demands hardware. With the iPhone, I was in-sync with my work, my personal communication, and services like Uber at my command — all without the need for any other device on me. Last month, once it was clear Apple wouldn’t release a 4” device2, I went out and got myself its two-year old technology, the iPhone 5S, which also incidentally the lightest of iPhones at 112g. Given that I was until recently a 4S user, the upgrade feels fast & convenient. The greatest improvement is in stability and thoughtful improvements to its software, iOS 9. I can see Apple has worked hard not to have a repeat of issues that dogged last two versions. So here’s to three more years, with one of the Nokias as my critical backup.


  1. Alas, Sony quit the feature phone business, leaving Nokia with its mediocre interface. If Nokia re-enters the feature phone business uncoupled from Microsoft, then it would do well to look at Sony’s last feature phone interface, and bring those UI delights back to its keypad and interface. 

  2. In fact, I bought two in 2015. Update (Mar 26, 2016): Apple has thankfully now released iPhone SE a powerful 4” version that looks and feels much like 5S.