My Experience with the Nokia 8110 Dumbphone and KaiOS
I decided I wanted to leave my smartphone at home. It was a constant distraction that seemed to feed an addictive urge to itself. I wondered what the world would look like without having a smartphone as my constant companion.
In order to be able to do this, I needed to find a 'dumbphone', so that I would still be able to connect with friends, family and work while out. A dumbphone (also called 'feature phone') is the type of phone people used in the early days of cell phone technology. These robust devices have extended battery life and enable calling and texting. Some dumbphones have additional basic features, like a flash light, a notes app and maybe one or two games, Snake being a popular option. I began my research and looked for a feature phone that met these requirements:
- 4G network capability
- hotspot feature (and therefore, Wi-Fi)
- good battery life
The phone needed to be 4G compliant, because I was concerned about 2G and 3G networks becoming obsolete. This narrowed it down to just a handful of choices. I have had good experiences with Nokia devices in the past - the excellent battery life in particular - and went with the Nokia 8110. This phone is a reissue of the iconic 'banana phone' used in The Matrix. It is sold in black or bright yellow.
It felt good to leave my smartphone at home when heading out the first morning. This was similar to the liberating feeling I experienced when I first decided to keep my smartphone out of the bedroom. It always feels good to remove something you depend on in life, and discover you are fine without it.
The 4G hotspot feature worked well. Having a feature phone with hotspot capability was a deliberate compromise. I wanted freedom from smartphone addiction, but did not see the need for a hardline minimalist approach. When you are travelling, for example, it just is easier to be able to access the Internet on the go. When taking my kids to their weekend sporting or club activities, I would sometimes have several hours to kill on some cold field or in a noisy gym, and I wanted to be able to use the time to work or listen to podcasts. In these situations I would bring an additional screen out, connect to the Internet via the Nokia's hotspot, and disconnect again when finished.
The Nokia 8110's operating system is called KaiOS. KaiOS is a light-weight operating system designed for low budget devices, based on a now obsolete open source project called Firefox OS. It can run certain smartphone apps (browser app, messaging apps) on feature phones that have a screen with graphics capabilities. I read their documentation and liked that they aim to enable access to mobile technology and the Internet for more people by writing software for low-budget devices. I found the operating system intuitive to use.
It took a while to get used to texting with physical buttons. I missed the touch screen at first. The Nokia 8110 uses a grid of 3 x 4 buttons, with all the numbers, symbols and letters of the alphabet arranged across them. You have to press a button one or more times until the screen shows the letter or symbol you want. Once the desired letter or symbol appears, you pause for half a second, wait for the device to reset, and then you can move on to the next letter. This sounds more difficult than it is: there was a time when texting in this way was the norm. A better approach is to turn T9 predictive texting on, which makes relevant word options magically appear after the first two or three letters of a word have been typed. You do (sort of) get used to texting like this.
I am bilingual. Switching languages in T9 texting is clumsy at best, but a major stumbling block was that the phone's dictionaries could not be edited. There were some key words missing, which meant having to switch from T9 predictive texting to single-letter input texting mid-sentence - frankly, a pain. This is the main reason why I eventually had to switch to changes phones.
Connecting and disconnecting via hotspot is cumbersome, and bringing two devices takes up more space.
You cannot always anticipate when you might really need an Internet connection. I have gotten lost in places, for example, and the Nokia doesn't help much there.
The KaiOS app store had a minimal selection of apps at the time. This suited me fine, however, as I was trying to get away from addictive distractions. Today, it has over 500 apps.1
There were rumours that Google was interested in KaiOS. If true, this would be a step back in my attempts to de-Google my life and resist Big Tech's influence on me. I worried I might have to continue my search for a dumbphone if that did happen.2
Current use and looking ahead
I now use a Light Phone 2 as my phone. It has some of the same features as the Nokia 8110, but has a more modern feel, and, crucial, better texting. It is much more expensive. I'll devote a future post to the LP2.
I still use a smartphone, but mainly in the house for banking, listening to podcasts and Signaling with friends. I don't bring it out with me very often. Most things can wait.
When I purchased the LP2, I gave my Nokia 8110 to my middle child. The indestructibility of the 'Nokia brick' are a running joke in the family and among school friends.
My youngest child now needs to be able to phone or text me. Rather than buying a smartphone right away, I bought a simple Nokia 110 dumbphone and a prepaid SIM card. This is cheap and solves the problem of getting in touch.
I still leave my smartphone at home. It feels great. You do get a dystopian perspective on the world at times. When waiting for the train, you might find you're the only person on the platform who is looking up and around, with hundreds of people around you fixated on the palm of their hand, necks bent, faces looking down. This is not hyperbole, and it is an eerie sight.
YouTuber Jose Briones presents a digital minimalism channel and he has excellent content on dumbphones.
Here is the KaiOS mission statement.
Here is Nokia's specs page for the 8110.
I still see Nokia 8110s sold in stores today, cheaply.
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One reader has pointed out that Google has stopped support for integration with KaiOS in 2022. There is more discussion on this topic here.
The same reader pointed out that from KaiOS 2.5.2 onward, dictionaries can be edited. I am not able to find clear documentation on this. With KaisOS's own help page seemingly out-of-date, and no information about predictive text on Nokia's online manual for the 8110, it all feels vague. There are (older) discussions of mixed user experiences of the editable dictionary on Reddit.
See paragraph one on the KaiOS Wikipedia page.↩
In 2018, Google invested 22 million USD in KaiOS, probably to enable Google apps like Maps, Search, Assistant and YouTube on KaiOS.↩