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Whether you call them flip phones, feature phones, burners, or Mom phones, America bought 24 million “dumb” phones last year, an increase of 1.7 million from 2014, according to a recent study by research firm IDC.
As Apple reports a decline in iPhone sales for the first time ever, are "unplugged" phones poised for a comeback?
It’s not just Jason Bourne or Walter White using the disposable (or durable) devices. Celebrities who want to unplug — and many who have already been hacked — are big fans of the “retro” device. Rihanna, Scarlett Johansson, and Iggy Pop have all been spotted clutching clamshells — and the fashion world almost self-imploded when Anna Wintour nonchalantly flipped open an old-school phone at the 2014 U.S. Open.
The appeal of the simplistic retro phone is clear: If the iPhone is the rock of modern technology, the flip phone is the smooth pebble that fits in your hand. It’s much easier to talk on, it holds a charge for days, and costs a fraction of what you’d pay for a smartphone. There’s no need to worry about hacking, and if you drop it you’ll probably damage your foot more than your phone. The tiny screen also serves as a privacy filter, solving the “eyes forward!” dilemma of subway voyeurs who peek at your messages.
"People are tired of having the same smartphone as everyone else," said Maxime Chanson of Lekki, a website that sells vintage mobile phones to a high-end clientele. "Some people have had enough of the ultra connectivity of the 21st century and are looking for a phone that gives them some space for their private life, without being constantly interrupted."
A recent report revealed the extent to which America is grappling with its smartphone addiction: The average person checks his or her phone every six and a half minutes. Fully 50 percent of teens say they are addicted to their mobile phones. Some people even complain of "ringxiety," in which smartphone users experience phantom phone calling, checking their phones even when it hasn’t rung or sent an alert.
But despite its love affair with retro phones, America isn't quite ready to disconnect completely.
"The dumb phone industry is in its last decade," Tomi Ahonen, a mobile industry analyst, told NBC News. "The industry is in consensus that the smartphone will replace the dumbphone market, similar to how DVD players replaced VCRs. But it's not like personal computers, where tablet and laptop PCs have not yet ended the life of desktop PCs."
"Smartphones and data plans have both become more affordable over the past couple years," agreed IDC research manager Anthony Scarsella. "In the United States, our forecast for feature phones is steadily declining all the way to 2020."
For now, retro phones are enjoying their run.
"They are still the second-bestselling tech gadget behind only smartphones and far ahead of PCs or gaming consoles or TVs worldwide," said Ahonen.