Opinion: Nokia’s ‘Matrix phone’ makes me want smartphones to feel sci-fi again

Nokia’s rebooted 8110 isn’t quite the real-life Matrix phone Tom Wiggins wanted - but is that missing the point?

There aren’t many things from The Matrix that I’d like in my life.

You can keep the unstoppable AI assassins, full-length leather trench coats, and enslaved human race. But 20 years after one of the most iconic films of the nineties was released I’m still waiting for that phone to be a real thing.

You know the one. As Agent Smith closes in on Neo at his office, Keanu Reeves’ worker drone turned master hacker answers a call from Morpheus on a phone with a decidedly futuristic spring-loaded answering mechanism. At least, it felt futuristic in 1999 and for many people it still does.

In reality that part of the phone was missing. The actual, real-life Nokia 8110 had a sliding panel to cover the keypad but you had to operate it yourself – the spring-loaded bit was added just for the film.

Surely the rebooted version, announced yesterday at MWC in Barcelona, would finally deliver the Matrix phone we’ve all been waiting for?

Disappointment reloaded

Unfortunately, like with all of The Matrix sequels, I was left disappointed.

The slider’s there but it’s still thumb-activated and as nice as the gently curving form factor is, it’s on a €79 feature phone, albeit one that does have 4G.

But the more I thought about it, the more it made me realise that the 'Matrix phone' I want isn’t really the 8110. The phone I want doesn’t even have a spring-loaded slider. After all, that was actually included on the 7110, released a few months after the film, and I think we’re well beyond needing a return to keypads.

No, the Matrix phone is symbolic. It represents progress and excitement. The feeling that you’re holding something that should only exist in a sci-fi film. When all phones look the same and all the improvements occur on the inside, that feeling has all but disappeared.

Invisible innovation

People now wait an average of 29 months before upgrading their phones. A shift from one- to two-year contracts will have played a big part in that, but with the free upgrade pretty much a thing of the past for top-end flagships and prices in general going up, there needs to be more obvious reasons for people to upgrade.

Things like the AI-assisted chips in Huawei’s phones or Apple’s Face ID tech are impressive but only for more hardcore phone geeks, particularly the former, which is invisible. It’s a bit like plumbing. You just have to assume it’s working until something goes wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, I think plumbing is impressive and I appreciate the effort that’s gone into making it work, it just doesn’t really have the wow factor.

With screen size now valued over everything else and manufacturers doing everything they can to increase it, there’s very little room to make a phone stand out anymore. Aside from the mute switch on an iPhone, mechanical features have all but disappeared from today’s smartphones.

What is real, Neo?

And I can see why: mechanical parts increase the chances of something going wrong. But some features can’t be effectively replicated virtually - at least not yet. Even something as minor as the iPhone’s mute button would be inferior if it wasn’t an actual switch.

The adjustable aperture on Samsung’s Galaxy S9 is a good example of this. It’s one thing that has always set phone cameras apart from standalone ones and could signal the start of a real leap in camera phone quality.

More importantly, it’s not just a gimmick. It might not be something you can see from the outside but it’s easy to prove the benefit of something when better photographs are the result - just show people some snaps.

But better photos aren’t very futuristic - and as nice as the S9 is, it hardly feels like the stuff of sci-fi, more like the stuff of last year with some slightly better bits inside.

I’m well aware that I’m remembering the original Matrix-edition 8110 through rose-tinted spectacles, plus our collective bar has definitely been raised when it comes to being impressed by technology.

How could it not have been? We now carry the whole history of human existence around in our pockets every day. And when you think about it, if that’s not more of a Matrix phone than one with a sliding keypad cover, I don’t know what is.