Richard Baguley’s recent article on the Psion 5 series inspired me to write about the Nokia 2110, which as you can see, I still have and it still works (on UK networks). I love to whip this out in my lectures on design and innovation since I feel that perhaps we have forgotten just how groundbreaking and just what an impact it made when it launched in 1994.

At this time I was working in the Usability Labs of BT Laboratories. The Head of Research, Peter Cochrane, posed me the question “Just why is this so easy to use?” and this question would alter the path of my career as I then began to specialise in interface design and the customer experience of mobile handsets. To understand the question we have to remember just how difficult to use the early GSM and analogue handsets were. There were no large text displays, just one line for the number and an F key for functions and an M key for memory. You had to be a whizz at memory in order to remember what F5 meant or who you had on M7.

I do not want this article to turn into a nostalgia trip. Yes the phone was big, but it still has a very satisfactory chunky feel in the hand, and yes it was necessary to buy a bulky long-life battery. The phone is notable for being the first to offer SMS text messaging, and it was also the first phone to sing the Nokia ringtone which really stood out compared to the other seven shrill tones on offer.

The first thing that really hit you though on encountering the Nokia 2110 for the first time was just how gorgeous it was when compared to the other bricks on offer at the time. The oval display was a piece of design triumph, and we need to remember that form follows function here, with the moulding guiding the user from the soft keys to the on screen options. While it may seem simple, I can assure you that plenty of people had to learn about this connection, despite the blue line on the soft key linking with the two lines on the handset with the additional lines on some of the screens.

The handset became an instant hit, especially with power users such as myself who were able to connect it to our Psion 3 organisers and send text messages via a qwerty keyboard. This was a massive boon pre-predictive text messaging days. I think the one thing we have really messed up is not having removable batteries. Just think how much more life we would get out of our handsets instead of either chucking them away when the battery starts to fade, or maybe worse, throwing them out when next year’s shiny thing dazzles us.

I do actually still use a very basic Nokia C1 as my UK prepay phone since I live in Brazil, but this and other entry-level handsets while perfectly usable seem dull compared to the joy and surprise the 2110 brought on launch. To be honest, I think the Zippo lighter-like 8810 is probably my all-time favourite mobile phone, and for some reason I was one of only three people at BT Cellnet to receive a complementary one just prior to launch, causing a great deal of jelousy. But the Nokia 2110 was my first handset, and I still have the same number all these years later I had back then. I for one certainly declare it to be a design classic, an outstanding icon of its era, and for that reason I feel deserves a place in this collection of stories of our much-loved gadgets.