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These Apps Are Turning Young Consumers’ Phones into Retro Devices

Gen Z and Millennials are using apps to transform their smartphones into retro devices, showing their nostalgia is an endless opportunity for brands…

Gen Z and Millennials are at this point famed for their endless nostalgia—they’ve brought back ‘90s style (did you ever think scrunchies would be popular again?) and can’t get enough of reboots and revisits of their favorite childhood shows (much of the Disney+ hype was around being able to rewatch Disney Afternoon like a kid again). But it’s not just fashion and media they’re nostalgic about, their boundless appetite for throwback material extends to tech as well.

Of course, they’ve revived the vinyl industry and made classic video games some of the most in-demand on the market—but they’re also interested in ways to get their nostalgia fixes on their modern devices. There are a slew of apps and app features that play into their personal nostalgia, one category being those that resurface memories of years’ past. As standalone apps like Timehop surged in popularity, social platforms began to integrate these memory reminders into their offerings as well, with developments like Facebook’s “On This Day” and “Memories.” Most recently, Instagram added an “On This Day” option to their Stories Create mode (we know, that’s a lot of social media jargon) that allows users to share old posts by choosing them from a calendar.

Now, we’re seeing more apps that take tech-enabled nostalgia a step further, actually transforming young consumers’ smartphones into old-school devices. (Actually, the same devices that smartphones have rendered nearly extinct.) Whether reviving an iconic flip phone or a beloved MP3 device, new apps are bringing old tech back into a smartphone world. For young consumers, it’s a fun visit to the past, but also a comforting reminder of a pre-smartphone era when things were slower and more tactile. It’s also a signal for brands—especially tech and media brands—to lean into their histories, and find fun ways to revive old tech. Here are three recent examples of retro-izing apps to be inspired by:

David’s Disposable

YouTuber David Dobrick has launched an app that looks and feels like an old-school disposable camera—and young consumers can’t seem to get enough of it. According to Tubefilter, after starting an Instagram account that posted only disposable camera shots and gaining 2.9 million followers in just 6 months, Dobrick is cashing in on the trend. His (free) app David’s Disposable allows users to take photos with the same grainy aesthetic, all with an interface that copies classic disposable camera design—including a wait before they are “developed” every morning at 9am. In its first week David’s Disposable was downloaded “well, well” over one million times, per The Verge, and was briefly at the top of the free app list in the App Store (above Disney+ and Instagram.) The app is also all over YouTube in TikTok, with creators and fans talking it up and spreading the word. This is hardly the first time that a retro-izing photo app has gone viral: in 2018, celebrities were making the app Huji Cam blow up—the #hujicam hashtag currently has over a million posts in Instagram—and let’s not forget the OG filter app Hipstamatic. Disposable cameras are also enjoying an IRL revival: according to the Los Angeles Times the “’90s favorite” has had a resurgence of popularity among young consumers.



iPods were the hottest tech around in the early 2000s, before Gen Z and Millennials could carry around their entire music catalog on their phones, making the MP3 players an unnecessary technology. But it looks like enough time has passed that young consumers are feeling wistful about this once-beloved device. At the end of 2019, not one but two apps made headlines for turning a modern iPhone into a classic iPod. At the end of November, Elvin Hu, a design student at Cooper Union, tweeted out his latest project: an app that turned his iPhone into an iPod Classic, including the click wheel with satisfying haptic feedback. The video of his app has been viewed 1.7 million times, and his project even got Twitter kudos from one of Apple execs who created the original iPod. But it seems that current Apple execs are only ok with this iPod throwback existing as a student concept. In December, the app Rewound appeared in the Apple Store, offering the same iPod reskinning fun. As The Verge reported, “the nostalgia for the iPod click wheel is real.” Rewound’s creator (who had been working on the app for a year) told the site that the idea was to bring back the “idea of buttons and the nostalgia of devices” that were once popular. But Apple quickly pulled the app. While it wasn’t around long enough to accrue impressive download numbers, the media reactions spoke volumes. Perhaps Apple wants the chance to give users their own take on the throwback tech trend?


Motorola RAZR Retro Mode

As we said, the nostalgia tech trend is a great chance for brands to lean into their histories and resurface old products—and Motorola has taken the opportunity and run with it. Not only are they reviving their Motorola RAZR phone as a foldable smartphone, they’re also giving Razr fans a chance to revisit that beloved flip design through a retro app. The soon-to-be released new RAZR, which will cost $1500, actually includes a “hidden” “Retro Razr” mode that turns the entire screen into a replica of the original device, with keypad, flip phone screen, and early 2004 design all revived. Much of Millennials’ excitement over the return of the RAZR was due to their memories of the once-popular phone of their youth, and though the device is getting a full modernization, providing a way to indulge in that deep nostalgia is a super-smart move for the brand.