So, Jolla, what are you working on now? 'There are things that the world hasn't seen yet'

So, Jolla, what are you working on now? 'There are things that the world hasn't seen yet'

Summary: Jolla's handset release this week is the culmination of two years' hard graft. How did the Finnish startup manage it, and what's it working on next?

Jolla's first smartphone, released this week. Image: Jolla

A little way outside of Helsinki, a former Nokia research centre now plays home to two of Finland's most talked about startups — Clash of Clans maker Supercell, and Jolla.

While Supercell hit the headlines recently with a $1.5bn investment, Jolla has only just released its first product — a phone based on the MeeGo operating system abandoned by Nokia.

While it may not be racking up the $2.5m a day that Supercell does, it has already managed to take its homegrown smartphone from concept to real-world device in less than two years.

Its workers are not without form in the mobile making space — the company was formed in 2011 by a clutch of ex-Nokians, and received funding from Nokia's Bridge programme to help departing staff set up their own businesses.

While the first Jolla device is the familiar glassy rectangle shape common to almost all smartphones, the startup hopes the handset will carve out its own niche by distinguishing itself both through hardware and software features.

On the hardware side, the device comes with a piece of kit known as the Other Half, an interchangeable NFC backplate. When a new backplate is snapped onto the device, it can install new software without any user intervention, add new content to the handset, or change the look and feel of the device. It's the sort of idea that Jolla hopes will appeal to marketing agencies, fashion house and other brands that want to have a presence on mobile without the effort and expense of building their own phones.

For software, Jolla has created its own MeeGo-based OS called Sailfish, which aims to distinguish itself from the omnipresent Android and Apple through a tap-free interface and a 'pulley' menu system.

After an online preorder campaign, Jolla officially launched the handsets this week at an event in the Finnish capital with DNA, the country's smallest mobile operator and the only carrier so far to carry the handset.

According to Jolla CTO Stefano Mosconi, the device now making its way into consumers hands is fairly close to the original idea dreamt up by its designers two years ago. The OS was built and rebuilt in that time, a quarter of which was due to a switch from version 4.8 of the Qt application framework to 5.1 for performance reasons.

Version one

As the launch date drew nearer, Jolla's 90-strong team has been working on finessing the final details of the hardware — making the speaker grid a little smaller, for example — and amping up the OS' stability, sacrificing features to keep the final build as reliable as possible.

"The feature set is something that where we were [three months ago], we stopped, and said 'let's stabilise this set of features and then, when we have those stable, we can start adding'. The things where we didn't have enough time or confidence they were stable, we just removed them. And we still have them, they're just in a drawer, bubbling away," Mosconi said.

Mobile device management features are absent, for example, but are likely to feature in a future release before too long. There's no set cadence for when Jolla users can expect updates the to the OS, but Mosconi says they will arrive regularly as it irons out the bugs it expects to see after the device hits the market — it is, after all, still in beta.

"The first version of operating system is the first version, it is what it is. We're not planning for failure, we're sure that this is stable and performing, but we know that we have to update it very often. It's not about being bug free but about responding to bugs and responding to problems," he said.

One problem that bugs all OSes that aren't iOS or Android is the lack of apps — even the larger of the second tier OSes, Windows Phone and BlackBerry, have struggled to escape accusations of tumbleweed-strewn stores.

Jolla's strategy to deal with the app issue is a two-pronged one: chat up all the little guys, and jump into bed with one big one.

The company has already been talking to local Finnish developers and to makers of the top 100 or so apps in the Google Play store to see if they will bring their applications to the Sailfish store. Android apps are compatible with Sailfish phones thanks to the Alien Dalvik translation layer.

"We know native applications are running well, and that's the way to go. On the other side, we have to answer the question, how do we start, how do we kick off this ecosystem? How do we convince people when they arrive they will find the application that they want?

"We didn't even try with Google, to be honest, because it was just something I couldn't even imagine they would tell us, 'Yes, no worries, use [the Play store]'. I think it was pretty normal for us not to do that. But then of course we spoke to different other alternative Android markets and there are a lot of them — a lot — and then came Yandex."

Jolla announced a deal with Yandex, the Russian search giant, at Helsinki's Slush conference earlier this month, paving the way for Jolla devices to ship with Yandex's own Android store onboard, which brings with it over 80,000 apps from day one.

While the company has no immediate plans to target Russia, nor presumably Yandex the western European market, the deal leaves the door open for both in the future.

The China strategy

However, Yandex is not likely to be Jolla's sole partner when it comes to apps: the startup may eventually look for a similar Chinese Android app store partner to make more headway there. The country has been a priority startup for some time, with the announcement last year of the Sailfish alliance: a group of chipset vendors, OEMs, ODMs, operators and retailers designed to help build an ecosystem around the MeeGo OS.

Since the debut of the alliance in late 2012, Jolla has changed direction in China after finding the dynamics of the mobile market in the country are markedly different to elsewhere: businesses chiefly view mobile device sales purely as a conduit to getting consumers signed up to their online services, where recurring revenues, data and brand loyalty are to be found.

"There's a lot of collaboration that we can and have to do [in China], and that's something that is a bit slower than making the device. We need to adapt to the dynamics of the market, rather than use the same methods everywhere in the world. That doesn't work," Mosconi said. (Initially, licensing out the Sailfish OS appears to have been the chief priority in the region.)

"We have started approaching companies in a different way in China, and that's paid off. We've changed the way we were talking and what we were talking about, and that's developing in a different way. It's not faster or slower [than Jolla's original approach], it's just a different path," he said.

At the same time as the company announced the Yandex deal, Jolla revealed that it would also have Nokia's Here maps included on its first handsets — a perhaps more expected union given the links between the two companies.

Given the commodity nature of mobile mapping, Nokia was just one of several companies that Jolla considered, said Mosconi, all of which offered a similarly high level product, all priced roughly the same. Nonetheless, Jolla's fellow Finns won out.

"Nokia had already their APIs kind of ported to Qt because of MeeGo, so we thought the timeline they were telling us was most visible and truthful. Then of course the relationship with Nokia is extremely good — we didn't think they would have screwed us, and they didn't. I was surprised things went so well in a short amount of time," Mosconi said.

With Nokia's handset-making business shortly to become part of Microsoft, Jolla is now on track to be Finland's best known handset manufacturer. While Nokia-as-phone-maker has for many years had tens or hundreds of thousands of staff, Jolla is aiming to retain its startup roots, keeping the company small and under the control of its founders (despite a third funding round signed a few months ago, the company is still majority owned by the original ex-Nokians that set it up.)

Open source pizza dough

Rather than putting in place all the various teams a mobile maker needs — after-sales, tech support, marketing and so on — by hiring the staff itself, it's hoping to extend its reach by forging partnership with other, more established companies that have the capabilities it needs inhouse.

On example of the strategy is the deal with DNA, which will carry the devices in its stores, giving Finnish consumers a place to check out the handsets without Jolla having to invest in any stores of its own.

"We're trying to do the same little by little in every country, finding people that can help us, not only in showing phone and let people try it, but in supporting users and customers. So when you say maybe tomorrow Jolla is a big corporation, maybe not, maybe instead of growing it like pizza dough, we might have a lot of satellites that are not us, but are connected to us. This idea comes from open source communities, how they work — it's a lot of people around the world, all contributing to the same cause."

How many of the first round of Jolla devices have been made or sold is still under wraps, but the production run is still on an artisanal scale for now. Nonetheless, the first batch of its devices have been fully booked by a bunch of what Jolla predicts are highly discerning techies.

"We are talking about the kind of guys that are after design objects, guys that are driven by style, but we're also looking at the geeks, that are really really into tech, the early adopters, people who want to try something new. Then maybe there is space for people bored with status quo — a businessman that's been using the iPhone for five years and is bored."

Could Jolla ever be a business device? Mosconi says he's been contacted by companies looking to do rollouts, as well as business users who typically ask 'are you making a Qwerty phone?'. (Note for Qwerty lovers: don't hold your breath for a hard keyboard Jolla phones.)

While the company hasn't started work on its second device, there are already concepts in mind.

"If this goes well, we have plenty of ideas — the problem is we have too many maybe. We just have to choose which one is the coolest one. There are things that the world hasn't seen yet."

More on this story

Topics: Mobility, Emerging Tech, Start-Ups, EU

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • This is amazing... I want one

    Jolla is the real Nokia.

    All Nokia's best brains went to Jolla. The rest went to Microsoft, but Microsoft's Nokia is not the great Nokia that we knew. Jolla is it.

    I'm very intrigued by the Sailfish OS. It has the potential to be something big. I want to buy a handset that runs Sailfish OS. Even if every feature is not there yet, I'd be happy to support it so they can bring to market all those other features that are "bubbling away".

    The Nokia N9 handset was the first and only MeeGo handset. It was something special that got rave reviews and decent sales, before Microsoft-man Elop killed it. Now Meego rises again as Sailfish OS
    • All the great minds?

      C'mon. Nokia had 98 000 people working for them. Jolla example has nobody from the design team led by Ahtisaari or Skillman that is leading UX.
      Jolla is formed out of 68 people, MeeGo had over 1000 people working for it according to Ollia's new book.

      There's absolutely nothing great about Jolla. Lets remember that Nokia (not Microsoft) will keep Nokia Research, Nokia's core R&D team. The same team that was granted 1.4 billion euros grant to develop graphene as it has Europes leading team on it.

      I adore Jolla's UI, why would I not as it is based on Swipe UI that is my favorite UI of all time. I'm also among the first pre-orders of Jolla, but lets not over our heads here. They are a engineering team that already had to delay the phone and on release even as the specifications say LTE, it's not actually working anywhere and the software in general in incomplete according to many reports over at talk.

      MeeGo/harmattan team was also the one that in the end forced Nokia to go for Windows Phone after delaying the OS for years, before it was too late for Nokia.
      Nokia's strenght is and has always been hardware, knowhow that Jolla doesn't have. Nokia was always at its best as a engineering house. That's what the new Nokia essentially is with a highly profitable business now behind it.
      • Elop killed Nokia, not MeeGo

        MeeGo OS didn't force Nokia to go to Windows. MeeGo was complete. The N9 was ready, but Microsoft-man Elop stepped in and killed it.

        I believe that Microsoft wanted to kill rival OSes. The MeeGo OS was an easy target for Microsoft to knock off, and Elop was the 'hit-man' sent in to do the act.
        • Really?

          So micorsoft "forced" Nokia's board to hire Elop, then forced the board to agree with Elop's plan to go with windows? If MS has such power perhaps they should have sent him to google instead. Meego was hardly a threat to MS, android and ios on the other hand are.
          • You can't argue with the likes of Vbitrate

            Once they get their hate on, logic goes out the window as it only gets in their way.
        • Nonsense

          Nonsense, Microsoft was simply looking for a strong hardware partner for their Windows 8 Phone software. Nokia was losing the battle against iOS and Android and was in desperate need of a strong software partner, preferably one with a lot of money to push their OS. In that sense it was a wedding made in heaven between Nokia and Microsoft.

          Note: I am a Mac man (and Windows "hater") and was a very early Android adopter (the first Galaxy), and had never owned a Nokia since I bought my first mobile phone in '96. I did buy a Lumia 820 earlier this year tho, just to try, and I'm very happy and very impressed with it. Great hardware (feels much stronger than Samsung), and brilliant software, probably the best thing Microsoft have ever done. Looking forward to the next versions of the Lumia with Windows Phone. And wishing people were more openminded about their choose of mobile OS.
          Michael Nieuwenhuizen
      • it's not the size, it what you do with it

        It may be that in the end there was 1000 people working on MeeGo harmattan and N9, the last person were hired in january 2011 (2 weeks before the project got canned)

        The ground work was done with 100-300 people "team". Also the delays were not because the Meego team was slow, but because of internal politics and rivalry with Symbian, shift of complete internal project to joint project with Intel and in the end, the changed climate (bc of Elop?) and departure of many senior people in the team.

        Nokias hw and design expertise is undeniable, when you use something less good you really start to appreciate that. That said, if Nokia and their products are good, it does not mean something else can also be good, even better. I welcome Jolla and as a N9 user thank them for keeping their vision about the UX pure.
    • Microsoft basher bashes Microsoft....

      nothing to see here. Yes, this phone looks nice... No, Microsoft has nothing to do with this article.
  • Thanks Jo

    Jo, thank-you so much for continuing to "throw a light" on this tiny boating vessel, in a ocean of behemoths!
    • That's a nice way to put it

      It would be ironic if such a small player gained traction against its much larger rivals.

      The only way to succeed against established incumbent mobile platforms is to be more open than they are. That's why Android succeeded against iPhone. That's why Windows Phone didn't (well, one of the reasons). Sailfish OS is more open than Android.

      The other way Sailfish OS might gain traction is because people might start to get sick of the big OS companies giving all your emails, phone calls and private information to the NSA. I think there'll be a reasonable number of people who will appreciate something different.
      • For a small start up

        They seem to have a well developed game plan. The Other Half could be a game changer if developed properly,. They seem to have a solid OS, some strategic partnerships, and a team that can deliver on time. It will be interesting to see how they do.
  • Everyone is raving about Sailfish

    being open, or at least more open than Android.

    Its the phone hardware itself that is open however. The 'other half' looks like a gimmick at first glance but it's not. It would be if it were like Samsung's Gear, and what appears to be every other wearable offering of late - proprietary and locked to a specific manufacturer or even phone model as a companion device.

    Jolla's phone uses industry-standard I2C as an external port. This is AFAIK a world-first as a feature and allows for unfettered upgrade potential, an ability to simply plug in new hardware and create drivers based on a known format that is controlled by no-one. Not even Jolla, which I'd guess is why they chose it.

    It strikes me that anyone with the ability to program for I2C could easily make extension hardware for Jolla phones - Microcontrollers for example speak I2C natively - and give the users what they ask for without them having to lobby Jolla itself.

    Arduino for example could allow startups to build Jolla compatible hardware in a snap, meaning third party hardware like a QWERTY keyboard could be available quickly. Docking the phone to a host to provide features or storage is also simple, as is adapting existing I2C hardware to work with the phone without hacking either HW or SW - it just plugs in and the data appears as a stream that software in the phone can access directly (no Bluetooth stack, no USB compatibility layer, no low-level interfacing of any kind - just raw data in a standard format).

    Jolla still gets to control what gets added to a certain extent though. I havent seen it, but I'd imagine the port itself is non-standard, plus the design for the backplate would be protected and probably licensed to third parties. That would not stop an enterprising fellow with a 3D printer and a box of Atmels from experimenting though.

    Roll on the UK launch ;)
  • Great Article

    I love reading about people willing to step outside the box and innovate. I wish this company well and thank you for reporting on them!
  • Jolla: a company getting some publicity, simply because it was formed by

    former Nokia employees.

    Otherwise, nothing to see here. Move on.

    Oh, yeah, I forgot...

    Why are people making such a big deal out of a company that can't even get their first device off the ground with the feature-set they had originally planned on?

    Jolla sounds like a start-up that can't even get the started correctly, and here we have publicity and fanatics already.

    It seems like the only people wanting for Jolla to succeed, are the MS-haters, and the former Nokia employees who left disgruntled when Nokia moved to put WP in the Nokia devices.

    In the end, Jolla seems to be a start-up, started up for the wrong reasons. It will, inevitably fail. In fact, it's already failed, and nobody in the company will be wise enough to tell the truth.
    • wow

      what bitter, cynical tripe.
  • Key point are: battery and price!

    Hello, I'm one of the early Nokia meego followers and from my personal experience of use the key point to move consumers to buy a Jolla device are: price: I seem Jolla has a high price if compared to a smartphone with a camera with much more Pixel and the battery. I'd buy it only at a price of €150. Thank you.