Jolla: With just months til launch, here's what's happening with the Sailfish smartphone

Finnish smartphone startup Jolla wants to take on the established smartphone giants, UI-changing backplate, fridge-friendly OS and all.
Written by Jo Best, Contributor
The soon-to-be-released Jolla device. Image: Jolla
The soon-to-be-released Jolla device. Image: Jolla

Tizen, Ubuntu Touch, Firefox OS: 2013 appears to be the year of the alternative smartphone OS.

By the end of this year, big name mobile operators like Telefonica and manufacturers including Samsung will have worked together to get devices running the OSes onto the market.

But it's not just the big guys that want to upset the Apple-Android duopoly. Finnish startup Jolla is taking aim too.

Founded in late 2011, the company making its own hardware and software (in the form of its Sailfish OS) and planning to have devices consumers' hands in the last quarter of 2013.

The 70-strong company is now housed in the ghost of an old Nokia research centre in the suburbs of the Finnish capital Helsinki — a fitting location given Jolla's heritage.

The startup was set up by five Nokia staffers who had worked on the company's short-lived MeeGo effort — the open source OS now forms the basis of Sailfish — and initially funded by Nokia's own Bridge programme, which helps finance departing employees' new businesses.

"We had the feeling that life in Nokia wouldn't be very long, so we told ourselves, 'we have the people, we have the technology, we have the know-how, we're just missing the money. Let's find the money and maybe something can come out it'," Stefano Mosconi, Jolla's CTO, told ZDNet.

"Our history and knowledge has played a huge role, I cannot deny, but it's the same story if you have to hire a carpenter — you make sure he's done good work before. We said, we have done the N9 [Nokia's MeeGo phone] and more devices before that. People said, 'maybe you have a chance'."

They found the money: along with Bridge, Jolla has received funding from Hong Kong telecoms and mining firm China Fortune, which owns 6.25 percent of the company, and expects to announce a further funding round before too long.

The significance of China

Along with Europe, China is one of the two main markets that Jolla is focusing on (the US is interesting to the company, but too tough a market to play in at the moment, according to the execs). As well as the China Fortune funding, Jolla has already signed a sales agreement with Chinese retail chain D.Phone, and opened a Hong Kong development centre for Sailfish, where members of its ecosystem alliance will work on the OS.

The company is looking beyond Hong Kong though, and may yet build a development centre in mainland China.

"If we want to be serious in the market we have to have something there, but what that something is remains to be defined," Jolla chief executive Tomi Pienimäki said.

While the company is looking to build its presence across Asia, for now China is the centre of attention in the region for Jolla. 

"China is extremely important market for us for many reasons: it's a big market, and it seems the fit for us is very good. One reason is simply that our background is not American, that seems to have a value there which is good for us.

"I can say that we have quite a lot of things ongoing there," Pienimäki said.

Among those things was a recent developer tour of the country, where head of software Marc Dillon visited a handful of cities to spread the Jolla word, demonstrating the upcoming release of the Sailfish SDK.

There's already a groundswell of developer interest in China and elsewhere, according to Mosconi — thanks in part to the Qt development framework that Sailfish inherited.

Jolla's HQ, an old Nokia research building
Jolla's HQ, an old Nokia research building. Image: Jo Best/ZDNet

"A lot of guys believed in that and liked how you can develop applications. We have to remember we're talking about special human beings here — they value things that maybe the consumer doesn't value," Mosconi said.

"They value the speed of development, which in Qt QML is extremely fast, the easiness, the portability... That's why there's so much buzz about HTML5, they say code once and deploy everywhere – that's been the motto of Qt for 10 years. We're coming from a place where developers feel safe and nice."

Is app store size important?

For any new smartphone OS, getting developer support — and therefore native apps — will be key to its success. While Jolla execs works on building its ecosystem in Europe and China, the company will be plugging Sailfish's app gap using an Android compatibility layer.

Jolla is hoping to solve the chicken and egg app problem — if a platform doesn't enough users, developers won't make apps for it; if it doesn't have enough apps, the users won't buy it — by allowing Sailfish users to get Android apps using Alien Dalvik, a translation layer which allows Android apps to run on non-Android Linux-powered hardware. The apps won't come direct through Google Play, but via an unnamed "third-party solution".

"Then we can break the tedious question, how many apps to you have? After that, people will be relieved in knowing we have applications, and then they can buy the device. Once the number of devices, grows then number of developers will grow, and native apps will grow as well."

Developers are already working on native Sailfish apps, and the company is promising there will be number of apps for local markets in time for the device launch at the end of the year.

Jolla opened pre-orders for the device in May and closed them around two months later. The company isn't giving sales figures, only saying that it has received orders from 118 countries. "Some we expected and some we didn't," says Pienimäki, "some very exotic places." With the exception of Finland's DNA, no operator partners have been announced, though Mosconi promises some more at launch. As you expect, there's no details given there either.

That launch has no definite date yet, aside from devices will be shipped by the end of this year. The first manufacturing cycle began in June and more will follow in the coming months, as the smartphone moves from prototype to full production run.

Elements of the phone may change between now and its eventual shipping — the camera may move, for example, and the device's thickness will shrink by around 10 percent.

For now, the Jolla team is working on "making the hardware and software stick together", Mosconi says.

Synchronising the hardware and software is the hardest part of any product, he says — "where together it makes something that's better than one plus one".

Jolla's Other Half

A selection of Other Half backplates. Image: Jo Best/ZDNet

Or, in Jolla's case, it's one plus one, plus one. Along with hardware and software, there's a third element to the first Sailfish device: the Other Half, an NFC-enabled backplate that, once attached to the device, can change elements of the phone, such as ringtones, colour scheme, look and feel.

The company is aiming to sell partners on the idea, creating cobranded Other Halfs — a band could have an Other Half made that could add the album, the band's related app, or a colour scheme to the phone.

According to Pienimäki, Jolla has already had conversations with companies about cobranded Other Halfs, and others have written to the company pitching their own ideas, including one who suggested adding a solar charging panel to it.

And while Jolla envisioned the Other Half chiefly as a means of tweaking and personalising the look and feel of the device, it could eventually be used to add new hardware features, such as an extra battery. 

It could even one day have an enterprise application, Pienimäki says: swapping between a "home" and "work" cover could activate or deactivate certain elements of the functionality. "You wouldn't have Facebook updating when your working cover is on, but when you're on free time, it could come on. Those kinds of things are rather easy to do," he says.

Other Half backplates will initially be made by Jolla, but the company is open to licensing the concept to other companies down the line.

It's a similar story for the Sailfish OS: the company is hoping to persuade other manufacturers to take up the operating system for their own hardware.

Tablets and phablets?

That of course opens up the possibility of Sailfish turning up far more than smartphones — could it, like Android before it, make its way onto phablets, tablets, TVs and more?

Mosconi says Jolla is open to the possibility.   

"The MeeGo idea was to start from smartphone but go to tablet, go to fridges — we haven't changed that... We know that we can do it, so let's see — whether we do it, whether someone makes something else, it's difficult to predict the future, but technically speaking there are no limits."

But a device over five inches — generally seen as the border between smartphone and phablet — would require a new type of UI.

Sailfish's existing UI is Jolla's work: while it took on MeeGo, it didn't inherit the Harmattan UI seen on the likes of the N9, which remains Nokia's.

The Jolla phone in action
The Jolla phone in action. Image: Jo Best/ZDNet

Instead, it's built an almost exclusively gesture-based UI: tapping appears for actions such as waking up the device. Other than that, the device is controlled through basic gestures — up, down, left, right — with users moving through the vertical UI's various screens with a downward swipe.

There are elements that may nonetheless be familiar from current Nokia phones — there's a hint of Windows Phone Live Tiles about the UI — and BlackBerry 10, with Sailfish's ability to offer a quick glance at the status bar while in another app bearing a resemblance to Peek.

But there's more that's distinctly Jolla: the smart idea of allowing users to control apps without actually entering them — pause the music player or bring up the phone's dialling pad by ringing — just by gesturing on the app's thumbnail, or the way the app dock is configured automatically according to which are most used.

The OS is still being finetuned before the device's release at the end of the year, and when it hits the market, it will be competing against not only the Apples and Androids of the world, but that handful of new contenders offering a fresh take on the smartphone OS.

Pienimäki says: "We believe that in the world, more than one billion smartphones are sold yearly. The figure is growing all the time and we're aiming to have a small part of that market. It doesn't have to be a big percentage — for us it's good enough to have a small piece."

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