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

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?
Written by Jo Best, Contributor
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."

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