Can Jolla Become MeeGo’s Saviour? CEO Plans Two Smartphones Already

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It was almost a year ago in July that I jumped off the Tube at Oxford Circus in London’s West End and wended my way deep into Soho to Nokia’s chi-chi central London office. There, I sat down with a handful of other journalists to interact via live video conference with Marko Ahtisaari, Nokia’s legendary design guru, about their new smartphone. By this time we’d already had the Burning Platform strategy unveiled by new CEO Stephen Elop. But Ahtisaari unveiled a beautiful, MeeGo-powered smartphone, the N9, and assured the hacks that Nokia was committed to it. It even had Angry Birds! But, with Nokia in bed with Microsoft, we all knew that this would probably be the only MeeGo phone Nokia would produce.

Last week Nokia released a major software upgrade for the N9, but it’s probably the last upgrade we’ll see. Even then, few people even saw a MeeGo-powered N9, basically the shell of what became the Lumia 800 and 900 devices. So what of the poor neglected MeeGo, the platform that barely existed?

Well, Jolla Mobile – a company without even a website yet – hopes to be its resurrection. In the last couple of days it’s emerged that much of the team inside Nokia’s MeeGo’s development has left to created actual new smartphones based for the platform. A spokesperson has categorically denied to TechCrunch that olla Mobile will get any Intellectual Property Rights from Nokia to achieve this, but, according to the CEO, we will see two – count ‘em – two MeeGo phones appear this year. They are even thinking about entirely new products based on MeeGo.

I managed to rack down CEO and co-founder Jussi Hurmola. Hurmola is someone who, to coin a phrase, knows his MeeGo onions.

“We started at the end of last year looking at MeeGo and the ecosystem around it, and we just knew there could be something we could do,” he told me today via a phone interview. “We started going round talking to partners and some of the ‘heavyweights’ in the business. We understood quickly that you would need to be big to survive, and that offering only a small part of the ecosystem would be difficult.”

Perhaps that’s why Jolla’s play is ambitious. It plans to build two smartphones in the next year – pretty big stuff for a startup.

As Hurmola says: “We are will be making smartphones and in order to do this we’ll need an ecosystem and a platform around us. We are going for a pretty big strategy. This is our mission.”

Big mission indeed. Hurmola believes Jolla Mobile could be so influential that it could in fact allow the MeeGo ecosystems to “come back” – because, he argues, it never went away. Indeed, the MeeGo’s heritage contains within it the original vision of creating a truly open source smartphone platform – not the faux open source that Android represents.

And if anyone can do it Jolla can. Half its team has worked on MeeGo and the other half are hard-core ex-Nokians – the kinds of people who built one of the world most successful mobile companies, at least at one time…

“We’re confident we can do it again” he says. “Jolla alone cannot do this so we are talking to big partners. We’re putting those relationships together. We want to create as big a wave as possible.”

But the question is, with smartphone platforms morphing into tablets, can Jolla service these new categories as well?

“We will look at products like tablets, but the market is changing so fast and the categories are being redefined. Netbooks have already disappeared and the smartphone screens are converging. We will start with a smartphone but in 6 months there could be a category for a new kind of product s that is not just a handheld or a tablet.”

Hurmola says that the actual details of the devices Jolla will make can’t yet be revealed, but they want to address two markets – and that will mean two devices. One will be a ‘mass-market’ smartphone aimed at general users. But the other will be aimed at tech users to, as Hurmola says, “honour the origins of MeeGo, Maemo, Moblin and the others.” Let’s hope it actually makes them some money as well…

MeeGo was created by Nokia in partnership with Intel and Samsung. It was the smartphone platform that might, had it come out, taken on iOS and Android. Can Jolla fulfill that promise?

There are no details on the devices as yet, but Hurmola tells me that although he “can’t say much” right now, the “UI is a major thing and one of the reasons we selected Meego. With Android we can only copy — but with MeeGo we can introduce something brand new to the market.” Sounds intriguing…

Jolla is one of the products of Nokia’s Bridge project and it’s clear Jolla will have an ongoing relationship with Nokia, even it’s pretty informal. As Hurmola says” Helsinki is a pretty small place.”

As the startup’s LinkedIn page says, the Jolla team is formed by directors and professionals from Nokia’s MeeGo N9 organisation… “Nokia created something wonderful – the world’s best smartphone product. It deserves to be continued.” Indeed, the COO is Marc Dillon, formerly principal engineer on MeeGo.

Hurmola readily admits he was “the guy shouting about fragmenting the code base” when Nokia lost its way. He had worked on Symbian Maemo and finally MeeGo. He wasn’t going to throw all that away.

It will be intriguing to see what they come up with.