Finnish startup Jolla is open for business. That’s the message CEO Marc Dillon was putting out, loud and clear, during two on-stage appearances at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow in Barcelona last week. Not a bad amount of stage time for a first time MWC attendee and a mobile upstart that hasn’t sold a single handset yet because it’s still busy making its first phone.
The sales pitch Jolla is taking to carriers and consumers is that Android has become too dominant and is commodifying the industry, while Apple’s platform is too closed and controlled. Jolla’s MeeGo-based Sailfish OS exists to offer choice, to bring something different to an industry it argues is stagnating under the Android + iOS duopoly.
“At the moment there’s not a lot of choices for consumers in the mobile space. There’s not a great deal of innovation,” Dillon tells TechCrunch. “I think that you have this duopoly with basically two operating systems and essentially two manufacturers. There’s a lot of manufacturers in the Android space but Samsung [dominates].
“We are providing a unique product with a very fresh user interface. We’ve given a tremendous amount of thought and work into making something that’s powerful yet easy to use. And we’ve also created an operating system for our devices that’s very portable. It’s easy to put onto different hardware so we’re able to give something that will allow consumers to have another choice.”
Jolla – a Finnish word meaning a small boat, which is pronounced ‘Yol-la’, rather than ‘Jo-la’ — now employs some 60 staff. The company was formed by ex-Nokians back in 2011 who left when it became clear Nokia was abandoning its efforts with MeeGo to focus fully on adopting Microsoft’s Windows Phone for smartphones. So the collective experience of Jolla’s team is another key sales strategy for this startup. “We have 600 years of product creation experience with 60 guys,” was how Dillon pitched it during an on-stage Q&A at MWC.
The first Jolla-branded handset will be launched in time to capture the Christmas and Chinese New Year market, according to Dillon – making Q3 a likely timeframe, although “second half” is all he will be nailed down to. “We’re starting in China, then we’re going to Finland, then we’re going to penetrate into Europe,” he says. The U.S. market is not on the radar as yet, as he says the patent landscape there “raises a barrier” of entry to newcomers. (He’s especially critical of overly aggressive use of design patents.) “At some point as we move along I’m sure we’ll go into the U.S. market but it’s not one of our first starts,” he adds.
Jolla’s strategy to target China first is thus down to both the size of the market but also its relative openness to newcomers. The startup signed a deal with Chinese retailer D.phone last summer to be its distributor there – a key plank of its China play. D.phone has some 2,000 retail shops that will be carrying Jolla hardware, according to Dillon.
“Even a small share [of the Chinese market] is a great business. It’s a 300 million device market… It’s also a dynamic market. You can get to the CEO level very very quickly — if you have something to talk about, if you have something to say. You can get decisions made very quickly and you can actually get a lot of action very quickly.”
While Jolla has enough funding in the bank to be able to build its first phone it still needs to prioritise, like any startup, which is why it’s focusing on the “phone first” – and a high-end phone at that. That’s a business decision not a technical limitation of the Sailfish OS.
“Sailfish can go to a very feature-phone-oriented thing, all the way to… a high-end look and feel device,” says Dillon. Asked about other types of devices like tablets, he says Jolla is “talking to partners and potential partners” — but remains fully focused on the phone for now.
“This is our first device. We want to make it as good as we can, and we want to release the best device that we can,” he says. “The most important thing is to get the best product out that we possibly can and make sure that we do this with our hearts, with as much love as we can and I believe that people are going to feel it when they try the device.”
Will Jolla’s handset hardware be refreshingly different to all the iClone slab phones on the market today? “It’s going to be gorgeous hardware. I’ll put it like that. I wish I could show you.”
Building Jolla-branded hardware is not its only strategy. The startup has two other business models: it wants to license the Sailfish OS to other companies to put on their own hardware; and it wants to sell its skills in device-building to companies that might want to build their own phone or device but don’t necessarily have the expertise.
As an example of the latter model, Dillon says Jolla could work with a data-rich company like Foursquare to build a Foursquare phone that bakes its social, geolocated data throughout the experience. Or with a startup like Deezer to create a branded, music-oriented phone. Jolla would be able to offer third-party companies a device that has their brand “all over it and incorporates it in a way that’s unique”, he says.
What could a Foursquare phone built atop Sailfish do? It could let you – for instance — see who your friends are with and also where they are when you look in the contacts section of the phone, says Dillon. “That’s just really simple stuff, but there’s a huge amount of synergies that we can get. The architecture of Sailfish makes it easy to get onto different hardware and to have different types of user experience.”
What about a Facebook phone based on Sailfish? “I think if they’d have talked to us a year ago they’d have a beautiful Facebook phone today,” he says.
“Hardware’s hard, software’s hard, putting them together is really hard. This is our core competence,” he adds. “We’ve been doing this for a very, very long time. And we don’t have this cash-cow — we have a brand but we don’t have to protect it the same way that some other guys viciously protect their brand.”
Of course a Foursquare- or Facebook-branded Sailfish phone is just speculation and ambition at this point. Dillon is in Barcelona with his sales pitch to woo partners and carriers to think about alternatives to Android skinning or forking. But Jolla’s ambition is backed by a considerable level of funding now – to the tune of €10 million in capital from a private consortium of investors. And last month, a Chinese company also paid €1 million to take a 6.25 percent stake in the startup, valuing it at around $20 million.
Jolla is also establishing an ecosystem around Sailfish. Last October it announced an alliance of industry partners, based out of Hong Kong, which will back the OS and have committed to contributing €200 million to help accelerate the growth of the Sailfish ecosystem. Despite this focus on building its own ecosystem, Jolla is not walling itself off — Sailfish will support Android, Qt and HTML5 apps. But nor is it giving up on native apps: last week it released the Sailfish SDK with the aim of encouraging developers to build apps that dig deep into the OS features.
There’s no doubt Sailfish is entering much more crowded waters than Nokia could have, had it released more MeeGo devices rather than abandoning the OS altogether (releasing the N9 to, effectively, a locked cupboard in Espoo before canning any successors). Alternatives to Android and iOS now swimming around in the smartphone space trying to make a splash include big-name plays (albeit still with marginal market share), such as Microsoft’s Windows Phone and BlackBerry’s BB10, and also smaller fish taking the open source route – such as Mozilla’s Firefox OS, Canonical’s Ubuntu OS and the Samsung- and Intel-backed Tizen OS. And of course Jolla and its Sailfish. All these smaller guys were out in force at this year’s MWC.
Some tensions were also in evidence between the little guys, during a shared panel session featuring Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker, Jolla’s Dillon and Canonical’s Mark Shuttleworth. Mozilla’s Firefox OS grabbed a lot of limelight at the show, garnering considerable carrier support for its open web HTML5-only approach. Mozilla is taking an ideological stance against native apps. But Dillon and Shuttleworth argued on stage that native apps and individual ecosystems are still important. (Shuttleworth called native apps “the domain of passion”, while Dillon said native is needed to make a device that “works magically”.) Mozilla’s Baker was publicly dismissive of their chances “for mass adoption for the ninth separate native app platform” – saying: “I wish you good luck!”
(As an aside, Jolla’s Sailfish sounds like it was deliberately named to contrast with Mozilla’s Firefox – water vs fire; swimming/sailing vs running; the quicksilver fish vs the wily fox; not to mention the “small agile boat” (Jolla’s meaning in Finnish) vs the lumbering Mozilla dinosaur…)
“HTML5 is not going to provide a really good device-level user experience at its current state today,” Dillon reiterated during our interview when asked about the importance of building an ecosystem around Sailfish. “There’s still a need for native applications and there’s a need to make things easily portable from one platform to another — if we exclude ecosystem.”
Jolla is supporting Qt (and Android) to encourage more native Sailfish apps to be built by making it easy for developers to port and then customise existing apps. “People are starting to port different applications and they’re able to find that it’s quick and it’s easy,” he says. “[Developers] can take their existing application engine and put a Sailfish UI on it very easily.”
He won’t be drawn into predictions of how many native Sailfish apps the OS will have when the first Jolla device launches but says having Android compatibility “lowers that barrier of entry a great deal”. “We’re getting a lot of interest from developers – I can’t say the exact number but I know that as the device comes out it’s also going to grow very quickly,” he says.
Dillon spent 11 years working at Nokia, including as principal engineer on MeeGo, but isn’t keen to discuss why Nokia abandoned the OS that has now morphed into Sailfish, saying only that he wishes them well – and that the company has been very supportive of former employees moving on to start new technology businesses (Nokia’s Bridge program). Building something new is also inherently easier for a startup than a big company, he adds.
While Jolla doesn’t yet have any hardware in the market to sell, its Sailfish UI was demoed at the Slush startup event in Finland back in November. Its focus is on usability, with pulling and pushing gestures used to navigate and select/view content, allowing a lot to be achieved with one-handed interaction.
The platform also supports true multitasking, with currently running apps appearing as interactive tiles on the homescreen that support app interactions — for example a media player app can be paused directly from the tile with a swiping gesture, without having to dive into the app itself.
Gestures are used throughout the UI, with a pull-down and push-up homescreen, allowing more functions and apps to appear the more you move it. Items within apps can also be selected by pulling down until the desired item is selected, while pushing across the screen is used as a back gesture, to return you to the prior screen. Pushing from the side also reveals off-screen content — so you can glimpse at things like notifications.
Another focus in Sailfish is personalisation, with a feature called Ambience that lets users select a photo from their gallery to use as a background but which is also used to customises the UI’s theme colours to corresponding shades – resetting the whole look and feel.
To my eye Sailfish has some UI similarities with BlackBerry’s new gesture-heavy multitasking QNX-based OS, BB10 — and even some Windows Phone-esque features — but Dillon rejects comparisons with rivals, saying any similarities to BB10 are “surface” only, and adding: “I think we have some very different looking stuff.”
“Multitasking is part of the heritage of MeeGo. You can do multitasking on your desktop — it’s not that revolutionary of an idea but how you implement it is. I think that’s one of the things that we have unique advantages there,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of work on making it really easy to use and one term that people use a lot [about Sailfish] is it’s fast to use because you can switch between things very quickly — and you can do a lot of actions on the device in a very short time.”