Hands On With Jolla’s Sailfish Slate, The Tablet Without A U.S. OS

Finland’s Jolla, the plucky startup that’s built its own mobile OS, called Sailfish, atop the Mer open source project, is showing off its forthcoming, crowdsourced tablet here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It’s the follow up to Jolla’s first device, the eponymous Jolla smartphone, which was released at the end of 2013.

So far the Jolla Tablet Indiegogo campaign has pulled in more than $2.2 million from more than 18,500 backers, far exceeding the original funding target.

Compatibility with Android gives the underdog Sailfish a line in to mobile’s biggest app ecosystem — so Jolla can offer mobile users an alternative to Android that nevertheless gives them access to Android apps (albeit not via Google Play).

The 8-inch Jolla Tablet, which the company is continuing to crowdfund (currently priced at $249), is running Sailfish 2.0 — the first major upgrade to its software platform since launch.

TechCrunch sat down with Jolla co-founder Marc Dillon to get a closer look at the tablet and OS update — check out the video to see Dillon demoing the new UI.

Dillon also told us that more Jolla devices are planned, hinting at a sequel smartphone, albeit he said it’s not making any specific announcements about its roadmap at this point.

So what’s coming in Sailfish 2.0? Most obviously Jolla’s platform gets another string to its bow to make the most of the small tablet form factor — so there are thoughtful touches such as a Qwerty keyboard that splits into two in landscape orientation so that you can type with two thumbs without having to put the slate down; and a customizable quick settings bar located a swipe away from the homescreen, next to Jolla’s aggregated notifications feed.

There are also some themed modes which can be toggled via a down-swipe from the top of the screen. Here you can, for instance, switch between a work set up of the tablet with apps like email and calendar foregrounded, to an after hours view with the daily grind tucked out of sight.

But by far the biggest upgrade with Sailfish 2.0 is how Jolla has pared back and simplified Sailfish’s gesture based UI. This is a key change.

Reviews of Jolla’s smartphone had identified a problematic learning curve and sometimes confusing navigation. And while Jolla has touted Sailfish’s newness and ‘otherness’ as a core part of its differentiation mission, to offer choice in a marketplace dominated by Android and iOS, it also needs to offer something people are comfortable using.

Jolla has clearly been listening and is now iterating. Sailfish 2.0 pares interactions back to a few core gestures, such as swiping up anywhere to get to all apps, or a side swipe to peek at or go back to the homescreen. It’s also possible to continuously swipe to cycle through the various content screens.

Meanwhile actions supported by the application covers — aka the small cards representing open/live apps on the Sailfish homescreen — have also been simplified, so they are less matryoshka-like in terms of what users can do with them.

In short, Jolla seems to have realised that less is more — and difference shouldn’t be difficult. This is definitely progress.

It has also added a new content screen to Sailfish 2.0 that can be swiped in from the homescreen which it’s calling a “partner space”.

It’s demoing this with Deezer on the tablet, as as example, but does not yet have any partners to announce. It’s had something similar on its smartphone, offering co-branded content from the likes of Rovio, for instance. A tablet-based partner space is obviously more generously proportioned than what can fit on a smartphone — and can contain a whole carousel of content.

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“Jolla is very eager to take industrial partners right now,” said Dillon, discussing how it’s hoping the partner space feature will spark more industry interest in its platform and hardware.

“Maybe I would like to buy a package from my operator or a retailer that includes the service, the cellular service or data, that also includes my favorite content packages, also includes the device, so we can bundle all of those togethers and give a premium place on the UI that’s right next to the homescreen where my favorite application, favorite content, favorite service bundle is always right available.”

Dillon said Sailfish 2.0 will be rolling out when the tablet launches — likely at the end of Q2 this year. The 2.0 update also brings stability and core performance improvements to its platform (“I think we’re doing Android better than Android does now, with the multitasking and the multiple windows”), along with support for Intel CPUs, which will expand the device types Sailfish can reach.

Who has been pre-ordering the Jolla tablet so far? Backers are “really varied”, according to Dillon. The biggest group were “people who wanted to see something that was independent”.

“That was actually the number one reason that people backed us,” he said, adding: “About half of the people had an existing tablet so they were wanting to replace an existing tablet. Only about around half had a Jolla phone, so we did have a lot of people that came out of the box to get this device.

“This seemed to be a very good fit for us,” he added, talking about the decision to make a tablet. “You have to move your whole life to a mobile phone so a tablet is more of an elective kind of purchase. A lot of people use them to either consume content, or to work, or to communicate.”

“This is the first Sailfish tablet. This is the first tablet that doesn’t have an American operating system. It’s the first tablet that’s not dominated by a one company strategy.”

While Sailfish is built on an open source core, the Sailfish UI itself remains proprietary. But Jolla is aiming to move in a fully open sourced direction — hence its call yesterday for more partners to join the Sailfish Alliance. Intel and SSH Communications are the first two it’s talking about — the latter helping it build a forthcoming hardened version of the OS, called Sailfish Secure.

“I definitely envisage it in the future to be fully open source. At the moment Sailfish is not. It’s powered by open. We work in the open in a lot of places,” he said. “When we work with our partners we can give them the source code to absolutely everything. So that’s one huge advantage… Getting fully open is going to require this Sailfish Alliance, so getting some more companies and partners on board. Then we can basically release everything.

“What we don’t want is any single points of control. We want a group of companies that come together, that co-operate, that maybe have different agendas, maybe are even in some kinds of competition with each other, but can leverage one platform in order to do that — instead of closing down the walls and saying this is our strategy and we’re going to go as hard as we can until we fall. Because monopolies always fall.”