Jolla Pushes BRICS Partnerships To Target Android In Emerging Markets

Finnish mobile upstart Jolla, whose linux-based Sailfish OS is marketed as a more flexible alternative to the dominant platforms of Android and iOS, is stepping up its push to win friends and influence mobile users in the BRICS cluster of emerging markets — ahead of the release of Sailfish 2.0 this summer, which will be the first version of its OS that OEMs can license.

Jolla does make and sell its own brand hardware too, but sees its core business in licensing and partnering to push its software stack further afield. “In terms of the real scaling of the operating system, that can only happen when we sign one or two or several device vendor licensing deals — that’s when we start scaling,” says Jolla chairman Antti Saarnio. “We are not in big [user] numbers yet with only Jolla devices. That’s not really the thing with the volume.”

Today it’s announced an extension of its BRICS strategy with a plan to establish an African ecosystem to drive Sailfish usage, starting in South Africa. Its hope is to encourage local Internet companies to adopt its platform as a more flexible alternative for integrating local services than the U.S.-controlled duopoly of Android and iOS.

“The objective is to offer one mobile platform for all BRICS countries, and create regional solutions by integrating local services to them,” Jolla said today.

“The main objective for Sailfish Africa is to gather a group of African investors to develop an independent Sailfish OS based mobile ecosystem for Africa. The initiative starts from South Africa, and later the aim is to expand the Sailfish Africa ecosystem to other African countries. ”

Jolla’s partnership push is a similar strategy to that employed by Mozilla for its Firefox OS, however Jolla is hoping Sailfish’s Android app compatibility will give it far longer legs than FFOS (despite the latter gaining a fair bit of regional carrier backing).

“We have created a regional strategy so that we are integrating local ecommerce players’ services and digital media companies’ services into the user interface in a premium position in the surface OS. And that’s what we are offering in all the BRICs countries, basically. Same happening in Russia, we are discussing with local Internet companies, of such a partnership. In India we have been negotiating these deals already for half a year and will soon be coming out with some announcements,” Saarnio tells TechCrunch.

Jolla is partnering with Dr Sello Rathete, co-founder of South African carrier Cell-C, to create the Sailfish Africa consortium. But its strategic push is to forge connections with local ecommerce and media companies. And today’s Sailfish Africa announcement amounts to a call for such regional players to take note of its salespitch. (Which is in parallel to its ongoing efforts to encourage regional OEM vendors to build Sailfish hardware.)

“With South Africa we are now negotiating opening negotiations with the local players. And lets say that we have good discussions ongoing but we wanted to announce this agenda so that there’s awareness of such an opportunity in a larger extent as well,” says Saarnio.

[We are] providing something which none of the existing dominant players are providing — which is localization.

He argues that regional ecommerce companies are looking for ways to differentiate in mobile, without having to become hardware builders themselves — and without forking and maintaining their own flavor of Android, given the massive resources required to sustain such an effort (as Amazon does, for instance — with mixed results).

“[We are] providing something which none of the existing dominant players are providing — which is localization. And opportunity for big players to have their platform,” says Saarnio. “If you look at what Amazon is doing, it’s not a hardware company and still it’s doing its own hardware. And there’s a reason for this; it has made its own OS based on Android, heavily forking Android, and then actually it saw that Google’s contracts with leading device vendors are forbidding them to ship such forks… so Amazon is locked into being a hardware device vendor themselves and this is not actually a scalable model.

“If I would be an ecommerce company in India or Africa or Russia I wouldn’t want to be a hardware player. That’s not the core business. I would need leading branded device vendors to be shipping my services with my OS. And that’s not working with the forked Android model because of the Google contract framework.”

“Another thing that people don’t quite understand is that making an operating system and keeping and maintaining an operating system is a very, very heavy task — it requires very high knowledge about the thing… Many times it’s underestimated how many people you need to maintain Android code-based operating system, especially when Google is not exactly making it very easy to update with different releases,” he adds, arguing that the required investment to maintain a viable OS is “hundreds of millions of dollars”. (Jolla itself raised a $12.4 million Series B round last December — when it reported its total funding as $42 million.)

“That’s one of the reasons why local players should be using existing independent operating systems that are not limited by any big player in the market… Currently there are not many other alternatives in the market for the operating system and it’s obvious that all the device vendors are looking for alternatives at the moment. They are not making money with the current model.

“For example in India when we go to meeting with local players we don’t have to explain this. They understand it immediately. And they basically say that this is what they need — so it’s a great match.”

On the Mozilla point, Saarnio says Sailfish’s Android app compatibility gives it an edge vs Firefox OS. “The main thing why new operating systems haven’t broken through is they were missing application ecosystem. It just doesn’t go through in the market if you don’t have application ecosystem. What we have out of all the alternative operating systems is probably the best implementation of Android application compatibility — that’s… the reason why we believe this can scale,” he adds.

“We can offer users the application ecosystem but we can offer even more by integrating the local content in a meaningful way to the user interface. I think this should be a scalable model in the consumer world — I think the world is not so dependent on having 100,000 applications but on having the key applications; the leading apps… integrated in a nice way to the user experience.”

The Sailfish Africa announcement follows news earlier this month that the Russian government is looking at supporting an international consortium for the development of alternative software products based on open mobile platforms, and met with Jolla to discuss some shared strategic synergies.

Jolla noted today that Russia’s Minister of Telecom and Mass Communications, Nikolay Nikiforov, visited South Africa last week to promote the Sailfish OS agenda for BRICS countries to local government officials — so its platform is getting some high level regional political backing.

Nikiforov has previously tweeted his support for open alternatives to Android — calling for the “de-monopolization of  the global IT ecosystem” and, back in February, announcing the Russian Federation will be providing grants to homegrown developers to migrate apps from dominant U.S. mobile platforms to Tizen and Sailfish.

Jolla’s regional partnership strategy is not just about growing Sailfish usage via partnerships; it is also negotiating revenue share deals with partner companies — so it will get a cut of any transactions made via its platform. That’s the core Jolla business model.

“What we do is we integrate the payment solution to the operating system and from each transaction, whether it’s ecommerce or media purchase or any other purchase we will have a small revenue share from the business,” says Saarnio. “That’s the main revenue source for Sailfish OS.”

One continued point to note is that Sailfish is not fully open source — Jolla describes it as “mostly open source”, noting that certain UI components remain closed. But it does have a plan to open source more of the platform in time.

“We have a timeline to open source basically all of the non-commercial parts, some of them are third party parts which we can’t open source of course. But we have a timeline to open source most of the platform — because it helps us to work with the developer community and also our partners. But we are not yet releasing the timeline. We will come out very soon with an announcement about the scale of this open sourcing schedule,” adds Saarnio.