Sailfish v3 sets its sights on 4G feature phones

With the smartphone OS market almost entirely sewn up between Google and Apple, what’s an alternative operating system maker to do? Take an interest in feature phones, that’s what.

Today Jolla, the Finnish maker of an Android alternative called Sailfish, has announced v3 of its platform. At a press conference at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow in Barcelona it’s announced what it describes as a “totally new segment” for the OS targeting the “new era of highly capable 4G feature phones”.

“What sets Sailfish OS apart from its competitors in the feature phone segment is the capability to do low-spec hardware configurations and still run selected Android apps,” said CEO Sami Pienimäki in a statement.

He also flagged up Sailfish’s ability to handle Voice over LTE — claiming the tech is “increasingly important for the new era” of feature phones.

Speaking today at a press conference, Pienimäki added that v3 of the platform represents “a lot of work under the hood”, building cumulatively on six years of Sailfish development.

“For the past two years we’ve been developing a lot of features for the corporate sector,” he added, flagging privacy and security features and additional capabilities for the SDK and API being added in v3.

Integrated VPNs and fingerprints are now “all standard in Sailfish”, he also noted.

Where 4G feature phones are concerned, which means mobile phones priced around the $50 mark, he said what makes Sailfish interesting is the platform is also capable of running “selected” Android apps.

“This is something that has been missing on the market for quite a while,” he said. “What we see and having discussions with our customer is there’s definitely a need to be able to run one or two key apps in those devices which don’t feature a touch user experience — and that is exactly what we have developed.”

Such devices will of course not be able to offer a multitasking app experience. Rather Pienimäki said the point is for users to be able to “send a WhatsApp message or Facebook message or be able to connect with social media”.

Operator and device maker clients would also be free to choose which app store is featured and totally customize which and how many apps it contains.

Jolla says Sailfish OS will “mature” to Sailfish 3 during Q3 this year, so today’s news is just a preview of what’s coming.

According to Gartner there were less than 1.5M non-Android, non-iOS smartphones sold in 2017, which it said amounts to a 0.1 per cent share of the global market — down from ~11.3M in 2016, when other OSes took a 0.8 per cent share. So the Sailfish maker’s interest in diversifying into old school mobile handsets isn’t as leftfield as it perhaps seems.

Earlier this month the analyst also reported a decline in global smartphone shipments in Q4 2017, the first time it’s reported the market shrinking since it began tracking it all the way back in 2004.

Feature phone owners staying with dumbphones rather than upgrading to a smartphone was one of the reasons cited to explain the drop in sales in the holiday quarter. Another analyst, IDC, has also reported featurephones growing their market share in Africa between 2016 and 2017.

In addition to the listed features, and the continued focus on security — with the aim of making Sailfish 3 “a solid option for various corporate solutions” — Jolla said it will provide “full support for regional infrastructures including steady releases & OS upgrades; services to establish independent R&D centers; local hosting; training; and a flexible feature set to support specific customer needs”.

Since shuttering its consumer hardware play, and focusing on a b2b (and business to government) mobile OS licensing business, Jolla has been winning friends in Russia — where its platform gained certification for corporate and government use back in 2016.

At last year’s MWC Russia OEM INOI announced the first Sailfish device for the market, with Jolla’s local licensee, Open Mobile Platform, trumpeting the smartphone as “absolutely Google-free!”

Here at MWC 2018, INOI has announced a new Sailfish-powered tablet, in both 8-inch and 10-inch size configurations, which is primarily targeted at Russian corporate customers.

“Russia is in full deployment and ramping up the volumes this year,” said Pienimäki of that market.

Jolla also announced it will be making Sailfish available for the new Sony XperiaTM XA2, also announced at the show, via the Sony Open Device Program. (Though individuals wanting to run Sailfish on that device will need to purchase a license via the Sailfish X program, which lets individuals pay to download the software.)

Planet Computers’ crowdfunded Gemini PDA — a retro-looking mobile device that packs a full size keyboard — is also being demoed running Sailfish here at the show, though again there’s no firm date on wider future availability for the OS’ device support.

Jolla said Sailfish is now officially supported on more than a dozen devices, rising if you count community porting efforts.

At last year’s MWC it also announced inking a licensing agreement with a Chinese consortium which it said planned to invest $250M in developing a Sailfish ecosystem for the country.

Discussing this, a spokesman told us that a China pilot project was completed last year, adding that the first commercial products are expected to reach the market by the end of this year.

Latin America is another area where Sailfish is winning friends. Its partner there is the Jala Group, and CEO Jorge Lopez was at its press conference — saying it picked the platform because it’s “an OS we can contribute to”.

“It is important for us that we control the OS,” he said, noting there are “many things we want to that Android or iOS will not let us do”.

“In the Latin America region people will not be able to purchase an independent OS or a system that’s private like an iOS. We are forced to purchase Android phones and share our information — that’s the main reason we have picked Jolla and Sailfish,” he added.

Underlining the difference with Android Go, Pienimäki also pointed out: “We are not force feeding you the services, we are not monetizing the service. Totally unlike what Android is doing.

“What it really offers the customer, clients… we can tailor-make the experience, customize the value proposition. There are no limitations — such as a certain app store or search engine. Sailfish is a totally customizable asset,” he added.

Last year Jolla’s chairman Antti Saarnio said Jolla was expecting to become profitable in 2017. However the spokesman told us that while the company made a profit in “several” months of the year, on a yearly level it remains dependent on “some investor money”.

It closed out its last tranche of funding, a $12M Series C round, in May 2016, after initially struggling to lock the funding down in time. But it’s hoping its cumulative investment will finally reach monthly profitability this year.

“With the solid customer projects we have in Latin America, Russia, and China the company will be profitable on a monthly level by the end of this year, and onwards,” he added.