With Jolla Phone and Sailfish OS, Another David Taking on Goliath
Jolla, both the name of a new smartphone and the Finish startup that released it on Wednesday, is stepping into a difficult arena: The tiny company is looking to take on Android and iOS with its new Sailfish OS.
Jolla (pronounced Yah-la) is a company founded by ex-Nokia staffers who didn't want Nokia's MeeGo operating system (seen briefly on the Nokia N9 and N950) to die, after the Finish hardware maker adopted Windows Phone OS.
However, Jolla and its Sailfish OS, the spruced-up reincarnation of MeeGo, enters a crowded race for third place behind Google and Apple, which, combined, make up about 94 percent of the mobile OS market, according to a recent IDC report.
What does Sailfish on Jolla's first smartphone offer that can beat its immediate competition, like Windows Phone or Firefox OS - much less survive in an increasingly Android world? Here's a look at both the Jolla's hardware and Jolla's software.
The Jolla Jolla - Hardware Specs
Jolla's self-titled smartphone (technically making it the Jolla Jolla) looks a lot like a black, blocky Nokia at first blush. Specs-wise, the Jolla is a mid-range offering. It comes with a 4.5-inch display with a non-HD resolution of 540 x 960p.
Inside is a 4G-capable dual core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor, clocked to1.4GHz with an Adreno 305 GPU and 1GB of RAM. The only internal storage option is 16GB, but there's a microSD card slot for expansion of up to 64GB. The Jolla comes with an 8-megapixel main camera and a 2-megapixel front facing shooter, and a 2100 mAh battery powers the device for up to 10 hours of talk time.
Jolla's "Other Half"
Those specs aren't much cause for excitement, though they're not terrible either. But Jolla offers something interesting in its design, which Jolla calls the "Other Half." Like a simplified version of Motorola's Project Ara, Jolla is essentially two parts of a smartphone smashed together.
While Jolla right now only offers customizable rear covers in different colors - which, indeed, have the neat feature of NFC chips built-in that change the OS's theme settings to match the color of the cover - inside the back of the phone, Jolla built much a more important feature: connectors for data transfer and power.
This leads to the possibility of some Phoneblok-type physical upgrades through rear-cover add-ons, like a physical keyboard, another screen, or sensors that could expand Jolla's capabilities for new apps. This remains only a possibility at the moment though.
Sailfish OS - An Audacious Plan
Even with the interesting "Other Half" upgradeability, the Jolla Jolla is basically only a case study in hardware and more of a way to show off Sailfish OS, which is what Jolla's most important and audacious aspiration.
For example, the Jolla Jolla launched on Wednesday with a first batch of only 450 units, according to Tech Crunch, with a few thousand units pre-sold since August. But a day later, Jolla's CEO, Tomi Pienimäki, said that Android customers could side-load Sailfish OS on the Android devices they already have - with the immediate goal of getting Sailfish OS in the market with the most potential for a third OS, China.
"For us it is a possibility to distribute our operating system especially in China. There are websites that already distribute [OS] software and the Chinese customers are doing it so we don't have to teach them," said Pienimäki to Finish Magazine Talouselämä. "We just have to get Sailfish to those websites - and to make sure that Sailfish will run on different kind of Android devices." Basically, while Jolla hopes for success with the Jolla smartphone, it also wants Sailfish OS to take on Google on its own turf - Android smartphones.
So what makes Sailfish OS a competitive Android alternative? The operating system is based on MeeGo (which is, in turn, Linux-based) and open source, and is truly compatible with Android. While it has a good number of apps available from the start, navigation on Sailfish OS is what really sets it apart from Android.
The Sailfish UI works without the capacitive touch buttons common to almost all Android tablets and smartphones. It's based on gestural control instead, which makes it unique, but it could be difficult for long-time Android users to get used to the absence of that trusty capacitive-touch "back" button.
According to the Next Web, home screen navigation is based on a vertical orientation, rather than the left-right swipe horizontal orientation of iOS and Android. After double-tapping the screen in sleep mode to bring up a notifications screen (the power button works, too), swiping down will open up Sailfish's various navigation screens, with two swipes to get to an "all apps" menu.
An interesting adaptation found in later versions of Android OS, the "recent apps" screen (in Android, long-press the home button) is baked right into the home screen, which can be accessed from any app by pulling from the left side of the Sailfish UI. Functional tiles of certain apps - think widgets - can added to the recent apps-style home screen through swipe gestures, and other apps can be "minimized" back into the home screen. The effect is to have all running apps clearly visible in one screen, the way BlackBerry 10 did, but to also have certain actions quickly accessible from that screen, without going back into an app.
Pulling down from the top of the screen reveals a quick menu with settings, a shortcut to the camera app, and other options, depending on where you are within Sailfish. Interestingly, this quick menu has an auto-highlight and select feature that uses "ticks" of haptic feedback while your thumb is stationary in the pull-down gesture.
This means you can quick-launch the camera or choose a silent profile without looking at the screen (if you've memorized the settings' positions of course). This menu is different from the Sailfish notification menu called "Events," which, opposite from iOS and Android, is accessible by swiping up from the bottom.
Having 85,000+ Android apps ready to go, through a partnership with the Russian Android Yandex Store, is both a blessing and a curse for Sailfish OS.
Jolla avoids a lot of third-OS criticism by already having lots of big name third-party apps available, like Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and the all-important Angry Birds. But native Sailfish apps - of which there are currently only a few essentials, like email, maps (based on Nokia HERE), and calendar - work with Sailfish's gesture-based UI, while the Android apps don't.
This means users will have a confusing mix between Sailfish gesture-based capabilities and the basic Android back button-based UI, all wrapped into one phone. Early reports also indicate that many Android apps are buggy and don't always reliably work with important Sailfish-based fundamentals like the keyboard.
For Jolla and its nearly orphaned OS, now reborn as Sailfish, the future is uncertain. The Jolla Jolla is a decent piece of hardware with a unique, forward-looking design element in "Other Half." But it sells at €399 (unlocked), the equivalent of $540, which is a lot compared to new unlocked Android phones like the Moto G, which have similar or better hardware specs at less than half the price.
And Sailfish's Android compatibility is a double-edged sword. While it helps Jolla start out with more apps than the failed BB10 did at launch, and probably more than Firefox OS (which reportedly has "thousands"), right now Sailfish's Android compatibility seems clunky at best. And it cannot continue to rely on its Android side, which takes away from Sailfish's unique factor, and only current selling point, gesture-based multi-tasking. In a David and Goliath match-up, David can't ultimately depend on Goliath for strength. This little startup has a long way to go.