Jolla: Setting sail on the smartphone seas

29 NOV 2012

My fondly-remembered childhood Commodore Amiga was the first computer I owned that had something resembling a modern operating system. Amazingly, the Amiga OS continues to this day, providing an authentic 1980s experience that can be emulated on modern machines or – once you’re really hooked – via specially-adapted hardware.

The Amiga may have passed on years ago, but its software lives on thanks to a dedicated community of enthusiasts – and dedication and enthusiasm are commodities that are immune to market forces.

A similar spirit was invoked last week when Finnish start-up Jolla showed off a working version of its ‘Sailfish’ smartphone OS, a platform based on the MeeGo OS that Nokia largely abandoned when it switched to Windows Phone last year.

The Linux-based MeeGo was conceived as a joint venture between Nokia and Intel in February 2010, a combination of their respective Maemo and Moblin platforms. The idea was sound but the timing was dreadful. Within a year, an increasingly desperate Nokia had sidelined MeeGo (and Symbian) as it bet the farm on Microsoft. Just one MeeGo-based Nokia saw the light of day; the N9 was lauded in tech circles but it suffered from woeful support from a distracted Nokia, which didn’t even bother offering it in some key markets.

So can a small start-up made up mainly of ex-Nokia employees resurrect MeeGo and become a force in smartphones? It might just be possible.

The conventional view is that only tough beasts can survive in the smartphone jungle. If the likes of Nokia/Microsoft and RIM are struggling to build market share in the face of the Apple/Android duopoly then what chance has anyone else? But the stakes are a lot higher for vendors with huge costs that have spent millions on R&D marketing and have shareholders to keep happy.

Jolla has set an initial goal of selling just 100,000 devices, which means the ‘high volume, low margin’ approach of its competitors probably won’t work. But as Jolla’s Antti Saarnio told TechCrunch last week: “The big difference [between ourselves] and Microsoft or others is that Jolla doesn’t have any business legacy. We don’t have any market position; we don’t have a cost base to defend.”

Jolla claims to have raised EUR200 million from industry sponsors – money that would easily slip down the back of the sofa at a Nokia or Microsoft but will buy a lot for a few fellas operating out of a garage in Finland.

The other challenge apparently facing Jolla is the need for it to build an ecosystem of vendors and developers to support its platform. Because it conjures up images of lush rainforests and the like, we’re often fooled into thinking that ‘ecosystems’ are a good thing. They’re not. In the context of smartphones, ‘ecosystems’ tend to be less about sustaining a rich range of interests and more about locking customers into a particular platform. And there are plenty who are uneasy about the likes of Apple and Google acting as gatekeeper to their digital lives and are open to alternatives.

While Android developers will be able to work on the Sailfish OS, Jolla’s early focus has been on securing hardware partners rather than courting developers; it was revealed last week that Jolla’s phones will run on ST-Ericsson’s NovaThor platform and other component suppliers are expected to be announced soon. But its not yet clear when the first Jolla phone will appear; and it could be that a third-party vendor launches a phone running the Sailfish OS under licence before Jolla gets its own hardware act together. This could be an attractive option for handset vendors looking to differentiate themselves from the pack – and possibly a less risky option than Android given the Google platform’s current litigation problems.

Jolla’s other major announcement last week concerned its first operator partner, the Finnish number-three DNA, which says it will market Jolla smartphones in Finland “as soon as they enter the market.”

Having the operators on board will be vital for Jolla in terms of retail and distribution. The relationship could work in the other direction too: adding a few leftfield devices in the handset portfolio could see canny operators target potentially lucrative niche segments.

But Jolla’s bold project will ultimately fly or die on whether Sailfish can carve out a niche of its own in the eyes of consumers. The start-up has already generated plenty of buzz over the past few months; if it can provide a fashionable alternative to the big smartphone brands then who knows where it can go.

Like those dedicated few who have kept the Amiga flame alive for a quarter of a century, the MeeGo faithful look like they could be around for a while.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members


Matt Ablott

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