What is the Jolla Sailfish smartphone?

Jolla is the first _phone_ by the Finnish start-up of the same name. It will be released in late 2013 and run the Sailfish OS, which is based on the abandoned MeeGo project founded by Intel and Nokia. Jolla is largely made up of ex-Nokia employees disenchanted by the handset maker’s move to Windows _phone_ exclusivity in early 2011.
Sailfish OS homescreen

Jolla announced itself to the world in late 2011. It has already raised $258 million in investment from the telecommunications industry to help revive tMeeGo, which has only been available to the public once before on the widely praised Nokia N9.

We got an early hands-on with the handset and its software at an exclusive launch event this week in Helsinki.

Jolla handset

Six months is an eternity in the handset market, so we were surprised Jolla was keen to demonstrate its smartphone just one day after it was formally announced and targeting a Christmas arrival. That said from a hardware perspective what we saw is extremely encouraging.
Jolla 2

The Jolla certainly has taken style cues off the Nokia N9, but its design is as unique as anything we have seen in recent years. On the surface the phone appears a fairly angular touchscreen slab and standard connectors including a top mounted micro USB charge port and headphone jack, side positioned power and volume buttons and speakers at the base. There are also some predictable specs: 4.5in display, 4G support, eight megapixel camera, 16GB of storage, microSD slot and an unspecified dual core processor.

Look closely, however, and things become more interesting. Firstly the phone has no facia buttons or soft keys (more of later) and secondly the phone quite clearly comes in two halves. Typically a colourful rear (though black in our demo) snaps on and off not only to allow access to a replaceable battery, but to enable an array of different covers to interact directly with the phone.
Jolla 4

Jolla wasn’t revealing technology behind this (we suspect NFC), but covers have the power to automatically change the colour scheme ('ambiance'), wallpaper, fonts, profiles and even functionality of the user interface. Jolla calls this ‘The Other Half’. Admittedly it is slightly gimmicky, but it opens up an array of marketing and brand opportunities we’re sure Jolla will be keen to exploit.

In hand the Jolla feels angular, though by no means uncomfortable compared to the 5-inch monsters now on the market. It was noticeable on our demo unit that some of the fittings weren’t flush and it had chips and dents, but we won’t read anything into that for a handset likely in heavy testing and still five to six months from release.
Jolla 6

The Jolla has been announced with a €399 (£339) SIM-free retail price which we find a little high, especially considering where the handset market could be come the end of 2013. That said Jolla admits this may change and with a network deal in Finland with DNA and several European and Chinese carrier deals “in the pipeline” it will be interesting to see if the company can secure those all important network subsidies.

What will attract them? The software itself...

Jolla Sailfish OS

While the hardware dares to be different, the real interest in Jolla is the Sailfish operating system. Other than its Nokia/Intel foundations, what immediately appeals is Sailfish OS will be distributed to handset makers free of charge. Revenue will come from the licence of optional proprietary features and intellectual property. A ‘free but…’ model, if you like.

So what will tempt handset makers and telcos to invest? The most promising aspect to Sailfish is its core user interface. It is heavily gesture-based and borrows elements from BlackBerry 10, Windows phone and Android, but combines them to create something unique.
Sailfish OS 6

Arguably Jolla has been motivated to do this because Nokia has kept the rights to its lauded Harmattan UI on the N9, but we like what we saw. Rather than icons, the homescreen features BlackBerry 10-esque tiles of the most recently open programs. Much like an Android widget these can be interacted with directly, swiping the phone tile left or right to reveal the dialler or contacts, the music player to switch content or get playback controls and so forth. Each tile also features live information like Windows phone and can even continue playback of video.

Intriguingly Sailfish also requires no physical or virtual home, back, menu or search buttons. Instead these are again gesture based. Swipe up to the screen from the left or right bezel to go backwards or forwards between apps; up from the bottom of the bezel from apps to go back to the home screen and from the top bezel down to get critical information like battery life, signal strength, search and key settings.

All of these features work like BlackBerry 10 providing the option to ‘peak’ at information by not fully completing any swipe gesture. The current screen becomes transparent mid transition to show the screen before. Swiping up from the homescreen also pulls up an app drawer (akin to Android).
Sailfish OS notifications 2

Some of this will take time to learn, especially the swipe options of tiles for each currently open app but we can see how it could become an extremely fast and efficient way of navigating a UI. There were some glitches in what we saw, but it was already predominantly smooth and slick and an almost playful way to perform what are fairly arduous tasks on other platforms.

This system also means no space is wasted on docks at the bottom or the status bar at the top so the full screen is used at all times.
Sailfish OS app drawer

Elsewhere Jolla has a unified messaging system so Facebook, SMS and IM messages can be grouped into a single feed. Photos and contacts also unify with your social networks allowing you to comment on and like content without the need for a dedicated app and the lock screen contains information on missed calls, SMS and app notifications. This is much like Windows phone and navigation within apps also works in a similar manner, swiping left to right between sections and categories, rather than requiring access to a menu.

As for apps support, Jolla is appealing to developers to make Sailfish specific applications that take advantage of its navigation system, but it will be compatible with apps for Android. Jolla claims Android apps can be easily implemented because its lack of physical or digital buttons means the stock Android buttons can be recreated easily for each app. That said Jolla wasn’t demonstrating Android apps at this stage and it won’t get access to the Google Play store so third parties, including Amazon, will be necessary.
Sailfish OS notifications

Jolla Sailfish OS Prospects

From this initial hands-on we came away with the impression that Sailfish OS has a great deal of potential. It has a huge leg up from the core work already done by Intel and Nokia and its UI is genuinely innovative while taking a mixture of the best aspects from other platforms. On the hardware side whether the ‘Other half’ functionality of covers can be a genuine differentiator is less clear cut, but we can see it being popular in younger age groups.

That said where the real battle lies for Sailfish is not in convincing people it is a viable platform, but that it is preferable to the existing heavyweights. Our feeling is Jolla will have to reduce its handset price to achieve that, provide tight Android app integration from the outset and pick its markets carefully.
Sailfish OS 7

The company has already said it will release in a limited number of European countries for a Christmas targeted launch and telco agreements for them will be crucial. Jolla is also targeting China, a smart move given its sizable population and lesser commitment to iOS or Android.

Aside from this the other battle is with three more newcomers: the Samsung/Intel funded Tizen, Firefox OS and Ubuntu. The first two will also have phones out in 2013 with the latter expecting to debut in early 2014.

In the months before launch Jolla is putting a strong focus on community building and says a number of campaigns will appear between now and Christmas while pre-orders are already open. Expectations are realistic too with the company saying it doesn’t expect to be anything but a niche player for a number of years. From what we have seen it at least deserves to attain that.