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Are Jolla's ambitious plans crazy enough to work or are they just plain crazy?

Jolla finally showed off Sailfish, their new operating system based on the MeeGo platform that Nokia decided to abandon. I was there to see them demo it for the first time, and I even talked to a few of the company's employees. So what do I think? Read on!
November 21, 2012

Let me start by saying that Jolla is a company that deep in your heart you want to believe in. It’s made up of engineers who worked on Nokia’s famous N9, the device that proved the Finnish handset maker could actually make innovative software. Don’t believe me? Here’s what Myriam Joire, the woman in charge of Engadget Mobile, had to say about the N9 in her review:

“It’s arguably the first competitive flagship phone to come out of Espoo since the launch of the original iPhone — a stunning feat when you consider how far behind the company was even just a year ago. This is the handset that puts any lingering doubts about Nokia’s engineering chops to rest. Still, it’s a shame about the software, because given the choice, we’d pick MeeGo over Mango, despite its weaker ecosystem.”

When she says Mango, she’s referring to the codename for Windows Phone 7.5, the operating system that Nokia decided to bet the future on instead of what they were working on internally.

Which brings us to today. Sailfish, Jolla’s name for the operating system formerly known as MeeGo, was finally unveiled at Slush 2012 in Helsinki, Finland. Despite one of the founders telling me in an interview earlier this summer that their new UI wouldn’t look like it came straight from the N9, Sailfish pretty much offers the same MeeGo experience we saw over a year ago.

Double tap the screen and it comes to life. Slide up the home screen, like you do in Windows Phone, and you’re staring at a grid of your most recently launched applications. Slide your finger up and you can see all the apps installed on your phone. Slide your finger down and you see context sensitive menus, depending on what application your in. Slide your finger to the right and the application you’re viewing “minimizes”.

About the only new thing the company showed off today was that minimized applications can now come with user interface controls. So say you’re in the music player and you start playing a song. When the app is minimized, you can tap on the tile to either pause the current track or skip to the next one, all without having to switch back to the music player.

Innovative? Maybe.

So how does Jolla plan on making any money? The company has three main pillars. One, Jolla itself is a handset maker, meaning they want to sell people devices. Today they announced their first operator deal. Is it AT&T? Verizon? No. They’re partnering with DNA, the smallest operator in Finland.

Two, Jolla wants to make devices for other companies. That sounds strange, but here’s how it would work: An operator or someone else with a lot of money would contact Jolla, say they want a phone that has X, Y, Z features, some funky design, and custom wallpapers/ringtones. Jolla would then make that phone for the company, going so far as to even slap their logo on the front of the device.

And three, Sailfish, the operating system, is going to bring in some revenues, but it wasn’t really explained to us how that would work.

What else did the company unveil today? Not a hell of a lot. They were up on stage for 30 minutes, and the entire time I couldn’t help but think to myself how insane their presentation was compared to a keynote from say Google or Apple. Both those companies have a formula that’s bulletproof: Tell people about what’s happened since the last presentnation, show off something, share the story behind said something, and then finally thank the people who worked on whatever is being demoed.

Jolla took that structure and turned it upside down. They wasted a significant portion of their time inviting everyone from the company to come on stage and say hello. And by everyone, I mean everyone. There were easily at least 30 people just standing around doing nothing but smiling while wearing a Jolla shirt. Then, instead of announcing something, they went on an on about China and how it’s a huge market filled with opportunity. That’s great and all, but everyone in the room knows that.

The last few minutes of the talk dealt with the actual demo itself. The CEO, Marc Dillon, showed us how to unlock the phone, how to play a song, how to make a phone call, and how to change the wallpaper. That’s it. Done.

Less than an hour later, in a quiet room, I had a chance to talk to Sami Pienimäki. He works on Jolla’s sales and developer activities. The first question I asked him: Where’s the hardware? His response broke my heart. He said we’re going to see it during the middle of next year. At that point I struggled to remember all the questions I had queued up in my head, and I think he noticed my reaction. He told me to read the press release Jolla published today, which I did. It just says ST-Ericsson is supporting Sailfish. Whoop-de-doo.

Like I said in the beginning of this article, I want to believe in Jolla, I really do, but there’s nothing for me to latch onto other than a video on YouTube and a weird, somewhat aggressive, devotion to open source software and the ideals surrounding “free” code.

For what it’s worth, I think people who are interested in the Sailfish UI/UX should take a serious look at BlackBerry 10. Many of the same gestures that I saw today are in there. And you know that developers will actually care about making apps for RIM’s next platform as opposed to taking a chance on something that can best be described as being in the tadpole stage.