Just before the Christmas celebrations started, FedEx delivered a small and long-awaited package from Finland. Jolla, the smartphone company that rose from the ashes of the Linux powered N9 from Nokia. Having supported the company during the summer with an order, my handset was part of the first batch of international deliveries just before the holidays.
I’m going to give the Jolla an in-depth review during January after I’ve spent a decent amount of time with the handset, but so many people have asked for my opinion through Facebook, Twitter, and email, that I want to talk about my first impressions of the Jolla smartphone because the biggest short-term issue Jolla will have is already clear to me.
Let’s start with a brief tour of the Jolla smartphone. The design is compelling and stands out in a sea of slab-like smartphones. The rear case of the handset curves around the chassis so that the illusion of two rounded slices of plastic have been locked together. This allows for ‘The Other Half’ concept from Jolla, where different rear cases can come with different functionalities such as wireless charging, barcode scanners, or anything else people can dream up. My unit came with a basic white ‘Other Half” that has no special features beyond an NFC chip that allows the Jolla smartphone to know what case has been attached, so the theme color (the ‘ambience’) in the UI could match the rear case. A nice touch, but you can over-ride this on the handset if you know where to look (it’s in the Image Gallery application).
Otherwise the hardware is in the mid-range – you have a Snapdragon 400 dual-core processor running at 1.4 GHz, 1 GB or RAM, 16 GB of storage (microSD cards are supported), and a generous 2100 mAh battery. While 4G LTE support is in the hardware, the OS does not yet support it, but an updated in 2014 should switch this on. I suspect that the low volumes of Jolla smartphones being ordered, and a desire to keep the price of these first handsets at a reasonable level (a SIM free unlocked handset direct from Jolla costs 399 euros).
Differentiating in hardware is not Jolla’s goal – it’s all about the software and specifically about Sailfish OS. Sailfish OS is based on the Mer project, which was built on the MeeGo project, which itself was a merger of the Mobiln and Maemo projects. In short, a lot of energy and time has been invested in an alternative Linux-based mobile operating system, and Sailfish OS has a lot of people emotionally involved with their success.
It’s not strictly a buttonless interface, as the handset still has two volume keys and a power key, but the functionality of these buttons is duplicated inside the OS. A double tap on the 4.5 inch Gorilla Glass screen will turn the Jolla smartphone on, and performing the ‘close app’ action from the home screens will perform the same function as tapping the power button to switch the screen off and put the phone in ‘stand-by’ mode.
Let’s touch on those actions, because Sailfish OS is built around these swiping actions. Some of the duplicate the function of regular buttons on other smartphones – swiping up from the bezel into the screen brings up all your notifications; swiping down from the top bezel will close an application; and a swipe from either side will first let you see thumbnails of all the running apps on the handset, and if you continue the move you’ll be taken to the ‘task browser’ part of the home screen. Scroll down from here and you get the app launcher, scroll up and you have the more traditional stand-by screen with the time, notification indicators, and network status.
Sailfish OS also has the major menu options hiding at the top of an application’s screen. Pull down with a swipe (but starting from inside the screen and not from the bezel) and you will see the menu options. Keep pulling down and the highlight will roll over them, letting you select them by a simple release of your finger. Alternatively you can swipe down past them all, and tap on a menu option to select one. Finally, the Jolla apps have an interesting way of moving through the various screens of an app, with left and right swipes from inside the screen edge.
Compared to the single home button of an iOS device (and Apple’s slide-out menus from the top and bottom of the screen), or the three-button back/home/search of Windows Phone, Sailfish OS has a lot of ‘default’ operators. Because they are not identical to those found on other smartphones, they will be labelled as unintuitive. It also takes more time to build up the muscle memory and the instinctiveness of six or seven controls as opposed to two or three, which leads to a steeper learning curve for a Jolla smartphone user. I’ll talk more about the impact this interface has when I do a full review of the handset, because I’m still having to think consciously about what swipe to do to perform an operation. I think the true value of the OS will start to show through once I no longer need to think about how to use the basic features of the user interface.
Sailfish OS is still under heavy development. The Jolla handset has already improved since my model left Finland. Two updates to the Operating System have been offered to me since the handset arrived (here’s the details on the update from December 27th as an example) and I’m fully expecting more to arrive over the next weeks and months as the OS is polished and feedback from those of us with the handset is delivered to Jolla’s developer team.
I found it interesting that the Jolla handset did not have many of the core applications installed out of the box. Although it was an easy enough task to go to the Jolla store and install Jolla’s own email client, mapping software, note taking app, a media player, and a calendar app, it again stressed that Jolla’s first goal has been to get a handset out there with a solid operating system and not necessarily focusing on the app experience for these first handsets.
One of the extra app packages you can download from the Jolla store is their ‘Android Support’ app. It gives the Jolla user a gateway to far more applications than Jolla could have a launch, but it’s not a simple solution – the Jolla smartphone does not support Google Play, which means the largest Android ecosystem is not open to the handset (although as you would expect with the community,there are ways around this if individual users decide to go down this route). Android compatibility is a large part of the early Jolla story, and if you can jump through the right hoops it does work, but I’ll flag up two caveats at the moment. It feels rather slow in operation and you while you can have multiple apps running in the Android sandbox, only the current app in the foreground will show up in the Sailfish OS task manager view.
Again, I need to spend more time with the Android tool to assess the impact of this on Jolla. I do know that launching with it will allow the Jolla team to focus on the core OS, and not fight for developer support for functionality that many would regard as core to the modern smartphone experience such as dedicated Facebook and Twitter app. It’s notable that using these two services as a search term in Jolla’s own app store returns no results.
As promised, the biggest issue with the Jolla handset is this. Even after a day or two of use, the Jolla smartphone does not feel like it has the bullet-proof OS that is needed for a commercial device. The hardware specifications should not be holding back the OS, but there is a notable delay when launching and switching to applications; while notifications do work what happens once you click a notification is inconsistent; and third-party app support is a bit of an adventure.
Jolla is a small company with limited resources. It makes sense that they get their vision out there in a form that is completely under their control. In that sense the Jolla smartphone is already a success. By keeping the initial numbers of the handsets low, and in the hands of enthusiasts and the smartphone hacker community, Jolla the company will be able to rely on many of the early adopters to be help the platform, through feedback, software updates, and general tinkering.
My worry is that the handset will be seen as ‘released’ and ready for the general public – a perception that will be magnified by the availability of the Jolla smartphone through Finnish network provider DNA. There are far too many rough edges for my liking, the handset feels slow, the software has too many moments where there is no visual clue on what to do next, and the overall implementation is one of many good ideas that have still to coalesce into a single coherent system.
The Jolla smartphone rightly reminds me of the rush I experienced when PDAs started to have phone circuitry grafted on to them. Anything seemed possible, and you would find companies with different ideas about what these ‘smartphones’ should look like, what capabilities they would have, and all of them seemed valid viewpoints. Jolla has decided on its own way of doing things, and while it does have commercial realities to deal with (hence the inclusion of support for Android apps), it has stuck to the vision of the founders.
Is that enough to produce a competitive and compelling smartphone for the future? Right now the Jolla smartphone is not that phone, but there is enough promise in this handset that it could become that phone during 2014. I’ll come back to that question in a week or so and let you know what I think.
You can find out more about the Jolla handset and Sailfish OS from www.jolla.com.