The temperature outside Nokia’s former Research Center is touching minus thirteen degree. Which is positively balmy for Helsinki at this time of year. I’m in the Finnish capital to meet with Marc Dillon, co-founder and Head of Software at Jolla. Once Microsoft completes the purchase of Nokia’s Devices and Services division, this start-up will be Finland’s leading smartphone manufacturer. Curiously, the only reason the company exists is because of another deal between Microsoft and Nokia in 2011.
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Right now, Jolla has two core products, an own operating system called Sailfish OS and the self-titled Jolla smartphone. It’s been a roller-coaster ride to get to this point, and while the Jolla story is far from over, I wanted to know more about the first three years of Jolla’s journey, the lessons learned, plans for the future, and as part of the process try to find out if Dillon and the rest of the Jolla team can deliver a truly open mobile platform.
Jolla’s story starts with an ending. Anyone following the smartphone world will know the pivotal date of February 11th 2011, when Nokia’s Chief Executive Stephen Elop took to the stage with Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer to announce Nokia would be going ‘all-in’ with Windows Phone for future handsets. The Symbian platform would go through a managed decline, and there would be a transition to Microsoft’s mobile platform. Nokia’s shares dropped 14.2% following that announcement, and their fall and eventual capitulation in the smartphone market will continue to be analyzed for many years to come.
Witnessing that announcement was Marc Dillon. At that time he was working on Meego, Nokia’s Linux-based mobile OS, along with a few thousand engineers, many of them based in the Nokia Research Center in Helsinki (which is now home to Jolla’s Head Office).
“I knew that change was coming, and I was hoping for a flattening and restructuring of the company,” he reminisced. “When I saw the press release that Nokia was moving to Windows Phone, I was sick to my stomach. Megoo was turning into an open-source project, I read that as ‘effectively cancelled’. Something that I had spent the last six years of my life in, with many of the most talented professionals in the world, were now left without a home.”
Nokia allowed the Meego team to finish and ship the Nokia N9 based on a mix of Harmatten and Meego. “It felt like the end of the road,but at least we had a finish line, which was get the N9 out.”
On its launch the Linux powered smartphone received critical and public acclaim, including the Design and Art Direction’s ‘Interactive Product Design” award (beating both Nokia’s first Windows Phone, the Lumia 800, and Apple’s iPad 2). Elop had made it clear that there would be no more Meego devices from Nokia – the N9 was the first, and the last. At least from Nokia.
The Finnish company was shedding staff, but providing career advice, bridging loans to employees looking to start up new businesses when they left the company, and as much support as they could offer. “We didn’t feel we would be blocked from taking this open source Meego asset which had been invested in heavily by Nokia and Intel. With the people and experience around us, we realized that ‘gosh we could make new products’.
“Late July 2011, on a typically Finnish holiday, I took a call while on a beach in Greece, and I knew then that we were really going to do this. Not only was it going forward, but I was committed to it. When I returned, the old team started to get together to talk about the how.”
Part of that involved Dillon putting together the new company’s organization. ” I put together a completely flat organization, we would never hire people that had to be told what to do, we would make sure the people we hire were the best talent in the world and share our vision, and that they wanted to do this for what it is, not for monetary return but with a company built up around intrinsic rewards.
“ We also put together an iterative development process. We get the whole company together once a month to see what the company as a whole has done, and what needs done. We do some pre-planning so we can turn up on each Iteration Day to show a solid plan with most of the dependencies resolved and spend the day making sure the whole company is synchronized.”
“Our business plan showed that we would try to make a product in a very short time, this would be in Q1 2012 as the first people were being released from Nokia. We were targeting a product within that first year.”
As a small company, any partner discussions stalled because of the size differential between Jolla and these larger companies. Results were needed as quickly as possible, so the development Meego devices were pressed into service to showcase Jolla to the world. That product was their new operating system, Sailfish OS.
“We took elements from all over the mobile space and our own creativity. We focused on a clean and easy-to-use experience, but with a powerful interface utilizing the multi-tasking in our heritage. Our platform had to scale for screen sizes, specifications, and form factors. As the N9 started to ramp down in Summer 2012, we decided to stand up and say that ‘Meego was not dead’, which saw us invited to a number of stages and events.”
These included Slush 2012, where Sailfish OS made its public début to the world’s press. The whole company took to the stage (Dillion believes this to be around 60 staff). Writing for The Next Web, Jamillah Knowles sums up the presentation:
Frankly the company’s presentation at the event was a perfect pitch. News, charisma and a theme that everyone should work together in an open and transparent manner is exactly what an audience like the one at Slush likes to hear. So it’s no wonder that Jolla and its activities were practically a theme for the conference.
Next up was their own hardware running Sailfish OS. When an initial agreement with ST Ericsson fell through, Jolla’s RFP found a new Taiwanese partner to integrate Jolla’s design and they made a six month plan to release their own hardware. Six months and one week later… the Jolla smartphone was available to buy though Finnish carrier DNA.
How did it feel to miss by one week? “Absolutely miraculous,” Dillon smiles. “I’ve been in this career for almost 23 years, and over the course of my career there were many schedule driven products, and this is the tightest ship I have ever been in. A lot of it had to do with the company architecture keeping things in a good state. We were continually agile, always looking very intensely at the next six months. This monthly process of iterating creates internal pressure within each team. If you do that, and then stay out of their way for a month, that team will do whatever it takes to meet their own target.”
“The intention has been to create something that is powerful, but easy enough to use. We did realize that there is a learning curve to the device, and we have to react to that. Like riding a bicycle, you don’t get Sailfish OS for free the first time. You might fall off, but once you learn how to ride, you can get places much faster than if you were walking along.
“We aim for a high-end experience without high-end hardware. We had a concern that we might not get enough users of a brand new platform. After all, the last new handset to get significant market share was five years ago, which was the iPhone.”
“We’re continuing to take feedback from the users, and tailor our software releases and development to that. We’ve made their issues the hottest items, along with the backlog of things we know we need to do. It was important that we continue to deliver value to those who have invested with us. We needed to make sure that the early adopters understand that things may be missing.”
While Dillon isn’t ready to give out any sales numbers yet, he is proud of a “miraculously low return rate” and he takes this as a good sign that Jolla has reached the best market possible to help it grow.
I wanted to discuss the application question here. With the three leading mobile platforms (Android, iOS, and Windows Phone) all having app stores with hundreds of thousands of apps and games available, how can a new platform such as Sailfish OS hope to compete? Dillon believes in ‘the internet’ and a web-based approach, “but I understand the utility of having applications. But they contribute to a tunnel vision of what a smartphone can do. They provide a good user experience, but poor integration. A smartphone is smart if it helps users day to day.
“Jolla is moving towards more integration across apps and services. Look at how Sailfish OS handles multi-tasking, every app open showing a smaller window on the home screen, showing reminders, information, and updates. As we go forward there will be more personalization and more context added to this.”
Jolla handset owners are not left out in the cold. Through the AlienDalvik code, Sailfish OS can run Android applications. Users downloading the Android Support app from the Jolla app store will be able to run their favorite Android apps on the handset. Although the Google Play store is not officially supported, the Yandex store is provided by default, and options such as Amazon’s Android Store are easily installed.
As with every mobile company in the run up to Mobile World Congress, Dillon wasn’t giving much away in terms of announcements, but news from Jolla in the last two weeks show a company that is moving forwards. The announcement of ‘The Other Half’ SDK and two new smart covers at the start of February, along with the monthly update to the Sailfish OS, gives confidence to the Jolla community, to those looking to buy the handset, and to partners who are looking for an ongoing commitment to improve the platform.
Through grit and determination, along with a pragmatic and open attitude, Jolla has brought a handset and a new operating system to market in an exceptionally short space of time. It might not be at the polished levels of Android, iOS, or Windows Phone yet, but it has staked a claim to be part of any discussions about smartphones in 2014 and beyond.