Why Sailfish? A Conversation with Jolla’s CIO, Stefano Mosconi

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You wouldn’t know it based on our recent coverage, but BlackBerry 10 isn’t the only new platform making waves in mobile these days.

In the shadow of the world’s huge tech players, companies with a fraction of the age and mindshare toil away at mobile operating systems unsponsored by the Apples and Googles of the world. Some, like the fledgling Open webOS, are remnants of once-grander initiatives. Others, like Mozilla’s Firefox OS, have their eyes set firmly on the world’s developing markets. Still others, like the Mobile Ubuntu build we checked out at CES, feature awesome software, but distant or nonexistent hardware prospects.

Then there’s Sailfish. The platform started life at Nokia, but after that company’s conversion to its current all-Windows Phone lifestyle, Sailfish came under the purview of a group of Nokia expats who took up the brand name Jolla. Now, the Helsinki-based startup is getting ready to unleash its new platform on the world. Most of us at Pocketnow try to stay impartial, but if this promo video doesn’t get your blood moving, you might be dead inside:

We had a few questions for the company in terms of where it’s been and where it’s headed, and Jolla CIO Stefano Mosconi was good enough to field them for us in a phone interview yesterday morning. Some of my broad insights from this interview can be heard on this week’s edition of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast. Read on for a deeper understanding of this unique mobile platform, and the tactics and attitudes of the company behind it.

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Pocketnow: Sailfish started as MeeGo, but then grew into its own project following Nokia’s change in direction. What was that transition like? 

Stefano Mosconi: We founders of Jolla were about to be phased out of Nokia, and we looked around, and we saw a lot of people that had a lot of ideas and know-how, and we happened to know basically all of them. So what we thought is that ‘it [would be] a shame if all this know-how and all this code which is already out there got left behind, and so we started Jolla, and Sailfish was born.

P: How well has the group maintained its momentum since the split from Nokia? Is it more exciting for you now than it was in the earlier days, or less so?

SM: I would say that it’s even more exciting. When we were working for Nokia, you know – Nokia’s a big company. So you have your shoulders somehow covered. If anything happens, it’s Nokia, it’s a big corporation, it has big muscles … big money, and all this.

But now, we’re our own company. It’s a small startup, still. We have a lot of potential, [but] we know our limits and we don’t pretend to be a 50,000-person company. We have a lot of ideas, and we are fresh. We have a great operating system … So it’s very exciting. We no longer have this big [Nokia] umbrella over our heads. It’s just us, in the middle of the sea.

P: Speaking of Sailfish: there are so many other fledgling entrants in the mobile space today, like Firefox OS, Mobile Ubuntu, Open webOS, and so on. Do you feel a strong compulsion to compete vigorously against these other, smaller platforms?

SM: So, we are coming from the open-source world, and in the open-source world and communities, you don’t compete – you cooperate. So, the fact that all of these other companies and OSes are coming into the market right now, that’s exactly the right sign that the market is ready for this. If we were the only ones, it would mean that we were not entering at the right moment. The market is big enough to accommodate all of us.

The Sailfish OS is compelling, and I think that one of the best things about it is that we don’t only focus on the technology … we are focused on the design of the OS, the UI, and the industrial design [of the hardware] that will be revealed soon. So it’s like this marriage of design and technology that we’re after.

If you look at Ubuntu and Firefox OS -which are extremely good technology propositions- they’re focused on the OS. The UI is nice, and it works well, but in our experience at Nokia, we learned that no device can come to life unless it’s in the hands of the consumer. That experience -how to make products- is what we’ve brought to Jolla: how to deliver a fantastic product into the hands of the consumer. So, I think we’re [all] doing the right thing: entering the market when it’s very stagnant … and we don’t feel any compulsion to compete against these guys, because we don’t need to.

P: How does that non-competitive philosophy translate to bigger platforms? The new BlackBerry 10 OS bears some striking similarities to what used to be MeeGo, and some of the elements that made their way to Sailfish. Do you feel any need to differentiate from them going forward? What are the long-term plans for Sailfish in general?

SM: Well, BlackBerry is an established company and it has its history. Whereas we are a fresh company, a small one with a lot of ideas and a lot of good plans ahead. The similarities between BlackBerry and Sailfish are only in the UI; they’re using QNX and we’re using the Linux kernel. You really need specialized knowledge to make QNX work, whereas there are thousands of people that can work on Linux.

So I don’t know if we should be concerned about BlackBerry – first of all because, as I said, the market is big enough to accommodate all of us. Second of all, I believe we have different targets than BlackBerry. It’s a different strategy. We don’t want to put boundaries or fences around our garden; we would like to have a mash-up of different ecosystems that actually can play together – because they can play together; it’s just a technology decision.

Our plan is a three-phase one: first, we’ll do phones that are Jolla-branded. Then we’ll do co-branded phones – “Sailfish by Jolla.” And then the third wave will be to license the OS to third parties so that they can build on top of the existing open-source project -which we plan to keep open-source- and then we’ll differentiate with the UI.

P: Sailfish is very exciting for technology people, for those who love the idea of a new smartphone platform. But for the mythical “average consumer,” I think the question is going to be, for a lot of people, “Why Sailfish? Why should I choose this platform over another?” Do you have an answer to that yet?

SM: Well, I don’t know the “average consumer” personally, but I think what he or she cares about nowadays is that his or her device does what he or she wants it to do.

So, our focus right now is to simplify the UI, without making it stupid. Let’s look at the two major platforms on the market: iOS and Android. iOS is extremely simple, to the extent that it can be used by anybody, even a three-year-old. That’s extremely good in some ways, but if you’re a bit more sophisticated, I think it starts to show its age. Android has many different UIs and many different propositions, it’s quite a messy UI, and it’s quite complicated to use. It’s very “geeky,” I would say.

There was a study recently that found that users look at their phones 150 times a day. So what we’re trying to do at Jolla is simplify the life of the consumer. You know, if you have to jump to seventeen different taps, and swipes, and pushes to get something done, that’s not a good experience.

So we’re getting away from tapping and going into gestures, which is the most natural way of using the phone. We’re making it easy to change the whole mood of the phone with one action, with Ambiance. We’re doing real multitasking through these dynamic thumbnails you can interact with without entering the application, which reduces the number of steps you have to take. And we’re making as much of the interaction as effortless as possible, with easily-learnable options placed at the top of the screen, and all you need to do is pull down to get to them. You can use them without getting to the phone.

And if you’ve seen any of the demos, you see all these features of Sailfish running on an N950, which is two or three-year-old hardware, but it runs very well. So it’s not only what hardware you have – it’s how you use it as well.

Concept render

P: So you’re trying to get away from the spec race and deliver a good, simple user experience. Can we expect that to be part of the messaging once Sailfish is on the market? Is that where you’re going to be focusing your advertising?

SM: That’s one of the key characteristics of our message, one we’ve been trying to put out there for two years. Everyone might just be noticing Jolla now, but you know, this didn’t happen in one day. We’ve talked to people, consumers, investors, and the message is always the same: it doesn’t matter if you have a quad-core processor if you can only use one core at a time. The Sailfish OS is extremely lean, so we can go from low-end to high-end hardware, and still use all the power that the hardware gives you. That will also be a part of our message.

P: So you are planning on delivering devices at both low and high-end price points, then.

SM: Well we need to start from somewhere. And we can’t do seven devices at the same time, being small. So we’ll start with one device, which we’ll announce soon, and afterward other devices will follow. But technically speaking, yes – we can approach the whole spectrum if we want.

P: And we’ll start seeing that push happen soon.

SM: Well, I think it’s a fact that you don’t have an OS unless you have a device with that OS in the hands of the consumer. We will start to be relevant for consumers only when we ship the first phone.

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We’ll be visiting Jolla at MWC in Barcelona starting next week, so stay tuned to Pocketnow for more Sailfish coverage as the OS approaches its official debut.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!