“We are offering something brand new.” An interview with Jolla co-founder Marc Dillon
Interview by Michael Fisher
Transcription and text by Jaime Rivera
We’ve seen platforms come and go in the last couple of years, many from very prominent companies. Whether you’ve witnessed the death of webOS at the hands of Palm and HP, or the struggles that companies like Nokia, Microsoft and BlackBerry are having lately in order to compete with Android and iOS, the battle for third place is a tough one. One might even say that there are really no points for third place in this market – but Jolla thinks differently.
Putting Jolla against every other company currently in the running for the best underdog makes little sense: they have almost nothing in common. Jolla doesn’t carry any of the baggage that these larger companies still hold in terms of legacy support, and as a smaller outfit, it’s also much more nimble – at least in theory. Jolla is a start-up, and as we’ve seen in the success stories of many software start-ups like Dropbox or Instagram, or some hardware start-ups like Pebble, there is room to grow and succeed – if you’re versatile enough.
Before Jolla officially announced its new smartphone today, we had a chance to sit down and chat with co-founder and software head Marc Dillon about what the company hopes to achieve -and avoid- on its long road to launch, and why it thinks you should consider buying a Jolla smartphone of your very own.
Pocketnow: We’ve seen other small outfits suffer when they announce a product months before its actual release. You guys are planning on a Q4 release. Besides pre-order specials and the like, do you have any other plans to keep people interested and engaged during the run-up to launch?
Marc Dillon: We wanted to come out as soon as was possible and as soon as it made sense, just basically to show that we had really done it now. We’d been in the R&D phase for quite a long time, basically since the company started. We had our start-up phase, business plans, figured out the financing and we’ve been in R&D since, and we’ve got a product now, and we’re getting ready to deliver it to you. I’ve been a part of both kind of launches where the product that’s launching is immediately available, or others where it takes months, and we really wanted to show what we’ve got. I think people understand that making software is difficult, making hardware is very difficult, and making a consumer product where both are new is something that we’ve been doing our whole lives. we understand a lot about it, and we wanted to just come out and show what we’ve got.
As far as keeping things going between now and sales-start, we’re going to continue to be ourselves by showing the progress as we go along. I think that’s what’s keeping people interested, the fact that we’re continuing to show what we’ve got and what we’re doing.
P: I know that in the future what you’re hoping for is that developers will begin to build a lot of Sailfish apps, but what’s the story on the SDK since its launch at MWC?
MD: Since MWC we’ve done some updates and some releases, and it continues to evolve and get better. If you remember, we actually got the first application submitted just 29 minutes after we released the SDK, and we’ve received a steady stream ever since.
P: Obviously the hope is that enough Sailfish apps will come along later on to satisfy app demand, but in the meantime, Android apps will definitely be needed for gap-filling. How will customers download them?
MD: I wish you were here! What we’ve done is, we’ve integrated the app store and the user experience, and it takes applications from multiple streams. For example, in China you have very fragmented app providers where people can side-load things from diverse websites, so what we’ve done is, at the bottom of our launcher you can see the option to download apps, which is basically integrated into the user experience.
Speaking of China, there is a lot of development going on there that’s very promising for our new platform.
P: Speaking of platforms: near as I can tell, the term “estrade” means platform, or bed. How does that word describe the 4.5-inch display, and can you tell us anything about its resolution or technology?
MD: That’s a good question. “Estrada” is actually our own term. It’s basically this combination of the user experience. We have this long and vertical experience that’s very easy to access where you have your lock screen at the top, which shows you notifications, you scroll down a bit and you get your applications, then you scroll down a bit and you have your home screen with your multi-tasking capabilities. Scroll a bit more and you have applications, and at the bottom of that you have your applications store. The Estrade display is this combination and we’ve made it one part of your user experience, as a vertical, that allows you to access different kinds of things very quickly.
P: Can you share any additional information on the physical properties of the display? Is it AMOLED or Super LCD, for example?
MD: We’re leaving some of those details out because we do understand that there are a lot of really big players in the market and they tend to take certain components in the market and dominate them. We created the ability to actually be able to run Sailfish on multiple hardware displays and be able to swap components, so this is part of the demand and supply planning phase. We are committed to this industrial design which is a 4.5-inch display, an 8 megapixel camera on the back and a front-facing camera at the front, and the exact specs of the display we’ll provide when we’re close to delivery.
P: Can you share any of the other physical dimensions of the device?
MD: Well, it’s thin and light! We’ve been putting it into people’s hands today; again, I wish you were here!
P: Same here!
MD: We’re not officially putting down grams or millimeters yet. It’s been in our plans for a very long time to be able to extend the device and there are lots of different opportunities here, so I’ll list a few that have come up frequently. The very basic idea is that you want to use your phone during the day in order to blend into your daily office environment and at night you want something that’s a little bit flashier. By changing the other half of the device you’re not only changing the outside but there’s an interface to that other half as well, so it can update the software instantly so that the ambiance changes. You could snap on a green cover and it sets up a green ambiance that also matches some green photos you might have.
This then leads into content: let’s say that your favorite artist makes a limited-edition Jolla other-half and you snap it onto your Jolla device. The display shows that you’re a fan or supporter of this artist and people can see that. You could also get links to their new album, or also special parts of their website, videos or other content simply by snapping a new cover on the device.
Then you come to even more complex options as well. The most interesting thing to me personally is that with other products you have ways to extend them by plugging things in, where as with Jolla devices you may snap on a cover that adds other functionality. For example, if you’re going to a club you might want to snap on a back that has a big flash and maybe a big camera button or something. You might also want additional battery capacity, and you may also use a cover with at thin battery to bring that functionality. The sky is the limit and we’re open for collaboration and ideas here, and these interfaces and features will be open to third parties to allow them to create other apps and features for Jolla.
P: I’m sure you’re aware that one of the biggest other-half possibilities we’ve heard, on Twitter and in comments, is one that supports a physical QWERTY keyboard. Is that a possibility?
MD: I have a big smile on my face! The sky is the limit, and the imagination is the limit for what can be done with the other-half.
P: That speaks to the entire kind of brand push for Jolla, right? Community involvement and collaboration instead of standing alone to create something new.
MD: That’s exactly right. We did this by working together. The whole idea has been of working in collaboration. We’re completely open to doing things with lots of different kinds of communities in order to create new functions, new abilities and new other halves for the device. Of course the community has been supporting our development the whole time.
P: I know it’s hard to get specifics right now, but are there any US carrier partnerships yet? Any support for North American LTE bands?
MD: The device being released is fully capable of LTE, and that’s how the software is configured to support it. We are starting with the China and Europe markets, since China is the place is where a lot of these ideas have started, there is a lot of innovation and new business, and then, once things start rolling, we’ll continue our process of exploring and developing new markets. We’ll have to see how it goes.
P: Two more. I know Jolla has been growing significantly. You’ve even seen some growth since we last spoke at MWC, and sometimes rapid growth can be dangerous for a small company’s focus. How’s the culture at Jolla these days? How’s the energy? The attitude?
MD: The culture has definitely been stable. This is a dynamic company, but the ways of working have been similar since the very beginning. It’s all about people; it’s all about passion; and it comes down to finding exceptional people with a talent in a specific area. You don’t hire people just for the sake of hiring people, and with exceptional people and specific talents, this is a way that growth has been controlled. We chase people by a specific competence that is needed at that moment. Then also, we look for people that we really want to work with on a daily basis. So you have to be very picky since you can find exceptional engineers, but if you find one that actually loves what you’re doing, that one will actually shine. Most importantly, you want people that share the vision of who you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. An example is that in September of last year we doubled our engineering staff, and even though it did create a culture shock at the beginning, everything returned to the way it was closely after.
This year, most of the work is about this demand and supply and the delivery phase. We’ve done the R&D, we’ve got a product on our hands, we’ve got an operating system, we’ve got something that we can really show, and now we need to get ready to deliver it, and that takes another set of competences and people.
P: When a new device on a new platform is announced, it’s often very easy to get bogged down in the details and forget the “why.” If you could, remind us again about the “why” behind Jolla. As a customer, why should I consider pre-ordering one?
MD: We are offering something that is brand new. The only choices available right now are five-year-old user experiences that have resulted in walled and controlled gardens, there’s not really any innovation, there’s not any new user experiences. Somebody once said that we already have two ecosystems, and why do we need three or four or five, and choice is good for consumers, and choice drives innovation.
Because of who we are and where we came from, we understand how to make products. By creating an environment that allowed people to really innovate and create new things, we’ve created a new way of working that’s simple and very powerful; we’ve created something that’s really fantastic to hold and use. If you’re happy with the device in your pocket, then that’s good for you … but I believe that an awful lot of people are looking for something new because there’s not anything that’s giving them any passion or any reason to really want to use their device or do something new. It’s a perfect time to come out a fantastic device, and I have a fantastic device here in my hand.
There’s more to come from Jolla and their new Sailfish OS, so stay tuned as we continue to uncover new innovations from their event happening right now.