By Taylor Martin | May 21, 2013 7:00 AM
The mobile market has proven to be vicious. Companies we never thought would be struggling are fighting tooth and nail to become relevant again. Some powerhouses of yesteryear were acquired on the cheap. And even Microsoft is struggling to gain any traction with its new and updated mobile platform, Windows Phone.
And while companies that once had a lot of clout, such as Nokia or BlackBerry, are barely thriving off the scraps left over by Google and Apple, it makes one wonder if the efforts of smaller start-ups are in vain.
Jolla is a perfect example of a company many of us are rooting for. But we’d be naive to take the road ahead of the small company as anything other than an unbelievably steep mountain. And simply rooting for a company doesn’t make the climb and less difficult.
That said, Jolla didn’t leave it’s climbing gear at home.
The company started as a direct result of the Nokia-Microsoft partnership that took place in 2011. As Nokia slipped into bed with Microsoft, the future of MeeGo, a joint venture between Intel and Nokia, dissolved. Enter Jolla, a group of former Nokia employees who took the remnants of MeeGo and created Sailfish OS, a Linux-based mobile operating system that strives to be a sufficient alternative and competitor to the two major players, iOS and Android. It utilizes the Qt application framework, and a unique user experience design language referred to as QML.
And the sea of Sailfish demos are promising. The operating system supports buttonless hardware, thanks to a wide array of gesture control. And the operating system itself, top to bottom, is about a fluid, seamless user experience.
It’s a marvel, really. And it was enough to whet our appetites for something – anything – new. Android and iOS are great. Windows Phone is refreshing to use … until you need that one application. And BlackBerry 10 is a promising reboot from the Waterloo-based company. But it’s still a little rough around the edges.
That’s not to say Sailfish won’t be a little rough, too, when it launches later this year. Chances are, it will suffer the very same – if not worse – growing pains BlackBerry 10 is currently dealing with and Windows Phone has been fighting for years.
It’s those very growing pains of two would-be popular platforms that paints a bleak picture for any up-and-coming mobile operating system. The fight for relevancy is no longer about which operating system has the best features or what looks or feels the best in day to day usage. In that department, iOS and Android have a significant lead, and closing the gap will be difficult for any company starting from scratch.
In today’s market, the battle to become the third, noteworthy mobile OS is more about ecosystem than anything else. It’s not about a single products. It’s about a family of services and software that answer to the users’ every last need.
Jolla, like BlackBerry and any other Linux-based mobile OS, will feed off the broad application store available to Android – at least to begin with. And it will have to build out from there; an ecosystem isn’t built overnight.
But Jolla has one large trick up its sleeve, and it has nothing to do with software.
The “other half.”
The accompanying hardware for Sailfish is unique. It bears a faint resemblance to Nokia’s current product lineup and past products, such as the MeeGo-powered Nokia N9. But there’s one major difference. In a stark contrast of the ever-popular unibody style, the Sailfish phone is made of two parts: the main half, or the front, and a swappable, versatile back half.
The obvious question is: What can be done with the “other half”?
In our interview with Jolla co-founder and software head, Marc Dillon, earlier today, Michael asked about the possibility that one of the “other halves” could be a physical keyboard. Dillon’s answer was omissive of any sort of confirmation, and perfectly crafted to pique our interests:
“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.”
In case you hadn’t noticed, the smartphone industry has grown rather stale of late. Practically everything but the basic rectangular device with a giant touchscreen display – a candy bar, if you will – is dead. No more moving parts, no more versatility. Every high-end device is made from an adaptation of the same mold.
This “other half” concept has our minds racing with all sorts of ideas. This is exactly the type of innovation and forward thinking the mobile industry needs.
At the core, the idea really isn’t all that different from the Lumia 820 having a removable back plate that can be replaced with wireless charging capabilities, or with simply another color. But Jolla, at least from what Dillon implied, wants to take that even further and make the back plate more than just a battery door with a near parlor trick.
Jolla wants to make the most undervalued, wasted real estate on a smartphone useful.
To be fair, this isn’t the first time a plug-and-play style phone module concept has come about. Microsoft applied for a patent in February last year for a dual-module phone that had replaceable cartridges for a gaming controller, a physical QWERTY keyboard, a second display, etc.
But what extra function could a simple battery door hold? The speculations run far and wide, but there are a few possibilities that seem far more likely and logical than the rest.
The whole thing could operate as an external extended battery, not unlike how batteries in some old flip phones were actually on the outside of the phone (with a protective cover, of course). And the belief that the other half could be a physical keyboard isn’t too outlandish either. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, possibilities that are pretty obvious.
What if one “other half” is for nothing more than additional storage? You might attach one “other half” when you walk into work for work-related apps and settings, and you pop your personal back cover on when you leave for the day. Or think YotaFone. The back half could be an E Ink display for a handful of use cases.
It could also be used for future-proofing phones with hardware upgrades – more RAM, new Bluetooth standards, NFC or other connectivity that didn’t exist when the phone itself was launched.
It’s this sort of innovation that will push the smartphone market forward. And it’s this sort of innovation that would put Jolla on the map. That is, if larger companies don’t “borrow” Jolla’s ideas.