Jolla: The market wants an alternative to iOS and Android

Right now, the mobile wars have just two major combatants: Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Nokia could yet make Windows Phone a serious third player, but there are also a few more minor actors with the potential to disrupt the market.

Jolla is the most mysterious of those players, which also include Firefox OS and Open WebOS. Jolla (a Finnish word for a small sailing boat) arose from the ashes of Nokia and Intel’s MeeGo project, canned in favour of Microsoft’s mobile OS. The Linux-based OS has not been shown off yet, but Jolla has already scored a deal with China’s top phone distributor, DPhone.

The first Jolla device is due later this year, so to find out more I spoke with the company’s chief executive, ex-Nokian Jussi Hurmola.

Meyer: So when’s that phone coming and what will it look like?
We’re going to announce the smartphone later this year. When we announce it, we’ll also say when you can buy it. We’re setting up an ecosystem. You can’t do a smartphone without supporting developers, services, navigation — we are setting all that up.

Nokia’s only MeeGo handset to go on general sale, the N9
It’s MeeGo with our own interface, and nice new features and functionality. We can talk about these when we come out with the product, but we want to get away from that [standard user experience of] opening and closing applications. That is a five-year-old design pattern and user experience. We want to go further. They’re pretty individualistic machines these days, smartphones. We want to be the phone that handles messaging, calendars and so on in an inclusive way, so you can have concepts like the family in the device.

We’re also talking about using the MeeGo software in other devices — not just Jolla. We want to make as big a wave as possible.

So you’re going to produce other devices that don’t use the Jolla name?
We’re open to cobranding. On the software part, we’re working with other businesses to bring non-Jolla devices, MeeGo-based devices. I can’t say with whom at the moment. For example – and we’re not saying this is what will happen – ‘Vodafone powered by Jolla’, or ‘Jolla by Louis Vuitton’, or some internet service powered by Jolla. It’s a bit dangerous to talk about it. It’s not information I can disclose now.

Fragmentation is a big issue with Android’s different form factors. How are you going to avoid the same problem?
One interesting thing about MeeGo is it supported multiple categories of devices, from car dashboards to smartphones and laptops. We feel that’s important for us, and we’ve been playing with our UI in different devices from TVs to featurephones, and are trying to make the framework and UI components scalable. We can enable physical variation while making it easy for developers to write Qt QML native apps. We understand developers need a stable platform and the smartphone will represent the default form of Jolla’s MeeGo-based platform.

But why would an operator choose to work with you?
From a technical point of view we can integrate the operator’s value-added services into the device, so they don’t have to be an over-the-top application. So many operator-service apps are lost, as people don’t find them or use them. With an open and independent platform, we can integrate these value-added services into the functionality of the device itself.

From an ecosystem point of view, we offer an alternative. Services are not bound to the platform. Let’s say there’s a big music or video label that usually has to go through branded front-ends: with Jolla and its Meego-based ecosystem they can connect to the customer with their own brand. At the moment we are so small and agile that we can integrate and develop new features really quickly. We will launch a very interesting device with a very cool brand and quality.

Nokia Lumia 920 smartphones
Nokia ditched MeeGo in favour of Windows Phone
Which markets will you launch in?
Obviously China is a very large and fast-growing smartphone market, and also a country where most new manufacturers and players are emerging. We are a global business, and we will be targeting devices for Europe and also making them globally available. But how quickly we can ramp to all regions? Obviously with our size as a company, suddenly pressing out 10 million devices would be a bit of a big investment, so we are scaling up region by region.

How big a part will cloud services play in Jolla?
Cloud is part of everything. All functionality is basically extended by the cloud, but if you’re talking about moving apps and functionality of the device to the cloud, we still need to wait for LTE [to spread] and different pricing of roaming data.

It feels in a way like MeeGo’s story has similarities with that of WebOS, which was ditched by HP then open-sourced. Is that fair? Is there scope for some dovetailing of the two projects?
WebOS is an interesting case; it did something new. They had a pretty interesting take on applications, web and multitasking, and we want to learn from that. In terms of compatibility with WebOS, I don’t know — let’s see if something happens with WebOS. There are other things like Tizen and [Mozilla’s] Boot 2 Gecko, and KDE. We as an emerging ecosystem are all about cross-platform and compatibility. We want to build an independent and inclusive ecosystem.

The mobile market feels like a two-horse race right now. Really, how are you going to break into that?
These kinds of markets are always two-horse races. The horses just change — look at RIM and Palm; these things come and go. Even product categories come and go, such as netbooks. This market is changing at amazing speed. The technology is evolving.

Now the entry to the market is lower than ever before. One thing we want to do with this MeeGo-based ecosystem is we want to be an enabler. There’s lots of pull from the market to have an alternative. iOS and even Android are quite protected and bound to a single business. You can use Android, you cannot lead it — which is a reason why we didn’t use Android. We wanted to do something new and couldn’t do it with Android.

We’re in a good position starting with MeeGo. MeeGo was big before it was discontinued. Almost wherever we go around the world, the [developer] response is: ‘We actually have this running on MeeGo already. We did it a year ago but didn’t bring it to market.’ Cross-platform is what we have to use: HTML5, things like Marmalade, and being compatible with different elements.

HTML5 on mobile has been a somewhat contentious issue recently. What’s its role in your view?
We would love HTML5 to succeed fast, because it would mean our MeeGo-based ecosystem would be compatible with everything out there. But, at the moment, I think there are interests against that. It would again take away the control point from the existing platforms if suddenly everything were compatible.

Are those interests working against it within the HTML5 Working Group? I mean, Google and Apple are in there…
I hope the Working Group people are honestly trying to make it work. But looking at the implementations, there are so many APIs and different versions of different APIs. It looks like there are reasons to do it like that, but it’s difficult to speculate. The standardisation of HTML5 has been slower than it should really be.