Two weeks ago, Jolla unveiled Sailfish

Two weeks ago, as I was busy finding out in Vegas that double-shot frozen cocktails are a really stupid idea, a small Finnish startup unveiled their mobile operating system: Jolla unveiled Sailfish. With a strong focus on the Chinese market, the company is aiming to offer serious competition to Android’s dominance of the smartphone market.

Most of us will be aware of the story behind Jolla by now. The company has been founded, and is mostly staffed by, former Nokia employees, from the Maemo and MeeGo teams. While the company is not a subsidiary in any form and doesn’t have any of the rights to any Nokia products, it’s easiest to think of Jolla as a continuation of the team behind open source Maemo products like the N900.

So, unlike, say, Android, we’re looking at a more classical open source product. While Android in and of itself is open source, many of its important components, like the Google applications, as well as its services, such as the Play Store, are not. Through licensing these applications and services, Google maintains a considerable amount of control over the Android experience.

Jolla won’t have any of that for Sailfish. It’s open, anybody can contribute code, anybody can use it, everyone can modify it, and there will be no requirements about what phone makers can and cannot include. Development will be out in the open – unlike Android, which is developed behind closed doors. The Sailfish Alliance, consisting of various hardware and software companies, will make it possible for companies to influence the development of Sailfish.

Sailfish’ user interface is quite different from the competition, and seems built around its multitasking capabilities. We’re not talking the kind of My First Multitasking other mobile operating systems offer, but the real deal. Running applications are represented by miniatures on the home screen, and can be interacted with without actually opening them.

The entire user interface seems to be designed for input with one hand, which is a great boon compared to the competition. The downside to this is that the interface looks very gesture-heavy, and not all of them seem to be particularly discoverable. Interacting with the application tiles seems a bit finicky to me, and the algorithms that detect whether a swipe is meant for the entire UI or just the tile are going to be pretty crucial.

Other than demonstrating the UI for the first time, Jolla also detailed the Sailfish SDK. “Sailfish is a real opportunity for developers to participate in and build solutions with existing open source projects such as Qt, Mer Core, and the Linux kernel,” the press release details, “The new OS will be built through community involvement and participation. The Sailfish SDK consists of Mer Core’s tools, Qt Creator, Jolla UI components, Sailfish UI framework and Sailfish handset application interfaces.”

The SDK is not yet available for download; they’re still working on it, and it should be available in the first quarter of 2013.

There’s a lot of enthusiasm around Jolla and Sailfish, spurred on by headlines about it being the first alternative to iOS and Android. Personally, while I certainly hope Jolla and Sailfish manage to offer a compelling, truly open alternative to the established players, my considerable experience with the alternative operating system scene has made me very sceptical. I’ve seen too many superior and/or cheaper operating systems fail to have too many high hopes for Sailfish to magically succeed where several others have already failed or are in the process of failing.

Call me jaded – really, call me jaded, because I am – but I have a hard time believing it will make the kind of dent in the market some are hoping for. I’d love for it to happen, don’t get me wrong, but I’m afraid it’s just a little too late.


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