Starting a new mobile phone company in today’s competitive market could be seen as a suicidal business plan, but a new smartphone announced this week may have some features that make it appealing.
Finland’s Jolla phone emerges from a team of ex-Nokia employees who set up their own company to continue platform development after it was abandoned by Nokia in 2011.
Jolla is offering both a device and a mobile phone software platform. The phone runs the Sailfish operating system, which is derived from the mobile phone platform MeeGo. Large parts of the software have an open source licence and are based on Linux, which suggests an improved reliability and a quicker update cycle.
This sense of openness, so glaringly absent from Apple products, for example, can also be found in the design of the phone. Where Apple likes to lock you in with parts that can’t be replaced, Jolla is offering versatility. The phone has a detachable back plate so that it can be reconfigured with hardware such as battery packs, keyboards, wireless charging devices and gamepads.
Taking on the big boys
The global smartphone market is currently dominated by Apple and Google. Apple controls the premium end, with polished devices and integrated services. The middle market, where cheaper devices from a variety of hardware manufactuers are to be found, is Google’s domain since most of these run on Android.
Coming late to such a market, any company wishing to make its presence felt must be able to offer large numbers of apps to attract users and a viable platform for app development to attract coders. If you want to offer a wide range of apps to your customers, you have to keep developers coming onboard.
As Microsoft learned the hard way, a platform without apps fails to attract users and a platform without users fails to attract developers. Jolla’s solution to this is innovative. Its phone will run existing Android apps and use a pre-existing alternative Android App store. As the operating system is based on Linux, it should be able to run Linux applications and the phone’s default browser will run the new class of web based HTML5 applications. New applications can be built with the freely available open source software development kit.
However, some developers may be reluctant to contribute to a platform where only parts of the architecture are open source, as they dislike closed software with zeal. Jolla may see this as a compromise position that will enable it to maintain control of the software, avoiding the fragmentation issues that cause headaches for Android developers, where differing phones run many differing versions of the OS.
There may also be an issue for users who purchase content through Google’s online services. Using an alternative app store means no access to Google Play, so some DRM protected media may not play, or may need to be sideloaded via a computer. Limiting content in this way may be a turnoff for potential customers.
How the new kid can thrive
Larger manufacturers also have financial advantages that Jolla might struggle to match in the short term. They can guarantee significant order quantities, which drive down manufacturing costs. The Jolla phone is more expensive and less high-spec than many recently announced phones, but subsequent iterations (and an expanding user base) may help the company drive down supply chain costs in the future.
Jolla has signalled a clear aim to win over emerging markets such as China, which is a smart move. A non-American device could be marketed as being immune to PRISM-style monitoring and interference – an appealing offer in these post-NSA times.
After being appointed head of Nokia in 2011, Stephen Elop described the company’s phone operating system as a “burning platform” in a brutal memo to staff. He argued that Nokia had failed to keep up with its rivals and had to drastically change its ways. It will be interesting to see if the ex-Nokia employees prove him wrong and can beat Microsoft’s current 4% market share.