Who would have thought that the first Lumia-like device worth buying would be built by someone other than Nokia? The product line, which now includes both high-end and mid-range devices built on two different versions of the Windows Phone operating system, is known for its playful design, solid hardware and build quality, and stubborn commitment to the mobile-operating-system-that-couldn’t. Now, thanks to Jolla, we finally know what a Lumia device freed of Windows Phone might look like.
First, some background: Jolla was founded by a group of ex-Nokia engineers after the dissolution of MeeGo, Nokia’s mobile operating system that was scuttled in favor of the company’s partnership with Microsoft. Sailfish, a gesture-driven, open-source platform, is Jolla’s answer to iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, and perhaps a way to show Nokia that choosing Microsoft over MeeGo was a mistake.
Which brings us to yesterday, when Jolla introduced the first Sailfish-powered device — also dubbed Jolla — and began accepting pre-orders in select European countries. The company claims the Jolla smartphone will be available by the end of 2013 for just 399 euros off-contract. (That’s $513 by today’s exchange rate.)
It would be easy to confuse the Jolla smartphone for a Lumia device. The products look remarkably similar, from their slightly-boxy designs to pastel color options. Jolla’s smartphone has a few standout features, including an accessory that it’s calling “the Other Half” that acts as a combination fashion statement and thumb drive, but otherwise the Jolla smartphone looks like Nokia designed it. And, unlike the Lumia product line, the Jolla smartphone’s hardware isn’t bound by Windows Phone and its oft-decried ecosystem.
Sailfish is trying to jump-start its own ecosystem by being “Android app compliant,” allowing users to bring their favorite apps from the Google Play store over to their new Jolla smartphones. Whether that support will help or hinder Sailfish depends on how well Android applications perform on the operating system; BlackBerry tried something similar with BlackBerry 10 but ended up creating a frustratingly buggy experience. No matter how it works, the Jolla smartphone will probably be the closest we come to an Android-capable Lumia device, and that’s appealing unto itself.
Then there’s Sailfish itself, which promises a new, gesture-driven way of interacting with our devices. Unlike iOS or Android, which we typically control with just a few taps and swipes, Sailfish was designed to offer quick, at-a-gesture access to information, actions, and applications. (Canonical is trying to do something similar with its Ubuntu-for-phones operating system.) Microsoft was also hoping to do this with Windows Phone, which presents information in a series of automatically-updating Live Tiles. But Sailfish has taken it a step further. Windows Phone tells you what has changed on your device without having to enter an application or notification tray; Sailfish wants to help you enact change on your device in the same way.
Jolla is working hard to avoid the same problems as Nokia, which was too late to adapt to the modern smartphone market, has developed hardware for an operating system over which it has no control, and is facing increased pressure from shareholders and pundits alike to change its strategy. Jolla is focusing on emerging markets and China and has been from the start, has developed an operating system and the hardware it’s housed in, and has the benefit of operating without being tried by investors and observers in the court of public opinion. (Or, at least, of doing so without the same scrutiny as Nokia.)
Lumia products is always well-designed and emblematic of Nokia’s hardware prowess. Now we get to watch as a group of ex-Nokia engineers are able to combine that ability with an operating system software and smartphone designed to offer everything that the Lumia doesn’t.