Image: Chris Kindred/Motherboard

The Last Independent Mobile OS

Alternative mobile operating systems have come and gone over the years, but only Sailfish has survived the iOS and Android duopoly.

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Dec 13 2018, 4:00pm

Image: Chris Kindred/Motherboard

The year was 2010 and the future of mobile computing was looking bright. The iPhone was barely three years old, Google’s Android had yet to swallow the smartphone market whole, and half a dozen alternative mobile operating systems—many of which were devoutly open source—were preparing for launch. Eight years on, you probably haven’t even heard of most of these alternative mobile operating systems, much less use them. Today, Android and iOS dominate the global smartphone market and account for 99.9 percent of mobile operating systems. Even Microsoft and Blackberry, longtime players in the mobile space with massive revenue streams, have all but left the space.

Then there’s Jolla, the small Finnish tech company behind Sailfish OS, which it bills as the “last independent alternative mobile operating system.” Jolla has had to walk itself back from the edge of destruction several times over the course of its seven year existence, and each time it has emerged battered, but more determined than ever to carve out a spot in the world for a truly independent, open source mobile operating system.

After years of failed product launches, lackluster user growth, and supply chain fiascoes, it’s only been in the last few months that things finally seem to be turning to Jolla’s favor. Over the past two years the company has rode the wave of anti-Google sentiment outside the US and inked deals with large foreign companies that want to turn Sailfish into a household name. Despite the recent success, Jolla is far from being a major player in the mobile market. And yet it also still exists, which is more than can be said of every other would-be alternative mobile OS company.

OPEN SOURCE BLUES

The first “alternative”—that is, non-Android and non-iOS—smartphone operating system was Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7, which was announced at the Mobile World Congress in February 2010 and released later that year on HTC, Dell, Samsung, and LG phones. That same year, Nokia and Intel announced the open source MeeGo operating system, while Nokia’s acquisition of Symbian, which had dominated the mobile OS market only a few years earlier, was left to wither. In 2011, Mozilla unveiled its “Boot to Gecko” program, which would later form the basis of its open source Firefox OS. Meanwhile, the Linux-based company Canonical announced its plan to create an Ubuntu Phone based on the eponymous Linux operating system for desktops. After Nokia ditched MeeGo in 2011 to partner with Microsoft, Intel joined forces with Samsung, which had been working on its own Linux-based mobile OS called Tizen for the past year.

By the end of 2011, many of the biggest names in tech had entered the ring in a bid to dominate the smartphone OS market. But instead of a corporate battle royale, all consumers got was a series of increasingly high profile capitulations.

When Google rolled out Android in 2007, none of the handful of existing companies working on mobile operating systems (namely Microsoft, Nokia, and Symbian) thought much about it. “We don’t see this as a threat,” a Nokia spokesperson told Engadget that year. Scott Horn, who worked on Microsoft’s Windows Mobile team at the time, echoed the sentiment: “I don’t understand the impact that they are going to have.”

In retrospect, it’s hard to believe how naive these companies were. Nowadays, Android powers nearly 86 percent of the global smartphone market and iOS accounts for the remainder. Meanwhile, Firefox killed its OS after two years because it wasn’t “able to offer the best user experience possible,” and MeeGo never even made it off the ground. In 2017, Canonical announced it was ending the Ubuntu phone due to lack of interest. Shortly thereafter, Microsoft announced it was ceasing development for Windows Phones and wouldn’t issue updates after 2019. Tizen is still around, but is only available on four Samsung phones and, as Motherboard reported last year, its source code was riddled with 40 zero-day vulnerabilities, which further limited its adoption.

Read More: Samsung’s Tizen is a Hacker’s Dream

If the dream of a robust and open mobile OS ecosystem isn’t dead, it’s definitely on life support. According to a 2017 Gartner survey, just over 1 million non-Android or non-iOS phones were sold globally, down from around 10 million in 2016. But the rapidly fading alternative smartphone market hasn’t fazed Jolla. If anything, the Finnish firm has doubled down on its conviction that the world needs an independent mobile OS. And it wants to be the one to provide it.

BURNING PLATFORMS

Jolla’s Sailfish OS rose from the ashes of Nokia and Intel’s ill-fated collaboration, MeeGo. The MeeGo project launched in 2010 in an attempt to merge Intel’s Linux-based Moblin OS and Nokia’s Maemo software platform into a single open-source mobile operating system that could take on Google.

By 2011, Android had already surpassed Nokia in the smartphone market, a fact that wasn’t lost on Nokia’s CEO Stephen Elop, who in a memo described the company as standing on a “burning platform.” Elop realized that Nokia’s Symbian, which dominated the cell phone market in the early 2000s, couldn’t keep up with the new requirements on touch screen smartphones. Instead, the company pinned its hopes on MeeGo. But even this was a long shot.

“We thought MeeGo would be a platform for winning high-end smartphones,” Elop wrote in the now-infamous Nokia memo. “However, at this rate, by the end of 2011, we might have only one MeeGo product in the market. We have some brilliant sources of innovation inside Nokia, but we are not bringing it to market fast enough."

Elop’s demoralizing, brutally honest memo would turn out to be prophetic. Nokia only ever released one phone running MeeGo: the Nokia N9, which ended up being well received despite its limited release. But it was too little, too late. By 2011, Nokia was bleeding talent and it was clear that MeeGo wasn’t going to keep the company competitive in the rapidly changing smartphone market. In a last-ditch effort, Nokia struck a partnership with Microsoft to provide the hardware for its next generation of Windows Phones, abandoning MeeGo entirely.

The same couldn’t be said for those developers who had worked on MeeGo and, before that, an open source mobile OS called Mer, based on Intel’s Maemo system. In October 2011, three developers that had worked on Mer sent a message on a mailing list calling for the creation of a “MeeGo 2.0.” At the same time, developer Sami Pienimäki and two others left Nokia to found their own company, which would use this new version of MeeGo as the basis for an open source mobile OS. And thus, Sailfish was born. In a cheeky homage to the “burning platform” memo, Pienimäki and his fellow defectors decided to name their company Jolla, a Finnish word connoting a small boat or life raft.

ROUGH WATERS

In the beginning, things were looking up for Jolla. The company went public in 2012 and launched its flagship product, a Jolla-branded smartphone running Sailfish, the following year. Taking a page out of Apple’s book, Jolla sought to integrate software and hardware development into one entirely independent product, tying its brand identity largely to the uniqueness of the hardware.

Immediately noticeable was that Jolla had ditched the ubiquitous rounded corners found on most smartphones and opted for hard corners. But as far as the company was concerned, a greater innovation marked the device’s backside. Jolla hoped to establish brand partnerships to create custom back casings for the phone that would also provide unique hardware integration, such as special OS colors, when put on the phone.

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The Jolla smartphone. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Jolla’s developer community came up with a number of innovative ideas for how to create hardware for the back of the phone, such as a solar panel or a keyboard. The company did also ink a partnership with Rovio, the game company behind Angry Birds, for a custom case, but otherwise, only a few of these brand partnerships ever materialized. Even though this “Other Half” concept for customizable phone panels didn’t really take off, it also didn’t dampen consumer enthusiasm for Jolla’s phone. The phone received a lukewarm reception in the gadget blogosphere, but preorders for the first batch of phones sold out within a month and a half of its unveiling. The device, which sold for a little over $500 US, was initially limited to European customers, but by the following year Jolla had cut deals with Chinese and Russian carriers to expand the phone’s penetration abroad. By 2014, Jolla had sold “tens of thousands” of the devices, according to Pienimäki, but the exact sales figures have never been made public.

That same year, Jolla announced the “world’s first crowdsourced tablet” that would run Sailfish and was developed with significant contributions from a global community of developers working on Mer and Sailfish. To fund the tablet, Jolla created an Indiegogo campaign with the hopes of raising $380,000. A month later, however, Jolla was sitting on top of over $2.5 million raised from over 20,000 backers, nearly half of which came through the crowdfunding campaign’s first 24 hours.

There was clearly a demand for an affordable, alternative tablet, but Sailfish was ultimately unable to fill it. Originally slated for release in May 2015, the tablet was delayed several times and the first few hundred devices began to ship that autumn.

A few months before the first tablets were delivered, Jolla announced it was spinning off its hardware division into a separate company so it could focus on developing the Sailfish operating system, but pledged to continue developing its tablet. But by November, Jolla’s luck had run out. The company began filing for debt restructuring, which is a form of bankruptcy protection in Finland. It looked like the lifeboat was beginning to sink.

The ill-fated Jolla tablet. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The ill-fated Jolla tablet. Image: Wikimedia Commons

There was clearly a demand for an affordable, alternative tablet, but Sailfish was ultimately unable to fill it. Originally slated for release in May 2015, the tablet was delayed several times and the first few hundred devices began to ship that autumn.

A few months before the first tablets were delivered, Jolla announced it was spinning off its hardware division into a separate company so it could focus on developing the Sailfish operating system, but pledged to continue developing its tablet. But by November, Jolla’s luck had run out. The company began filing for debt restructuring, which is a form of bankruptcy protection in Finland. It looked like the lifeboat was beginning to sink.

Despite Jolla’s financial troubles, there was hope in the Sailfish developer community that the OS might live on as an open-source project. Jolla, for its part, continued to promise that it would deliver on its tablets, but by December, Jolla’s Chinese manufacturer informed the company it would not be able to supply it with the necessary parts for the tablet.

By the end of 2015, Jolla’s tablet was dead, the company was verging on bankruptcy, and Pienimäki was preparing to lay off many of Jolla’s roughly 100 employees. Although Jolla was still courting investors and had a few promising leads, nothing had worked out so far. Meanwhile, Jolla was quickly burning through its remaining investor cash and trying to placate its crowdfunding backers who were clamoring for a refund on the tablets that never materialized.

Read More: Why I’m Not Using Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, or Microsoft for a Month

At the time of writing, three years after the tablet crowdfunding campaign closed, many backers have yet to get their money back.

“We’re almost all waiting,” Jose Bernando Rodrigues commented on the tablet’s crowdfunding page in April. “If we’re lucky, we’ll get the refund someday, [but] it seems like the odds are even less than winning the lotto.” Others expressed similar concerns, claiming that Jolla hasn’t provided them with updates about the refund and citing abuse from “fanboys” when they question the company’s practice on its forums. A Jolla spokesperson told me that 50 percent of funds were returned to donors by 2016 and that since then, “Jolla has continued performing refunds when the company’s financial situation permits.”

That there is any company around to distribute reimbursements at all is nothing short of a miracle. Just as Jolla began laying off employees and preparing for bankruptcy, Pienimäki managed to secure $12 million in Series C funding from a group of Finnish investors, who appeared to care more about keeping Jolla’s ambitious project afloat than seeing profits anytime in the near future. Nevertheless, Pienimäki knew that if Jolla was going to survive, it’d have to drastically change its business model.

FROM RUSSIA, WITH SAILFISH

After its Chinese manufacturer pulled out of its supply deal, Jolla gave up any pretensions to ever being able to produce enough tablets to supply its crowdfunders, effectively marking the end of the company’s hardware ambitions. Instead, Jolla fully embraced Sailfish OS as its primary product. The question was, where could a small company sell an open source operating system in a mobile marketplace dominated by Google and Apple, two of the largest corporations to have ever existed?

The answer, it turned out, was China and Russia, both of which were hungry for a secure alternative to Google-based systems. Competing with Android in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) markets had always been a goal for Jolla, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it began to make progress. Although the company inked a deal with a large Indian carrier in 2014, its biggest successes have been in Russia and China, only not as a consumer platform. Instead, Jolla found its greatest demand coming from the Russian and Chinese government and enterprise sectors, and began aggressively pursuing these valuable contracts.

Moscow in particular has taken an increasingly hardline position against Google’s creeping influence in the country in recent years. In 2015, Nikolay Nikiforov, the Russian Minister of Communications and Mass Communications, tweeted support for the “de-monopolization of the global IT ecosystem” and announced Russia’s intention to provide grants to developers to move apps from Android to open source platforms like Sailfish. Shortly thereafter, an antitrust case was brought against Google by Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service. Last year, this case was settled against Google to the tune of $6.8 million and required the search giant to allow its competitors to pre-install apps on Android phones in the country.

It seemed like a golden opportunity for Sailfish, which had its eye on Russian markets from the beginning. In 2016, the company got its break when it was selected as the only OS authorized for upcoming mobile device projects undertaken by the Russian government and state controlled corporations. Shortly thereafter, the Russian company Open Mobile Platform unveiled the first Sailfish-powered Russian smartphone, touting the project as “completely Google free!”

Around the same time, Sailfish was also making moves in China. In early 2017, the company announced it had closed a deal with an anonymous Chinese consortium that would invest $250 million in developing Sailfish for the country. It may soon have some stiff competition in the Chinese market, however. Earlier this year, the Chinese telecom giant Huawei confirmed it is developing its own independent smartphone operating system to reduce its dependency on Google’s Android. The development of Huawei’s own OS seems to be a reaction to a wave of national security fears about the security of Huawei products, which may prompt Google to stop collaborating with the Chinese company.

Unlike its early forays into developing independent mobile devices for the consumer market, Jolla’s new strategy is to push its operating system to government and enterprise players in China and Russia. For its newfound customers in the East, the company’s main selling point was security. When a local company purchased a license to use Sailfish on custom devices, for example, Jolla hands over all the code for the OS. If that business or government wants specific features integrated into the operating system, such as VPNs, Jolla’s devs can spin that up for them.

The only thing Jolla won’t touch are security protocols, which works out better for the company and its customers anyway. Security protocols aren’t Jolla’s expertise and according to Pienimäki, the whole reason its customers are ditching Google is because they want to know what code is going on their phone. This way, all the security protocols implemented on their Sailfish devices can be homegrown by the companies that use them.

In the wake of one of the many failed mobile operating systems to appear on the scene in the last decade, Jolla has fought tooth and nail to carve out a niche in the totalizing mobile duopoly ran by Apple and Google. It has developed a legion of loyal developers along the way, but also alienated thousands of would-be fans through promises unkept. Ironically enough, the open source project was salvaged by the interest of some of the least open governments in the world.

Today, there is an incredibly dedicated, albeit small, group of Sailfish believers in the US that continue to develop and use the operating system. These developers are the ones figuring out how to develop clients that can run apps like Facebook and Twitter, or how to flash the ROM onto various devices. Some of these third party apps are barely distinguishable from the actual app you could download through Google Play or the App Store, while others crash more than they work.

For now, it looks Sailfish will live to see another day and may even prove to be a serious third party competitor to Google and Apple in global markets. But if Jolla’s learned anything over the past seven years, it’s that failure can come as quickly as success.