Following tech news, you’d think that Android and iOS are the only mobile phone operating systems available1. But when you buy a new smart phone it doesn’t have to run Android or iOS, there are other options to chose from.
One of them is Sailfish OS, a Linux-based operating system. It’s the successor of MeeGo, an abandoned operating system created by Intel and Nokia. MeeGo had some success in a core group of tech-savvy users, but never managed to achieve main stream acclaim.
The same seems to be the case for Sailfish OS. Despite the fact that it’s been around for two and a half years now, it’s only officially available on a handful of devices that you’ve never heard of, like the Oyster SF, and the Intex Aqua Fish. The best known Sailfish OS phone is the Jolla phone, which was released in late 2013 as a reference device for operating system. Asked in January 2015 how many units Jolla had sold of their phone, the company’s head of communications, Juhani Lassila, had the following answer:
Unfortunately we can’t answer your question in details, since we are not disclosing total sales numbers in public. This is because we have several sales partners around the world, and we’ve agreed not to give this information out on their behalf.
So, based on this statement, and that I have yet to see a Jolla phone used by anyone in the wild, it’s safe to assume that the device hasn’t been a raging success in any market. But even if something isn’t immensely popular doesn’t automatically mean that it sucks salty chocolate balls.
I’ve had the pleasure of playing around with a Jolla phone for a couple of days now, and in my humble opinion is that Sailfish OS is totally JAMOS - Just Another Mobile Operating System. It has all the basic features you now expect in a modern smart phone. In addition to being able to make phone calls and send text messages, you get an e-mail client, an internet browser, camera software, a map app, and access to the Jolla app store. And what you find - or rather not find - in the Jolla app store is the Sailfish OS’ main problem.
In the Jolla app store you won’t find a single official app from any of the major players: No Facebook, no Snapchat, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Tinder, no Google apps of any kind, no nothing. Sure, some of the services are available through the web browser, and there are also some unofficial apps available in the Jolla app store. But if you’re trying to achieve main stream success with a mobile phone, you need all the main stream app on it. Without those, you’re destined to walk in the valley of the niche audiences until you’re all out of money.
But, wait! There is a Sailfish OS feature that might just save the Jolla phone from its eventual doom. The operating system supports Android apps, which means you can install and run Android apps on the Jolla phone. At least in theory. Google’s Play Store is not supported, and neither is Google Play Services, which is required by a wide range of Android apps to work properly. Both the Play Store and the Play Services can be installed manually, but the technically intricate process is not for the fainthearted.
There is one last resort, though, if you get desperate. From the Jolla app store, you can install alternative Android marketplaces, like the Russian Yandex.Store and the Chinese anzhi.com. On these marketplaces, you’ll be able to download some of the most popular apps, like Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp - but don’t do that.
Downloading popular apps like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter from unofficial marketplaces is a recipe for disaster: Sooner or later - most likely sooner than later - you will get malware installed on your phone.
If you’re a wee bit tech savvy, you can do like I did: Install the apps you want from the Google Play Store on an Android phone, and then copy the necessary Android installation files, APKs, from that phone to the Jolla. That way you know you’re installing the official versions, and not a version laden with Chinese malicious code that turns your phone into a botnet zombie. Unfortunately, due to the lack of Google Play Services support in Sailfish OS, some of the apps won’t run, even if they are installed successfully. Examples of these apps are Snapchat, Pebble2 and every single app by Google. On top of that, you won’t get notified whenever a new version of an installed app is available, unless the app itself checks this. Most Android apps don’t, since the Google Play Store usually does that job.
I was originally planning to spend three weeks with Sailfish OS and the Jolla phone, like I’ve done twice with different versions of Windows Phone. But I realized that it was too much work to get everything I needed for Jolla to be useful for me on a daily basis.
I could live without most of the missing apps for three weeks, I did that when testing Windows Phone. But I depend on some apps, like my public transportation ticket, and the ticket app refused to install on the Jolla phone. The ticket app is developed by the local public transportation company, and with limited resources, it’s natural that they focus on the most popular mobile phones. Local and regional apps like this is likely to be an issue not just for Jolla, but for every other new mobile operating system that tries to grab market shares: That the apps don’t support the new operating system makes it very hard for users to make the move from the old to the new. More and more of these apps aimed at a local and regional audience is likely to pop up in the future, and we’re getting very used to everything being available on one device; our mobile phone. I could of course drag my Android phone with me everywhere as a glorified ticket device, but nah.
Me from ten years ago would probably have loved the Jolla phone. Open source, innovative - the swipe-based UI is a clever idea - and good looking. But it requires quite a lot of tinkering, and making quite a few compromises to become a daily driver, so it’s not for today’s me. That means that it’s definitely not for Joe & Jane Lunchbucket, a sobering fact that doesn’t bode well for the future of Jolla and Sailfish OS. That said, Jolla has recently announced some new partnerships and licensing deals. The best of luck to everyone involved.