Marc Dillon still remembers the sick feeling that overcame him when Nokia announced it was scrapping a software project that he and hundreds of other developers had spent years creating.
It was early 2011, and Nokia was struggling to compete with the sudden rise of Apple and Samsung in the global smartphone market. In response, Nokia’s chief executive, Stephen Elop, ended the company’s plans for its own operating system and joined with Microsoft to focus on building Windows-based phones.
“I almost threw up when I heard the news,” said Dillon, an American engineer living in Finland, who was laid off after the company’s strategy shift. “Nokia did a lot of great things for a long time. We didn’t want to see this part of the story end.”
So Dillon and three other former Nokia executives took it upon themselves to prove their onetime bosses wrong.
Over the last three years, with the help of around $20 million in outside investment, they have built Jolla, a 100-employee company of mostly former Nokia engineers, to develop the operating system that Nokia discarded. Their goal is to compete with Android, Google’s dominant mobile software. Late last year, they finished the first part of the effort, releasing a smartphone powered by its open-source software, Sailfish.
The ambitions for Jolla — Finnish for dinghy — are twofold. Though it is still a small player in the global smartphone market, Jolla’s long-term hopes are pinned on talking up its Sailfish software to other cellphone manufacturers, which the Finnish company hopes will lead to licensing agreements. “The phone shows the world that we can make a product,” said Sami Pienimaki, another Jolla co-founder. “But the operating system is where the true value lies.”
“Everyone is looking for alternatives because few manufacturers are making money from Android,” said Stefano Mosconi, Jolla’s Italian co-founder and chief technology officer. “We know we can’t ship 200 million handsets overnight. But phone makers need something new, and we can offer that.” Despite Jolla’s ambitious plans, it faces an uphill challenge. The global smartphone market has become a duopoly of Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, which represented almost 95 per cent of the one billion handsets shipped last year, according to Strategy Analytics. And Microsoft is doubling down on smartphones, putting the final touches on a $7.4 billion deal to buy Nokia’s handset business.