Size doesn't matter, says Jolla CEO

The company needs to sell hundreds of thousands of phones yearly to survive

Low operating costs combined with a differentiated operating system and close communication with users will help Jolla survive in the cutthroat smartphone market, according to CEO Tomi Pienimäki.

The last two weeks have been busy for Finnish company Jolla, which last week announced that it had shipped a commercial version of its Sailfish OS and then headed for Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Being a small company trying to compete with giants like Apple and Samsung has both its ups and downs, according to Pienimäki. One advantage is that low operating costs mean it doesn't have to sell many phones to survive.

"The market is huge and we don't need a large share. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of phones yearly, but not more than that,"

Regardless of the size, the skill and knowledge within a company is what's important.

"Luckily, we have a lot of talent within this company, simply because all the best people from the MeeGo project are with us. We are capable of doing things that even the bigger guys don't know how to do," he said.

Jolla was founded in 2011 by a group of former Nokia employees who wanted to continue the development work the phone maker had done on the MeeGo operating system.

Having a steady supply of quality components is one problem of being a small manufacturer. To minimize that issue, Sailfish has been built to be compatible with Android hardware.

That means it and potential future hardware partners can use processors, cameras and displays that have been developed for Google's operating system, which lowers the cost and increases the range of compatible components, according to Pienimäki.

That also means Sailfish can run on existing Android phones. At Mobile World Congress, Jolla demonstrated its OS running on Android-based smartphones and tablets from Samsung, Google and Chinese company Xiaomi.

"We are coming to the point when you as consumer can install Sailfish on your device. We are not yet there but we will be soon. If I ask the guys: can you put the OS on this and this it typically takes 24 hours and it works," Pienimäki said.

When Jolla's first phone went on sale last year it came with a beta version of the Sailfish OS, and all the drawbacks that come with any software that's still under development. Even if charging people for a phone that's under development isn't ideal, it was something Jolla had to do.

"It was a small group of people that developed Sailfish and we needed feedback from consumers," Pienimäki said.

The feedback from users helped get the first version out the door and will also play an important role in what features are added to Sailfish. Since the launch, Jolla has updated the OS four times to improve battery life and the camera, and to add a landscape mode.

"Because we are a small company, it's very easy for us to be agile. We really look at what users on together.jolla.co are asking for; they want this, this and this and then we simply do it," Pienimäki said.

Some of the most voted for features on Friday were offline map-data and turn-by-turn navigation in Maps; support for CalDev-based calendars and the possibility to configure what is shown on the lock screen.

One of the biggest trend at this year's Mobile World Congress was the growing interest in low-end smartphones, but that segment of the market isn't what Jolla is aiming for.

"We are providing a unique user experience, and its not our game to try to build the cheapest mobile phone," Pienimäki said.

However, that doesn't mean someone else can't take Sailfish and use it on a smartphone that's much cheaper than Jolla's phone, which costs €399 (US$550), including VAT. Pienimäki didn't specify hardware requirements, but its heritage is in the MeeGo platform, which was available on the Nokia N9, which is no longer sold. Even though that smartphone is powered by a single core processor, it is capable of running Sailfish.

Still, Pienimäki would prefer to see Sailfish run on more advanced devices, he said.

When Microsoft's deal to acquire Nokia's handset business becomes final before the end of March, Jolla will become the largest Finnish mobile phone manufacturer.

"I have to say as a Finn it's obviously sad what has happened to Nokia. But we will be proud to be the biggest Finnish phone maker," Pienimäki said.

Send news tips and comments to mikael_ricknas@idg.com

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