Mobile OS maker Jolla, whose Sailfish platform remains one of the few smartphone alternatives in play these days, has signed an exclusive license to a Chinese consortium to develop a Sailfish-based OS for the country.
Jolla says the Chinese consortium will be aiming to invest $250M in developing a Sailfish ecosystem for the country, though it’s not specifying exactly is backing the consortia at this point, nor over what timeframe the investment will happen — beyond saying one of its early investors, a local private equity investor Shan Li, will take a “leading role” in building it up.
“There are very big players behind it,” Jolla chairman Antti Saarnio tells TechCrunch, speaking ahead of a press conference held to announce the news here at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow in Barcelona.
“We are discussing with very big players joining in. We are not granting this [exclusive] licence for small businesses — it’s some very big Chinese players joining this. They have both the financial and other resources to scale the operating system in China.”
“What we have been talking about is starting with the security phone area, so there are corporate and government use-cases where a secure mobile operating system is needed. That’s the first use-case that we are going to start implementing [with the China consortium],” he adds. “In addition to this I would say there’s lot of potential in other areas like TV, also IoT, smartwatches, maybe smart home areas. Those are areas which we, Jolla, did not enter into those areas — because our own resources have been so limited.
“But of course the Chinese market is huge, and those players have the resources to scale this operating system into various new areas.”
If you’re feeling a sense of deja-vu you’d be right; Jolla announced a plan to create a China ecosystem for Sailfish all the way back in 2012 — with a similar amount slated for ecosystem investment then too. However Saarnio says it’s essentially taken what was then a very small startup five years to get the ball rolling and convince Chinese players to look beyond the Android Open Source Project — and invest in an alternative mobile platform that’s not ultimately controlled by Google’s corporate agenda.
“It seems that the market has finally learnt,” he says. “What’s happening at the moment in China is that all the biggest players like Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, they have their own concepts where they are building [platforms]. For example Alibaba is building their own smart hub concept, their own car industry smart car concept and so on. And there are many very large players who need to compete with these projects and they are missing their operating system solutions — so we are talking to these kinds of companies.”
Alternative mobile OSes are essentially an endangered species these days, given the smartphone market lies prone in the grip of Android domination, with iOS getting to cream off most of the profit at the high end. Analyst Gartner gave the ‘others’ category just 0.2 per cent market share at the last count.
Yet Helsinki-headquartered Jolla — one of those few remaining ‘others’ — isn’t giving up pushing its Sailfish mobile OS, although it almost got snuffed out in a funding death valley back in late 2015. And despite dabbling with making its own hardware initially, Jolla has since shifted away from the consumer hardware space, to trying to license the OS to corporates and governments by offering a non-Android based open platform that they can mould to their needs (but which does also have Android app compatibility built it).
The main target for Jolla’s Sailfish sales pitch now is countries seeking a non-US-controlled mobile platform on which they can build a services strategy.
Back in November, for example, Jolla gained Russian certification for the Sailfish OS to be used for government and corporate use in the country — the first substantial win for the approach.
And today the first Sailfish device for the Russian market is also being announced by Jolla’s local licensee there, Open Mobile Platform. “There seems to be very strong political support for Sailfish Russia project, and I think that their agenda will be expanding quite rapidly,” says Saarnio.
In November he told TechCrunch Jolla was also in talks with the Chinese government, though he described it as a “more complex” country to negotiate with. But having secured an agreement with Russia, he said he was hopeful of movement in China and elsewhere — and now it looks like things are coming together for Jolla in the Far East.
Might the Chinese government be a future user of Sailfish-powered devices built by the new local consortium? “Of course we are aiming for that,” says Saarnio. “We are opening discussions to the government direction.
“How it went in Russia was we got investors and licensing partner who had good connections to government, and then we proved that we have a working solution for Russia. And then we got the government support. And now in China we are going to implement the same path.”
Saarnio reckons that within 10 to 12 months the China consortium should have Sailfish devices in the local market. Though it remains to be seen whether the consortium’s goal of pushing an alternative to the dominant Android platform is able to gain traction.
Also today, Jolla is announcing a strategic partnership with the Jala Group, a high tech holding in Bolvia which provides cloud services to enterprises. The hope there is also to move towards developing a Sailfish strategy for the region, says Saarnio, although he describes the project as at a “pilot phase” — and says it’s too early to say when any devices might result.
Another announcement from Jolla today is it’s adding support for Sony’s Open Devices Program — meaning developers looking to run Sailfish on additional hardware will be able to choose from certain Sony Xperia devices in future. The Xperia X will be first in line to get support, and is being demoed by Jolla running Sailfish here at MWC.
Jolla says it’s aiming to release an official version of the Sailfish OS for a range of Sony Mobile’s Xperia devices “soon”. It last released a community device of its own making, the Jolla C, back in May 2016.
“For us it’s very important that we have a solid hardware partner to offer Sailfish devices to the market,” says Saarnio. “And Sony is the perfect partner for these kind of secure devices. For us it was too much to develop our own phone in an organization that is focused on software development, so I think this is a very good move from our side in that our developers can keep a proper device for Sailfish and use that. And why not our fans as well?”