Meet Jolla, the startup trying to combat Apple and Google by breathing life back into MeeGo

Jolla Interview

A new Finnish company called Jolla made a bit of a splash earlier this month by declaring it will become a new smartphone vendor using the MeeGo operating system to power its devices. Interest in MeeGo in United States is tepid, but in Europe and Asia, the OS attracted a lot of interest before Nokia chose to effectively kill its development in 2011. Can Jolla help resurrect MeeGo as a viable mobile OS alternative, or is this crusade just a lost cause in a market dominated by Google and Apple?

An interview with Jussi Hurmola, CEO of Jolla, yielded some provocative views. According to Hurmola, it is now possible to run a modern smartphone company with fewer than 200 employees — possibly with little more than 100 people, according to the executive. Old-school handset companies used to have massive operations dealing with issues like antenna design and power consumption improvement. These technologies are now sufficiently mature that a start-up can simply use off-the-shelf designs and components, cutting down the R&D demands drastically.

Jolla’s key focus will be on user experience. The company wants to bring over some significant elements from earlier Maemo/MeeGo devices such as event logs and fluid multi-tasking, and use them as a foundation for crafting an entirely new UX. The goal is to “move beyond opening and closing apps.” Apple’s current iPhone UX is still very close to the 2007 paradigm that was a breath of fresh air half a decade ago. But right now, some consumers might be ready for radical change.

Hurmola says that Jolla started intensive talks with retailers and operators in Europe and Asia in 2011 and concluded that there is no room for a small vendor. So, the plan is to become a big one. Jolla currently has about 50 employees, almost all of them from Nokia’s MeeGo project and the surrounding community. The plan is to grow to 100 people by end of 2012 and leverage a massive network of partners and collaborating companies.

Jolla has already started announcing partnerships already this week, having announced a deal with China’s largest mobile phone retailer D.Phone. Clearly, everything now hinges on creating and maintaining strong momentum in Asia, where many operators and retailers are growing anxious about the emerging iOS-Android duopoly in smartphone market. This is not really evident in United States, but there is a strong undercurrent of angst in Europe and Asia about how rapidly Apple and Google are taking charge of the entire handset industry. The most recent statistics indicate that Symbian demand truly collapsed in European markets during the first half of this year.

Europe and Asia are staring at the possibility of absolute American hegemony in the mobile telephony market just as retail, entertainment and media industries have started migrating to smartphones and tablets in a serious manner. Jolla’s chance at success — and let’s face it, the odds don’t look great — lies in exploiting this vein of dread over allowing U.S. companies to effectively own the smartphone industry.

Will Asian and European operators really commit serious resources to backing a MeeGo upstart? The quest is undeniably quixotic, but after the Nokia N9 debuted, there clearly was genuine consumer demand and interest in the model. Much depends on how Jolla plans to handle application interoperability challenges — and Hurmola was resolutely mysterious about that key challenge.

In any case, the partnership announcements coming over the next two weeks should give an interesting snapshot of how the putative resurrection of MeeGo is taking shape.

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