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Nokia's defunct MeeGo finds new life as Sailfish

A Finnish startup created by former Nokia executives is hoping to break through with their fledgling mobile operating system.

Jolla CEO Marc Dillon (right) and Chief Information Officer Stefano Mosconi are trying to bring back MeeGo in a different form. Roger Cheng/CNET

HELSINKI, Finland -- Local startup Jolla believes what few others do: that even with four major smartphone operating systems vying for supremacy -- or just relevancy -- there is still room for one more at the party.

Jolla hopes to resurrect MeeGo, which was once considered Nokia's savior and next-generation platform before it was dumped for Windows Phone. The company, founded by former Nokia product engineers intimate with the development of MeeGo, brought back the community-driven successor as Sailfish late last month.

There isn't a better example of a David and Goliath story. Jolla is made up of a few dozen employees working out of a small office in a technology park housing many different businesses. Yet it seeks to make a dent in a market dominated by Apple and Google, with Microsoft and Research In Motion also elbowing each other for a piece of the smartphone pie.

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The hope is its more open and flexible operating system can turn some heads and potentially shake up the industry.

"Right now, it's really Google and Apple, and both of those ecosystems are quite stale now," Jolla CEO and co-founder Marc Dillon said in a small, empty office surrounded by mock-ups of the different versions of the Sailfish logos. "They've been similar for a long time."

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"Innovation doesn't come out of a stale market or a monopoly or duopoly," said Stefano Mosconi, chief information officer and co-founder.

Dillon believes Sailfish will set itself apart through its greater multitasking capabilities. In a demonstration of the operating system, he showed off the phone's ability to run multiple apps in smaller tiles. The software can also change its look and feel depending on the time or mood, and is designed to minimize clicks and action. The software felt fast and fluid for something that isn't quite ready for the public yet.

"It's effortless to use," Dillon bragged.

Of course, offering a different -- or even better -- experience is no guarantee of success. Palm had a unique and innovative operating system in WebOS, and it's in open-source purgatory now, doomed to be irrelevant. And Jolla isn't a massive company with huge marketing resources, so getting the word is exponentially tougher.

So what's an upstart mobile operating system to do? Initially, Jolla will target the massive Chinese market, and Dillon says that if it is able to capture even a fraction of the growing market for smartphones, it can do well enough to keep expanding. The country has also been a bit more receptive to devices beyond the usual iPhone or Android variety.

Jolla has signed a distribution deal with Chinese retailer D.Phone. In its home market, it has a deal with DNA, Finland's third-largest mobile carrier. The company also said ST-Ericsson -- a second-tier manufacturer of mobile processors -- would support its operating system.

Jolla has ambitious plans for Sailfish. The company wants to build its own smartphone running the operating system. With 11 years at Nokia and having played a significant role in bringing out the well-reviewed N9 -- Nokia's only MeeGo smartphone -- Dillon has the chops to pull off such a task.

Dillon and Mosconi were involved with MeeGo since before it was known as MeeGo. The operating system started off as Osso when Dillon joined in 2006, and later evolved into Maemo and then MeeGo. The community-driven platform that evolved from MeeGo, which is what Jolla is using, is called Mer.

Jolla is one of the companies that got support from Nokia's Bridge program, which was established to help former employees find new careers, either through training, financial aid, or the use of intellectual property. Dillon declined to comment on the details of the assistance it received from Nokia.

The company also plans to let the carriers build devices using its operating system, which Dillon touted as more customizable than Android. Unlike Android, where custom user interfaces get slower Android updates because the handset manufacturer has to add back the custom touches, Sailfish will incorporate any changes by the handset makers, allowing them to work in parallel and get updates as soon as they come with the tweaks intact.

Jolla also plans to license the operating system to a number of different devices, from tablets to smart TVs and cars. The company touts the ease and speed in which the operating system can be incorporated into hardware.

Dillon said devices running on Sailfish would come out next year, but was cagey with the timing, adding only that more information would come early next year. He added that Jolla will announce several more unique business models "soon," but wouldn't elaborate. The company, for instance, will offer its own expertise and experience as services to different companies.

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The operating system and software development kit, which is being developed in the open, launched last month. During the announcement of Sailfish last month, Dillon said there were 12 devices running on Sailfish.

To answer the issue on apps, Mosconi said Sailfish will support Android apps off the bat. The company plans to build a user base in China and attract developers to its platform. Like Research In Motion and BlackBerry 10, it plans to go after the problem of developers not making a lot of money with iOS or Android.

It's hard to see Sailfish ever coming to the U.S., where the competitive environment is intense and there is little room for small upstarts without deep pockets.

Still, their unbridled optimism and passion for the project is impressive to see.

"There's a high chance consumers will try something different," Mosconi said.