The Smartphone Platform You've Never Heard Of

sailfishThe last extended experience I had with Sailfish was back in 2013, when I demoed it for pocketnow on a piece of hardware called the Jolla phone. Nowadays if you wanna run Sailfish well, you do it on other people's hardware. The demo unit I've borrowed from Jolla is a Sony Xperia X, which is about two years old but still powerful enough to run the OS known as Sailfish X. Now if you're looking for reasons to care about Sailfish from a practical standpoint, frankly there aren't many. Much of the platform's identity can be summed up as we're not Android.

Jolla was one of the first to come out strongly against Google's data collection strategies and Sailfish continues to market itself as an independent and adaptable alternative. Folks behind Sailfish have even found a way to have their cake and eat it too, by implementing Android app support. But to me the alternative or underdog status is not as interesting as the interface. At the risk of sounding a little woo woo, this software is very soothing. It's bound together by a thoughtful aesthetic. With colors tying together themes called ambiances.

The home screen takes a cue from older platforms like BlackBerry 10. It's a totally clean canvas, until you start opening apps. At which point it stacks them sequentially and gives you glanceable tiles that you can open with a tap. Just like on the Google Pixel, your apps live in a drawer that you flick up from the bottom of the screen but unlike Android you don't have to stretch your thumb unnaturally to get at your notifications up top. Instead they reside in a feed that lives off to the left and can be accessed from any screen.

That's half of what makes Sailfish so nice to use one-handed and the other half is how context menus work. When an app has a menu full of choices, it'll stack those options above the screen and selecting one is just a matter of pulling down with a thumb until you highlight the one you want. It's also aided by haptics, so you feel a little click with each option. And again, you never need to get a second hand involved or hold the phone unnaturally to reach a far-off toggle.

The same goes for the back function. There's no back button, because you just swipe when you want to go up a level. And you know when that's an option, thanks to these strategic little spark highlights. Granted, it's not the most intuitive software ever. Even after a few weeks of using it, I still have trouble remembering that a drag in from the side is what gets me back home, instead of a swipe up from the bottom. And truth be told, the phone still has trouble recognizing some of those interactions as well. Apple's gesture-driven interface on the iPhone X, itself inspired by Palm's webOS is better in a few ways.

And now that Apple has decided to combat Google by emphasizing it's own privacy advantages against Android, well let's just say it doesn't look like Sailfish will ever carve out a huge slice of the consumer market. And after all, the time for new mobile platforms has come and gone. But as we settle in for yet another smartphone cycle dominated by two platforms that look more alike with each passing year, it helps to remember that alternatives like Sailfish are out there. And they've got good ideas that I wish the establishment players would implement.


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