Jolla’s Sailfish OS will launch in dangerous waters

The Finnish startup Jolla today unveiled the first handset running its Sailfish OS. The smartphone, which is now available for pre-order in eight European markets for a little more than $500, sports a dual-core processor and eight megapixel camera, among other attractive specs, and will support LTE with some carriers.

As I write in a GigaOM Research Report on new mobile operating systems that should be published this week, there’s a lot to like about Sailfish: The Linux-based platform has its roots in MeeGo, an impressive mobile OS that Nokia abandoned when it threw its lot in with Microsoft’s Windows Phone. (Jolla, in fact, is headed by former Nokians who had worked on MeeGo.) Sailfish can run Android and MeeGo apps as well as Sailfish offerings, which should give it a respectable library of available apps at launch. And TechCrunch reports that Jolla is emphasizing developer “co-creation” with its new smartphone via the Other Half, a removable hardware shell that links to the device’s software and can be customized by users and could support new physical features from developers.

Jolla’s biggest challenge, though, will be in expanding what is currently a very modest list of established partners in mobile. The Sailfish Alliance claims a few noted names including Opera Software and ST-Ericsson, and its partnership with the massive Chinese phone retailer D.Phone is intriguing. But the alliance is woefully thin when it comes to heavyweight carriers or big-name manufacturers. Meanwhile, a slew of new mobile OSes are coming to market this year, from BlackBerry 10 to Firefox OS, and Android, iOS and even Windows Phone continue to grow their audiences. Jolla must strike at least a few big distribution deals over the next six to 12 months if it hopes to make a dent in the increasingly cutthroat smartphone market.