My day job title is Head of Mobile development. Understanding mobile OS and their standards is both my long-term hobby and work. I have created a number of apps that were always best sellers in the relevant categories (not on the nowadays popular platforms though). Right now the app of my day job company designed and managed nearly solely by me and done by talented developers are a huge success in the education market and enjoys thousands of daily users. I am possibly the Jolla Sailfish developer enjoying the biggest number of app downloads/likes ever (definitely in the top three) and I had one of the apps up and running in on the very first day Jolla phone was in sales.
Part of what I do regularly is using phones with the different platforms as the primary ones to understand what different smartphone users are like, to get new ideas and just for fun. I am trying low-end ones, hi-end ones, Symbian, MeeGo, different versions of Android and iOS, BlackBerry 10, even Windows Phone sometimes (not the Firefox OS yet). Last year I had spent some 7-9 months with Jolla, then a couple of months with iOS7 and then a couple of months with Android 4.4, I am on Windows Phone 8.1 right now, BB10.2 I have tried a year earlier, will have a look at 10.3 later.
So since I use different platforms as a primary device regularly and try paying attention exactly to the apps UIs, I thought it could be of interest for some to see what’s the difference in the experience between the different platforms is. Note that I am one of those who use smartphone a lot: browser, Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook, lots of other services – it’s all me. If you are just using phone for just calls and few messages once in a while, this post might not be of that much value for you.
What’s really great on Sailfish that I miss on other platforms
1. Swiping the app off. And swiping it off half-way
Amazingly easy and natural way for getting the current app off the way is the definitive part of Sailfish experience to me. And the ability to just half-swipe the app off for taking a peek at the clock looks cool and feels like you are playing with the phone. In theory you can also use this half-swiping gesture for having a look at the other apps’ cover cards, but I’ve never found anything really useful to look at this way.
2. Task switching / multi tasking. Fast and fluid, beats iOS and Android hands down
Contrary to some opinions iOS and Android are actually multitasking operating systems nowadays and you can do several things nearly simultaneously there, but Jolla Sailfish shines in how quickly you can switch between the apps.
Swiping app off and switching to another one is simply faster than on iOS and Android and doesn’t require any button presses. The only platform I know that is even faster is BlackBerry 10: It is also based on a single gesture, but BlackBerry designers went an extra mile and made it work precisely everywhere. You use absolutely same bottom-up gesture to get to task manager screen from anywhere even if you are already in the task manager or even if you are on a lock screen (same gesture unlocks the device). As a result, whenever you are feeling a tiny bit lost a simple flick gets you to the same familiar safe with zero thinking involved. Taking into account the BlackBerry market share it is not that important benchmark for Jolla world though.
Sailfish task switching beats iOS and Android in speed and doesn’t work only in few places: app launcher, when you are in task manager already and when you are on the lock screen – a bit of need to make you mind notice such situations, but not much.
Step by step iOS and Android try to get to the same fluidness and getting rid of hardware button presses via the interactive notifications, but it can’t cover all the cases just yet.
3. Awesome WhatsApp client Mitäkuuluu (dead by now, but with a chance of rebirth)
This is one amazing app that truly made Jolla shine. Simple, easy, yet powerful and looking great. Unfortunately right now it’s dead for the reasons I don’t fully understand. I thought WhatsApp killed the client for the sole fact that it’s a third party client, but I have also heard some rumors about a possible rebirth.
It is quite a surprise for me that Jolla still isn’t employing the app’s author Coderus despite his explicit wishes to join the company. Well, they might have some reasons.
4. General feeling of half-way-executed action smoothness
It might be silly, but I really like how most of actions performed with swipes in Sailfish you can half-do and then change your mind and cancel. Switching app tabs, Applying settings, even pulling the menu and moving it back. Sometimes there is a bit of use in this half-doneness (you can preview the result of completing the action), sometimes it is just a funny thing to play with.
That is one amazing area of Jolla that I didn’t expect to be useful and that has suddenly become a part of what I am using regularly. It’s just so much fun to recolor the phone UI completely once in a while. Unfortunately the current implementation tends to loose my ambiences once in a while (possibly when SD card fails to report to OS on time), but that will be fixed at some point. BTW, have a look at the My Ambiences Beta app that lets you choose a random photo as a base of the phone ambience. In some future point it might do it automatically a couple of times a day and could apply filtering not to select not very appropriate random photos.
What’s not so good and much easier on other platforms
Update: This section was written before the Christmas 2014 firmware update. It improved browser a lot. It is still slower than competitors and eats RAM, but the difference is not that daunting anymore. The only real complains remaining are:
- very non-standard UI, but you can get used to it
- no ability to have increased font size on quite a high DPI screen
- no way to position cursor in the input fields precisely. Jolla’s standard methods do not work there
Sorry, Jolla, the current browser sucks and sucks big time. You can get used to the.. non-traditional UI that is quite different not just from other operating systems, but even from the other Jolla apps (e.g. it’s the *only* Jolla’s app with a bottom toolbar), but the fact that the browser is slow, freezes the pages quite often doesn’t render all the sites well and tends to use tiny fonts with no opportunity to force larger ones (unless you are into increasing the font size in the whole system), that’s all real bad. For most of the web sites it is bearable, but that’s it, it pales in comparison to Android’s Chrome and iOS’es Safari Mobile.
I find third party WebCat browser based on WebKit (unlike the system one based on Mozilla’s Gecko engine) somewhat better and noticeably faster, but there is still a way to go.
Interestingly it doesn’t seem to be a problem of small amount of RAM and slow CPU. Google’s Chrome browser that you can run on the same Jolla phone behaves noticeably faster, but then you run into lack of RAM quite easily.
1. Number of apps and poor Android support
There simply aren’t many native apps yet, there is no Instagram, Facebook client called Friends is not bad, but still has a long way to go (not much groups/events support yet for example, you cannot open some photos, etc). In fact it is quite difficult to build good native apps, because of the significantly different development process (Sailfish projects use very own project structure), solutions discouraging cross-platformness (e.g. deployment specifics often require you to make modifications to the other guys plugins source code) and very limited set of APIs officially approved (e.g. forget about anything involving Location or Contacts).
Android support is still quite poor, many apps need quite a bit of RAM (and get shut down when they can’t have it that kills the whole idea of multitasking), Sailfish keyboard doesn’t work super-well there and quite often I had to reboot just to make keyboard work again, there is no Google services support (for a good reason, but still) and amount of RAM on the device doesn’t really let you run many apps.
Android support is said to be also improved in Update 10, so possibly Android apps are now easier with the RAM available.
Jolla’s keyboard is not bad. In fact it is quite okay. It is a little painful for me to use with a single hand (can’t reach corners easily), but it’s more about the size of my hand and Jolla phone. What is missing is well working prediction experience: I make several times more typos on Jolla than on iOS and Android and way more typos slip into the text messages sent. It might be just about autocorrection suggestions not applied, well, automatically,
3. Inter-app interoperability.
Yes, Sailfish way of multitasking has real good and bad sides
Switching between running apps is fast and fluid in Sailfish, but there is a number of negative sides as well:
3.1 Information exchange between apps is almost non-existent
You can send a gallery image to a built-in Facebook/Twitter sharing plugin, but that’s pretty much it. Forget about Android/iOS-style sharing sheets where you can send pages to GetPocket, Evernote, Translation app, wherever else, there is no way to choose a default handler for URLs, voice calls, text messages.
3.2 Lack of privacy control and apps operating with private stuff
Android has pretty rough permission model when you have to agree to many permissions already during the app installation (recall a taxi ordering app that wants to know your SMS messages and list of contacts), iOS is more intelligent in this regard and lets you accept or reject access to, for example, contacts when the app tries accessing it for the very first time and good apps warn you in advance about what they are going to request and why.
Sailfish’es current answer to this: we just do not let any apps use the contacts database. Fortunately according to Jolla CEO plans for 2015 things are likely to improve in this regard, no precise plans known yet though.
3.3 Apps running in background and starting on some events
Think of automatic photo uploads to Dropbox when you enter the home WiFi area. Not in Sailfish for now.
4. Single save-me-to-home gesture
That might be just me, especially since I do use many mobile OSes quite often, but I find it real important for a mobile OS to have a simple constant way to get me to a known “home” place. On iOS on Android it is the Home button.
On Jolla a swipe to the side gesture is taking you to the task manager from everywhere… except from the app launcher pages.
It might be silly, but for me the lack of a simple fitting to muscle memory way of getting to Home is quite important for the day to day use. Especially when I am in the middle of my 7 page long list of apps – takes me several swipes to get back to the task manager.
6. Simple way to organize music and photos
iOS approach with everything going through iTunes is limiting, but having just one way sure makes it easy to remember. Android doesn’t have a standard way for music/photo management (Google Music and Google Photos try making all go through the Google cloud, but it hasn’t happened in full just yet), Jolla doesn’t have one too. You can move your music to the Jolla’s SD card, but music playlist and photo album management.. I haven’t found any way to work with on the desktop these except for manually editing the text files on the mounted phone disk.
7. Size and position of the keyboard
It might be just me, but somehow my fingers find it much easier to reach on-screen keyboard keys on most phones than on Jolla (and I was using something like 6-9 different phones over the last couple of years). It could be about bigger than usual bevel around the screen on the bottom, or maybe the other platforms help my mishits with the better autocorrection kicking in.
8. Confusion in menus, order of options
It is pretty hard to get confused in most of iOS apps. They’ve got two-three options in the main toolbar (most important one always on the right), maybe a couple of buttons in the main screen area and that’s it, scrolling to the top of the list is always same ta in the same screen area. Android’s action bar is also always located in the same area with the most important action always on the left. Jolla.. after several months after developing for the platform I am still not sure if the most important action in the Pulley menu should be on the top or on the bottom; app’s tab switch: should it go via the pulley menu or the left-right swipe way (and what’s the difference from back swipe and previous-tab swipe then?). Bottom pulley menu and sidebar drawers: when shall these be used and when not?
Sailfish OS UI is still young, lets you use many new interaction types and while it possibly lets the creators be as creative as they can, it doesn’t help the users much if he has to learn every app’s interaction models separately.
Easy and low hanging fruits for increasing Jolla satisfaction a lot
1. Offline maps and navigation.
Okay, it is easier to say than to do, but it is not a technical trouble. Ideal way of using maps on the trip would be similar to Here maps: Plan trip on the web interface, see it automatically synchronized to the phone, navigate offline.
2. Fix the freaking save-me-to-home gesture
Find some way to make the same get-me-home gesture it work exactly always, I do not want to spend a single bit of cognitive activity during the task switching, mind is to be 100% on the previous and next tasks.
4. Improve the keyboard
Maybe just enabling autocorrection by default could be good enough to reduce the amount of typos significantly.
5. Get the UI guidelines in place
Okay, I am an app consistency freak, but I find the need for the common app guidelines so welcome, that I would even prefer mediocre guidelines than to zero guidelines. It could be related to the daunting number of apps I use daily and to my zero will to have to recall the details of each app’s interaction model. Jolla with its typical errors list is already half-way there. Just complete the list and transform it from “here’s what you probably did wrong” to “here’s how you should do it way”.
Not so easy ways for improving Sailfish
That would be a topic for some more posts 🙂
Things I could hope for would be to encourage developers or spend own staff time in the several most important app areas (e.g. incentivize Facebook client development or add a half-time Jolla developer to it). Implementing some sort of a common BB10-like chat hub could also be very useful while relatively easy given Jolla’s universal messaging accounts.
What do you think? What things in your opinion make Jolla Sailfish OS really stand out above the other platforms and what makes you still look for iOS and Android? Any easy improvements you could think of that could improve the Sailfish VS others comparison a lot?
I had my troubles with Jolla (slowness, not picking up calls), but there were times when it behave as advertised, so this comparison assumes things are fine. As you will see many positive things are the other side of negatives of course.