To me, deciding on my ‘Smartphone of the Year‘ is a curious challenge. The choice can’t simply be ‘the best phone’ because everyone has a slightly different criteria for what makes the best phone. If I were to think about it empirically and go for the phone that fits the majority of people’s criteria I wouldn’t have the best phone, I would have ‘the average phone of the year’ that upsets the least number of people.
For a smartphone to pick up my personal award it needs to say something about itself, about the manufacturer behind it, and it needs to reflect the smartphone industry over the last twelve months.
So, with just a little bit of scene-setting and discussion about the phones I’m placing in third and second place, let’s find out my smartphone of 2016.
Third Place: Jolla C, by Jolla
I’ve known that the Jolla C would be in the running for a long time for the award, because for the middle six months of the year it was the perfect use of ‘proof by negation’ of what the smartphone industry required from a smartphone in 2016.
The Jolla C hardware might look a touch underpowered, although it has been built to a very low price of around 170 Euros. With a SnapDragon 212 System on chip, 2 GB of RAM, 16 GB of storage and a 2500 mAh battery, the real strength is in the software. It runs a ‘clean’ version of Sailfish OS which flies even on these apparently low specifications.
Around one thousand handsets were released (as ‘developer editions’) and offered over the summer months – a short run that was almost instantly snapped up by the faithful. It made some waves online, but no more. Here was a small company, making the hardware, putting on the software, and distributing the machine. Sailfish OS is compact, designed for a ‘buttonless’ smartphone relying solely on touchscreen input, with genuine multitasking on top of a robust Linux-based OS. It’s robustness was proved on this low-priced Nexus-like device.
There’s something delightful about having full access to the system, command line access and a fully internet-connected terminal app in my pocket. For my ‘day to day’ phone that needs to pick up texts and messages, handle some light web browsing and dealing with my diary management, the Jolla C is all that I need. I make no bones about it, I enjoy using the Jolla handset… but I also realises that it is a vision of a smartphone that has passed into history.
The Jolla C falls short as a consumer device because so much of what defines a smartphone in 2016 (and into 2017) is not in the hardware, but in the cloud services that attach to the software on the device. Jolla’s Sailfish OS tries to bridge that gap by providing an Android emulation layer, and while it does allow Android apps to run on the device emulation on a SnapDragon 200 series is never going to offer stellar performance, it falls apart when you look to log onto the Google Play Store or make use of Google’s cloud based apps. You need to hunt around to find valid installation files for Microsoft’s cloud-based apps such as Outlook and OneNote. Third party services like DropBox are patchy at best, and don’t even think about media services like Spotify and Netflix.
The Jolla C shows how mature the market is by showing just how hard it is for a new player to become established. The relationships required to have a solid portfolio of apps to simply match the competition is beyond the reach of almost every company. With Apple’s iOS remaining exclusive to Apple, Google’s flavour of Android has a lock on the ecosystem for new entrants – although Microsoft’s Windows 10 and its universal apps promises another way in, it needs to prove itself in 2017.
In a sense it is an extension of the principles that saw me select the WileyFox Swift last year. You need to choose an operating system that has the breath of apps and services to appeal to the customers. You need to have attractive hardware at a well-considered price point. The increase of competent handsets at a lower price means that relying purely on budget is not enough – brand and trust are important features at the low-end level. Low priced hardware has changed the market.
Jolla is moving more towards a software-based solution and recent developments show that the company has pivoted away from the brutal hardware-first market.
Other manufacturers are still looking to profit from devices, and while some are looking at the high-volume low-margin business (and the prospect of Nokia’s former staff returning to this battlefield during 2017 is tempting), there is a continual fight to try to establish a high-volume high-priced handset.
Which leads me to the silver medal…