Some dreams die hard. After the KDE-based Vivaldi tablet failed to appear after three years of anticipation, Jolla is planning a free software tablet of its own. The product is off to a roaring start, having just raised $1,824,055 in its crowdfunding campaign-- almost five times the original target. So, this time, we might actually see some hardware.
Mind you, whether the tablet will satisfy everyone remains open to doubt. Although Jolla is talking loudly about being "people powered" and listening to want users want, some requests, especially for hardware, may be impossible to fulfill. The manufacturing capacity of advanced features is limited world-wide, and monopolized by large companies like Apple and Samsung.
More importantly, exactly how free the tablet will be has yet to be announced. As Vivaldi, Ubuntu Touch, and Raspberry Pi all found out before Jolla, ensuring that the firmware and CPU are free software is no easy task, and keeping them that way with each manufacturing run harder still. In order to
get to market in a reasonable time, Jolla is already being criticized for not giving its Sailfish operating system an open source license (even though it is
derived from open sources), so it might choose to be satisfied with other non-free elements. If so, the tablet may fall well short of what it could be,
although, to be fair, the difficulties of bringing hardware to market might excuse such choices.
Yet another possible problem may be distribution. The Jolla phone is available from the company site, but its distribution in stores remains limited to a few eastern European and Asian companies, which no doubt limits its commercial success. If that is true, the sales record of the phone may make retailers reluctant to make the table part of their stock.
A Fighting Chance
Still, despite these misgivings, Jolla would appear to have a better than usual chance of delivering something. To start with, the success of its crowdfunding campaign means that the tablet will have nine times the cash that Vivaldi had, and not have to be developed on a starvation budget. Delays need or reversals, which are almost inevitable in marketing any product, are less likely to be fatal to development.
Moreover, while the phone Jolla released last year may have been more of a critical than a commercial success, it does mean that the company has experience in developing hardware. Most of Jolla's founders were ex-Nokia employees, and Jolla's development team already has one product to its credit, as well as an operating system and interface on which to build.
This experience is important in itself, but it also means that Jolla is likely to avoid the elementary mistakes that new manufacturers are likely to make.
For example, while Jolla's headquarters are in Helsinki, it is opening a research and development office in Hong Kong, closer to the major manufacturing fabs in Asia. Even with the Internet, some of the business of manufacturing requires face-to-face meeting, and having a local office avoids the logistics of flying halfway around the world for consultations.
Similarly, despite Jolla's playing on the idea of endless possibilities, the company is being slow to announce even a hint of a time line. Unlike Canonical Software with its Ubuntu Touch, Jolla is avoiding all appearance of vaporware that might cause it to lose credibility. While users are hungry for news, and marketers might want to keep interest stirred up, delays can be routine enough in hardware manufacturing that unfulfillable statements are all too apt to prove embarrassment. Jolla may be walking a narrow line, but, so far, it seems to be avoiding over-promising.
These are early days for the Jolla tablet, and many things could go wrong before it becomes available to buyers. However, at this moment, Jolla seems to have more going for it than any of its rivals, such as Mozilla or Canonical. if the dream of a free-software tablet has any chance of even partial fulfillment, I would bet on Jolla being its manufacturer.