Jolla’s Sailfish OS powered phone hits the shelves two weeks ago, and reviews  started to appear everywhere in the web. Some of them are positive, some of them are not. While I consider some of these articles as being unfair, I won’t comment them. Instead, I will comment about something these articles pointed out: fully gestured OS and learning curves.
Gestures vs home button
As you might (or might not) know, Sailfish OS is heavily gesture based , not unlike it’s spiritual predecessor, the Nokia N9, nor unlike Blackberry’s BB10 phones and Palm’s webOS. While gestures are pretty convenient to use, especially to control application (minimization, closing), or pages (pull to go back), giving gestures instead of buttons is rather a disturbing experience. People can get easily stuck in a page or an app without knowing what to do, because they have no hint, no button (physical or virtual one) to try and press.
The first paradigm on any OS is the concept of homescreen and application(s). On a mobile device, there is usually not enough space to display many applications, so window management isn’t needed, and the classic “minimize, maximize, close” trio either. However, we still need to return to the homescreen, and during the whole era of Nokia – Symbian – iPhone – Android, we always got a button to perform that action.
This mandatory button started to be unpractical though. When we operate a phone with thumbs, we usually move them in the area of the screen. However, if we want to change app by closing the current one, or by popping the multitask selector, we need to move to the bottom of the phone and press a button. This cause a huge move for our fingers. For huge phones like Galaxy Note, it is really uncomfortable.
In the Palm Pre – Pixies and the Nokia N9, this button was more or less replaced by several gestures, coming from the edge of the screen. Instead of moving the fingers out of the screen, you just need to move the finger to one of the edge (bottom edge for Palm), and push the application away to dismiss it. A nice transition was used to indicate that the application was moved away, everything was done right. This nice idea was copied by Blackberry for their BB10.
The only drawback was about the gesture being hard to guess, and that it could be mixed with a flick gesture (from within the gallery application for example). This problem was patched quite easily by a start-up wizard and some demonstration videos. So within a week, someone could learn how to control a Nokia N9, the learning curve was a gentle slope.
Jolla’s Sailfish OS introduced many more gestures, and made the phone experience more efficient. They introduced some nice gestures to control pages, or open menus that requires less taps and finger moves. The result is an amazingly optimized experience.
Take the action to close all applications. On the N9, that is already a quite efficient way to do, you need to long press the multitask screen, and click a button, so tap – release – finger move – click. On the Jolla, you can long press the multitask screen, and without releasing the finger, pull-down a menu and trigger the first action, that is close all: tap – finger move – release. You simply saved one click.
The whole Sailfish OS is built around quick ways to perform actions. Sadly, there is no perfect world, and you sacrifice something, that is information. There is no back button (only dots that symbolize the number of pages pushed), there is no toolbars with icons, and there is no indication for gestures at all. Of cause, the experience is really amazing when you mastered the phone, it can be really tedious when you don’t.
The perfect example of this is my Girlfriend using the Jolla.While she knows about the N9 and the minimize gesture (and got confused about the need to press home-button on an iPhone), she didn’t successfully mastered the Jolla yet, and don’t like to use it actually. The number of gestures and absence of information confuses her and is really frustrating.
While I’m a fervent Jolla supporter, I think that Jolla is facing some transition issues. Just like the iPhone at the beginning with touchscreen, there is a transition that is needed to be able to make people understand that gestures are not bad, that they are part of a new paradigm, and that you will gain something but loose something else. With touchscreen, accuracy in typing on a keyboard were lost, and for gesture based OS, there is a loss of information, that got hidden in these gestures.
What I wonder is Jolla’s targeted audience. I don’t know if Jolla should have gone mainstream with Sailfish OS. It is an OS for people who are ready to sacrifice usability for efficiency like me. It should have been advertised as such, as a product for Geeks or Hipsters that want the phone to do things fast, not as a mainstream consumer product like any iWindowsDroid phone.
The only thing that I’m worried about is the frustration that the UI can cause to people that don’t managed to learn the UI paradigms. It will be a bad experience for both the user and Jolla. Of cause, Jolla is trying to fix this issue and released several nice videos to teach how to control a Jolla, but I guess that many consumers won’t know that they exist. Embedding them in the startup-wizard could be nice, much nicer than the scheme that are used to explain the gestures.