Breaking the smartphone mold isn't easy. Just ask Jolla

Jolla's got a big problem, and the company knows it. The small Finnish startup has grand plans to upend the smartphone paradigm with its modular phone and unique gesture-based OS, but that foreign approach has left some users confused. The MeeGo-derived Sailfish OS relies entirely on swipe navigation -- there are no soft keys onscreen -- and the current tutorial does a poor job of explaining how it all works.

"Many people have difficulties because we suck," said Senior Designer Jaakko Roppola here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. "We're not very good at the first-time user experience."

That candid admission may ring true for the startup now, but what Jolla is exceedingly good at is listening to and quickly addressing community feedback. That eagerness to please has not only led to recent improvements in battery life and connectivity for the nascent operating system, but also the integration of a user-created WiFi hotspot option.

Marc Dillon, Jolla's co-founder and an ex-Nokia engineer, paints the operating system's rough edges as a by-product of getting the first Sailfish device, a modular, two-part design that adds customization via swappable backplates, out to market within six months from announcement. He sees the launch commitment as paramount to the company's current success and traction with users. That tight turnaround and focus on the core OS experience is mainly why Sailfish's gesture tutorial left users confused. Although, Dillon's quick to point out that Jolla's not entirely to blame for the lack of clarity.

"I did find that a lot of people didn't go through the tutorial for one reason or other," he said, adding that the company might just keep the tutorial persistently exposed to alleviate concerns.

"[Jolla's] ultimate target is to make a device that is powerful enough for a power user, but simple enough that anyone can use it after they learn just a couple of tricks."

So who is the typical Sailfish user? "They know who they are," Roppola told me with a big smile; a response that indirectly points to early adopters. Dillon corroborated this take, saying that "[Jolla's] ultimate target is to make a device that is powerful enough for a power user, but simple enough that anyone can use it after they learn just a couple of tricks. And [for] people that are becoming frustrated with their smartphone ruling their life." If that sounds like a neat marketing message, it is, but it's also not entirely off the mark. Though Dillon might want to rethink that latter bit, as Sailfish's deeply invested community is responsible for some clever software hacks and hardware innovations.

That end-user experimentation has led to the creation of e-ink, wireless charging and physical keyboard covers for its Other Half smartphone, some of which are on prominent display at Jolla's MWC booth. It's one of the reasons why future incarnations of Jolla's Sailfish devices will retain that two-part modular design. As Roppola explained to me, the company wants to avoid the "culture of throwaway devices," which a shift to a unified design might encourage. He believes that the Other Half's unique design, which imparts new software functions via swappable backplates, leaves it open to repairs and augmentation not possible on the current crop of smartphones.

Though Jolla is focusing its attention on the existing Other Half smartphone, Dillon assured me there is a device roadmap for Sailfish. New form factors are on the way, but much of the heavy lifting will be done through manufacturer partnerships. "The way that we as a company scale out to lower price points and higher price points is by partnerships," he explained, hinting that Sailfish could be scaled down to work on a smartwatch. Dillon even took some potshots at manufacturers caught up in Android's market dominance, saying that those companies have no choice but to compete either "with price or go with flash." Sailfish, then, offers big-name manufacturers an alternative: uniquely branded Sailfish devices that highlight their content on a dedicated home screen pane.

Jolla's partnerships with Angry Birds maker Rovio, Finnish clothing company Makia and cloud storage company F-Secure -- all announced just this week -- are the first concrete examples of these planned partner tie-ins. Dillon wants to position Sailfish as a platform for app integration and cited Facebook and Twitter on iOS and Android as an example of this strategy. Rather than merely host apps, Dillon hopes Sailfish will offer developers a mobile platform that allows for a deeper platform integration, not just a redundant app port.

"What I'm looking for now and what I believe the smartphone world is going to is a level of integration where ... [users] can actually have a seamless integration inside of the device so they can go beyond the application," Dillon said.

New form factors are on the way, but much of the heavy lifting will be done through manufacturer partnerships.

It's an ambitious strategy that, unfortunately, isn't bolstered much by the three companies currently on board. Rovio's back cover prominently features an Angry Birds illustration, and imparts a themed wallpaper, as well as a content stream featuring user comments and photos. It's not really all that exciting. Makia's implementation is much the same and comes off as a direct-to-consumer promotional channel. There's certainly potential for manufacturers and developers to really take advantage of Dillon's app-integration proposition, but nothing's achieved that vision yet.

To spread the Sailfish message beyond early adopters, Jolla has an Android launcher in the works. The idea behind this is to encourage users to make a switch by offering a custom Sailfish-like home screen on top of Android. And in the event that hook is enough to convert some users over to Jolla's side, the company's also planning to release the entire OS as a free, flashable download for Android devices. Understandably, that option -- currently set to release before Q3 -- will target more advanced users. And in the interest of avoiding bricked phones and tablets, Dillon said the company's restricting that rollout to select devices to ensure an optimized experience.

Sailfish is still in its early days and despite talk of future form factors, flashable ROMs and partner tie-ins, Dillon claims its number one priority is the Other Half and "continuing to deliver software updates." To that end, Jolla's fourth software update for Sailfish should be hitting devices sometime in the first week of March, bringing with it several UI refinements and stability fixes. Dillon wasn't able to fully elaborate on just what exactly that entailed, but if the company's dedication to its vocal user base is any indication, it's likely the fulfillment of a long wish list.