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2 Feb 2014 : Smartphone Homecoming #
First, a warning: if technology doesn't interest you then you're likely to find what you read below just a bit odd. If it does then you might find it a bit opinionated. If you're normal, you'll find it boring. If you're not sure which category you fall into, go ahead and read on, and then check back here to find out!

For many months now I've been stuck in the smartphone wilderness, wandering between platforms trying to find one that makes me feel empowered in the way a good computer should.

Well, I think I've finally found my nirvana, having received my Jolla smartphone yesterday. After playing around with it for just a day, it's already in a much more usable state than the iPhone it's replacing. Although the hardware's nothing to write home about, the whole package is beautifully designed with a flair you rarely see on a mobile device. Programs run well, with fluid and transparent multitasking. The gestures are simple, consistent and brilliantly effective: you can use the phone with just a single hand. For a first device, the completeness of the functionality is impressive. Best yet, the console is just a couple of clicks away, giving full access to the entire device (I already have gcc and python installed).

I have to admit, this is all very exciting. I've used multiple devices over the last year trying to find something interesting without luck, so it's worth considering the path that brought me here. It can be neatly summarised by the photo below.


My smartphone experience has been coloured by the earlier devices that defined my computing development. The strength of a device has always been measured - for me - by the potential to program directly on the device. What's the point of carrying a computer around if you can't use it to compute?! From Psions to Nokia Communicators through to the ill-fated Meamo devices, this has always been by far their most exciting trait.

When Maemo/Meego was killed off, the only real alternatives were iOS and Android. I tried both. Android is the spiritual successor to Windows. Its strength is defined by the software that runs on top of it, and it's open enough to interest developers. It's not so bad that people want to avoid it but nonetheless doesn't excel in any particular way. The iPhone on the other hand is an astonishing device. It achieves simplicity through a mixture of control and illusion. In its own way it's perfect, making an excellent communication device. A computing device: less so.

As an aside, both devices are also Trojan horses. Google just wants you logged in to your Google account so it can collect data. Apple wants to seduce you in to its ecosystem, if necessary by making it harder to use anything else. Both are fine as long as the value proposition is worth it.

In February 2013 I finally decided to retire my N900. The provocation for this was actually the release of the Ubuntu Touch developer preview. I purchased a Nexus 4, which is a beautiful piece of hardware, and flashed it with Ubuntu. Sadly, the operating system wasn't ready yet. I've kept the OS on the phone up-to-date (the device is now dual-boot) and in fact it's still not ready yet. If it fulfils its goal of becoming a dual mobile/desktop OS, it could have real potential. But (in the immortal words of Juba) "not yet".

So, in May 2013 I moved to an iPhone. The main motivation for this was to try to establish what data Apple collects during its use, especially given the way Siri works. I've continued using it for this purpose until now, maintaining it exclusively as my main phone in order to ensure valid results. After ten months of usage I think I've given it a fair tryout, but it's definitely not for me. It implements non-standard methods where existing standards would have worked just as well. Options are scattered around the interfaces or programs through a mixture of soft-buttons, hardware-buttons and gestures. I find this constantly frustrating, since most of the time the functionality I'm after doesn't actually exist. Yes, mystery meat navigation has escaped the nineties: it's alive and well on the iPhone. The hardware - while well made - is fussy with its mixture of materials and over-elaborate bevelling. However, ultimately what rules it out is the lack of support for programming the device on the device. There are some simple programming tools, but nothing that really grants proper control.

Finally I've ended up with a Jolla phone running Sailfish OS. There's no doubt that this is the true successor to Maemo. If you have fond memories of the Internet Tablet/N900/N9/N950 line of devices, then I'd recommend a Jolla. If you like Linux and want a phone that really is Linux, rather than a Java VM that happens to be running on the Linux kernel, then I'd recommend a Jolla. Clearly, I'm still suffering from the first-flush of enthusiasm, but it definitely feels good to be finally in possession of a phone that I feel like I can control, rather than one that controls me.

For the record, the photo shows (from right to left) Ubuntu Touch running on a Nexus 4, an iPhone 5 running iOS 7.0.4, Android 4.4.2 KitKat on a Nexus 4 and a Jolla device running Sailfish OS 1.0.3.8 (Naamankajärvi). There are actually only three devices here: both Nexuses are the same. The overall photo and Android device was taken using the Jolla; the Jolla and Ubuntu phones were shot with the iPhone; the iPhone photo was taken with the Android.

I had an interesting experience getting all of the photos off the phones and onto my computer for photoshopping together. Getting the photos off the Jolla and Android devices was easy enough using Bluetooth transfer. The iPhone inexplicably doesn't support Bluetooth file transfer (except with the uselessly myopic AirDrop), and getting anything off the device is generally painful. Eventually I used a third-party application to share the photos over Wi-Fi. However, it was Ubuntu Touch that gave the most trouble. The Nexus 4 doesn't support memory cards, Ubuntu Touch doesn't yet support Bluetooth and the only option offered was to share via Facebook. I gave up on this. No doubt Ubuntu Touch will improve and ultimately outdo iOS on this, but... not yet.

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