Blackberry to Sailfish

I bought my Blackberry Z30 five years ago after recognising Google’s business model for the disease that it is. I’d previously used an iPhone, which was a great user experience but a poor owner experience if I wasn’t prepared to submit to full immersion in the Apple ecosystem.

My Blackberry served me well. Even as support withered app by app and the company abandoned its OS10 platform, it remained the best smartphone I’ve ever owned. It still is. Today the hub still integrates email, text messages and app notifications (it originally also integrated Facebook messages, tweets and any other native communication). The camera still shoots great HD video. I can still cast content to our smart TV with DLNA. But I can no longer read my Twitter feed, the third party Slack app is an embarrassment and the browser fails to load more pages than it renders.

I read the writing on the wall some time ago, and have been researching my options. There weren’t many, although more have appeared since I started looking. Whether or not Purism’s Librem 5 Linux phone succeeds, it seems a sure thing that either the Pinephone or the crowd sourced Ubuntu Touch will become a real offering in the near future. And for some time there’s been a Scandinavian alternative to Google surveillance-ware and Apple’s walled garden: Sailfish OS by Jolla.

I recently bought a Sony Xperia XA2 Plus and flashed it with Sailfish OS. The process was straightforward, but I’m a developer who works in Linux and is comfortable using the command line. It may not be so straightforward for every prospective Sailfish user, especially as the Jolla instructions – at least the English instructions – were misleading in more than one case. Still, the process succeeded. Mostly. The only unexpected failure is the fingerprint reader which the Jolla documentation indicates should work. It doesn’t, but the reason may lie in Jolla’s recommendation not to install the latest Sony firmware due to a performance issue with 5GHz wifi.

How is the operating system? Buttery smooth and very pretty. Like Blackberry’s OS10, it’s gesture based. For my initial confusion some gestures are the same and others are different, but that will only frustrate me in the short term. The operating system seems fully featured and well thought through. While the notification screen isn’t a full replacement for Blackberry’s outstanding hub, it’s OK. I’d read user concerns about the Sailfish native web browser, and was pleasantly surprised at how much better it is than the outdated browser in my Blackberry Z30.

I was able to install a good third party Twitter app; there’s been no official Twitter access for Blackberry users since August of this year. Setting up email, CalDAV and CardDAV accounts was simple and their respective apps work well. I’ve found an acceptable book reader and a useful file browser, and I know there are utilities available to provide the network functionality I’ve relied on in my Z30. The music and video players work well, and I see there are apps for Facebook and other social networks, although I won’t be needing these myself. After some trial and error I’ll no doubt settle on a shopping list app and a feed reader too. And there’s a point.

Most of the third party Sailfish feed readers on offer require the user to be running their own server with ownCloud or NextCloud or Tiny Tiny RSS installed. In other words, these apps are written by developers for other developers or hobbyists. That’s fine. But the prevalence of these doesn’t bode well for the wide adoption of Sailfish. Moreover, having installed more than six of the highest rated feed readers, they all seem very unsophisticated compared to their Blackberry equivalents or, for that matter, compared to Feedly or Flipboard. Smartphone users in the 2020s expect an easier and smoother ride.

My big gripe is that there’s no working Slack app for Sailfish at the moment. It’s close to being a deal breaker. The Slack app for Blackberry is a shocker; it has no daemon, and it’s necessary to open every channel, group and direct message in a workspace to see whether anyone needs you right now. It’s truly awful, but it exists and it works if I need to fire off a quick message while I’m out and about (no images, though, either for viewing or uploading). There are two Sailfish apps. One is deprecated and the other is currently unapproved by the gatekeepers at Slack. This really needs to be sorted out.

Incidentally, Sailfish OS is a two tiered environment. The free community edition can be installed without charge. If you want the premium experience, with support for Android apps and a predictive keyboard, you’ll need to pay EUR49.90 (down to EUR39.90 as I write this) and you’ll need to be domiciled within the European Union. I’m not greatly interested in Android apps, and I found a very satisfactory predictive keyboard in the “alternative” Sailfish app store. Truth be told, I couldn’t buy the premium product because I don’t live in Europe and failed to convince Jolla’s payment server that my New Zealand credit card speaks fluent Italian.

So, a summary. I will miss my Blackberry Z30, but Sailfish OS on a premium Sony device makes a good fist of filling that void. But for Sailfish OS to carve out the sort of market share it’s capable of catering to, it will need to remove the geofence around its premium tier, either pre-install the operating system or make installation a seamless one click operation, and foster third party app development that’s a bit more sophisticated and a little less developer-centric. At least that’s my view.

And now I’m going to set up a little shrine to my decommissioned Blackberry Z30. Something tasteful with a scattering of rose petals and dead SIM cards, perhaps.