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With pocket-size desktop, Solu aims to change computing

Almost two weeks ago in San Francisco a tiny Finnish startup quietly declared war on Microsoft, Google and Apple. The makers of a mobile device called Solu say they want to change how people use and think about computing. But some naysayers think the company may have bitten off more than it can chew.

Video: The makers of the new Solu handheld computer hope to revolutionise personal computing.
The makers of the new Solu handheld computer hope to revolutionise personal computing. Video: Yle News

The Finnish startup Solu is in the process of creating an ecosystem of hardware, apps and its own operating system. The unit is a small square-shaped touch screen computer that can be used on the desktop and, the company says, anywhere else.

Yle News got an up-close preview of the device at Solu's headquarters in a leafy neighbourhood of Helsinki last week.

The founder of the company, Solu's CEO Kristoffer Lawson, says one of the biggest differences between the company’s device and other touch-screen products is its environment of collaboration and services.

The company's main selling point – or perhaps its riskiest bet – is that use of the device is reliant on a paid subscription.

In addition to the price of the unit, for 19 euros a month subscribers will get access to all of the available apps that Solu provides as well as automatic cloud storage of all of their Solu data.

Manufactured in Finland

"Now the technology is there to build a computer where you don't have to worry about backups or hard drive space, you can share things directly with other people, you can collaborate. You don’t have to worry about downloading and paying for applications, with Solu all that goes away," Lawson says in his part-Finnish, part-Northern Irish cadence.

Tech writers have described the Solu unit as looking like a shiny drinks coaster, and to some extent it does. The roughly one centimetre-thick edge of the unit is made of wood and the touch-sensitive glass surface makes it look like a high-end, albeit square, smartphone.

The device will be manufactured in Finland, Lawson says, noting that the Solu will be the first mobile device to be mass-produced in the country since Nokia's N9 smartphone four years ago.

Kickstarter and €1.8m investment

It appears that the company's Kickstarter fundraising campaign could reach its 200,000 euro goal soon.

Now, nearly two weeks since the San Francisco launch, Solu's Kickstarter has raised almost 182,000 euros so far. The company has also raised nearly two million euros from private investors, he says.

The Kickstarter campaign offers early adopters a Solu unit for 350 euros, or 100 euros less than its planned retail price, which the company says should ship in May 2016.

Work in progress

Lawson acknowledges that the device is under development and far from complete, noting that Yle News is among the first in the world to see two of the six Solu prototypes.

"Most companies wouldn’t allow the media to see a product at this stage," Lawson says, perhaps an indication that he doesn’t consider Solu as just another tech company.

The subscription plan, Lawson says, enables people to use apps when they need them, without having to pay for – or even think about them.

"You don’t download and install apps, you simply launch them," Lawson says. "For example, if I want to work on a document, I just launch a new document. If I want to create a music file then I open a music editor. I can share it with my friends or my team members – they don’t need to install anything."

No windows, no icons

Visually, the Solu's cell-like interface (solu is the Finnish word for cell) is unique. There is no start menu or traditional files or folders; each screen is based on cellular-looking "projects" that become the interface, and when coupled with search (which is still under development), the system has the potential to change the way people think about handling data.

Everything done on the unit is automatically saved into the cloud, and according to Lawson the idea is to make the most common "computer work" of manual backups and filing invisible to the user.

Lawson also says the subscription model will encourage developers to make apps that people actually use, because royalties will increase based on how much people use them. The company has already put out the call to developers to start making apps for the platform, but couldn't say how many apps are planned at this stage.

Macs "not the pinnacle"

Another major part of Solu is the system's built-in collaboration. Groups can work together on projects. Word processing documents, spreadsheets or other files can be edited and shared by colleagues on Solu machines, and the system also works when users are offline.

"I know that people think that Mac might be the pinnacle of computers, but they're not," Lawson says.

"We can go much further than that. When you think about [Apple's] iCloud for collaboration it’s actually really horrible. If I want to share a document, and we’re working together, if I go offline it stops working, the whole environment breaks down."

"We can do a much better job of that. Collaboration is really the key thing here," Lawson says.

Manual backups "completely crazy"

"Just a few weeks ago the hard drive on my fiancee’s Mac broke and she had some backups but not even half of the stuff was backed up," Lawson says.

"It’s completely crazy that we have to do this kind of stuff - we’re still fighting with our machines to be able to do the regular things that we want to do with them."

The subscription fee will give users unlimited, automatic cloud storage of their all of their Solu data. If a device is lost or broken, it’s OK, because everything is saved.

Solu runs on a Linux-based operating system called Solu OS. The platform will also allow users to install Android apps, for what Lawson describes as "legacy applications" like Microsoft Word or Skype.

Can it be done?

The arching ambition of Solu's founders is clear, but can they do it? There are some problems. The first-generation of the device will not have a mobile cellular data capability – quite a problem if you're not near a Wi-Fi connection. Even the Wi-Fi link failed during a recent presentation of the prototype.

Then again, much bigger companies – including PC giant Microsoft – have suffered similar problems with new product launches. Solu is only a little more than a year old, run by 13 people and attracting interest from around the world – not a bad beginning for a Finnish startup.

Early reviews have been cautious. One tech writer who attended the October 15 San Francisco launch said that while Solu may a good idea, it still needs a lot of work.

The BBC's technology reporter Dave Lee called the device "desperately unintuitive." Lee pointed to a crash of the device during the presentation and other setbacks, calling the product "nowhere near ready".

Another PR stumbling block the company faces is that the first generation Solu will not feature mobile network connectivity and can only connect to the internet via Wi-Fi, causing some in the tech blogosphere to wonder if the Solu really is a mobile device.

Analyst: "Good luck, but it’s not easy"

When Yle News contacted Horace Dediu, the mobile phone industry analyst and disruption theory expert was still learning about the details of Solu. He said he reckons the company’s success depends on many factors.

"What they’re trying to do is the most ambitious thing they could try to do," Dediu says.

"They’re establishing a new platform, a new user's paradigm, a new business model for computing and apps. Extraordinary ambition requires extraordinary execution and strategy, and so I would say good luck, but it’s not easy."

Is there a chance that Solu could disrupt the highly competitive personal and mobile computer market?

"I think they're trying something interesting and new," Dediu says. "There's definitely a possibility they could disrupt the market. Not one in a million, but maybe there's a one-in-a-thousand chance that they could. They're targeting a very interesting market."

"I hate to discourage anyone, I would just like to understand better how they're going to finesse their way into this. Innovators are the ones we should celebrate and I think they're doing what everybody should do," Dediu says.

"I’m the next Kristoffer Lawson"

Flanked by Solu's small team of programmers and engineers, some of whom came directly from Nokia's mobile devices division, Lawson seems confident that Solu has the chance to shake things up in the industry, but says he's realistic, too.

"We have everything lined up for this to be a really big success, but you never know how these stories turn out," Lawson says. "We're working really hard to get there and we've made the business model to be a real one, and not something built up and then sold to whoever comes on board first."

Lawson says that when he was growing up and fascinated by computers and programming in the mid 1980s, he knew what he wanted to do with his life when he learned that Steve Jobs lost his top spot at Apple and then launched the NeXt computer company.

"That was just so awesome," he says. "The guy who helped to create the personal computer industry with the first Apple and then went on to create another really special technology company, I thought 'that's something I want to do'."

The firm that Jobs built is now a corporate behemoth, dominating the industry and racking up the profits. Solu's entire capital is equivalent to what Apple makes in less than ten minutes. It's a daunting comparison for anyone, but does Lawson really think he might be the next Steve jobs?

"I prefer to think of myself as the next Kristoffer Lawson," he says half-jokingly. "Of course Steve Jobs did a lot of great things, he did a lot of stupid things. You kind of take the lessons where you can find them."

"I think that the most important part is to be proud of something that we have done in the way that we want to do them, in our own style," Lawson says. "Whether or not this becomes a huge success, I think it's even more important to be proud of the fact that we've brought this to the world."

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