Sailfish: my fave iPhone and Android Alternative

Five generations of Sailfish Phones I have loved.
Five generations of Sailfish Phones I have loved. Janet Vertesi 2021

"I want to tell you about my Good Thing." --Led Zeppelin, The Crunge

Did you know that there is a perfectly workable alternative smartphone out there, one that isn't Android or Apple, and one that lets you decide how you want to keep your data?

A smartphone you can use every day, that responds to your swipes and taps like a dream, gives you root access to the device like a mini computer, and runs basically any app you can think of?

A phone that doesn't creepily listen in on everything you do and report it to someone else's computer?

A phone that despite all these differences, just works, for almost anything you want to do with it?

There is. It's an operating system called Sailfish. And it is my favorite of all the phones.

Where did Sailfish come from?

I discovered Sailfish in 2014, when I first decided to ditch my iPhone. At the time I was experimenting with building phones myself, but they weren't very functional (or even just, functional). I wondered, who else out there had envisioned a smartphone back in the day, but hadn't thought of it with strings attached? No store, no cloud, no company tracking everything you do and every call you make?

In early 2014, Blackberry was faltering. Microsoft phones didn't solve that problem. I thought back to the phones I had once known and loved, and settled on Nokia. And it turned out they did! They did build a smartphone!

The Nokia N9 was absolutely gorgeous (still is), completely enchanting and amazing, and fully functional. It won design awards right and left. It ran using Linux, so people who wanted to give it commands like a little computer could go right ahead. A far cry from the walled garden of Apple, or the user interfaces that controlled what you could and could not do on your own phone.

But it was late to market. Nokia sold to Microsoft, Microsoft canned the project, and that might have been the end of the story...

Nokia N9 phone
Imma let you finish, but the Nokia N9 was the most beautiful smartphone of all time.

... except that the people who designed this beauty's operating system took the IP, started a new Finnish company called Jolla, and kept working on it to build a new generation of phones with the same concept, now called the Sailfish operating system. Data ownership, autonomy, no walled gardens, gesture-based interfaces, the works.

Meanwhile, the people who used the phone loved it so much that they wrote entire libraries of code to keep it working. In other words, they built their own app store. They rescripted the phone so it could talk to upgraded network towers.  And when Sailfish came out, many of them started using Sailfish too, helping the community to grow and the company to iron out the bugs.

Fast forward a few years and you have today's Sailfish Operating System. It's not just a phone. It's a community of people who love the phone, try it out and track bugs, write software for it, and share expertise and experience about it. It's a company hell-bent on keeping another option alive as the Google/Apple duopoly grew: an option where people can be experts, keep their data from moving unbidden, and can invest in alternatives.

I've been using Sailfish since I flashed version 1.0 to a Nexus 5 in 2016 and I simply love this operating system. It's essentially a fully functional alternative smartphone. I use it as my "daily driver": phone-talk for "it's my only phone and I take it everywhere and (mostly) don't need anything else." And you can too.

Favorite Features

On Sailfish, there is no built in cloud. There are no ads.  The phone doesn't listen into your conversations or read your emails.  The company isn't using your every move to feed machine learning algorithms. You are not the product.

Interacting with the phone is dreamy and intuitive. The swipe-based interface is a holdover from that beautiful N9 and it is truly gorgeous. 

A quick glance at your phone's background image will tell you if it's in a silent mode you defined, or set up to ring loud enough for the neighbors to hear. That's because you create what Jolla calls "Ambiences," which include a specific background image, text color, and settings like ringtone volume, sound alerts, and notification controls. Select a different ambience, and the phone behaves differently.

The fact that it's built on Linux means there is a terminal on the phone. That gives you full, command-line, root access to your phone. Believe me, once you've played around with the terminal prompt on your phone you will never look at an iPhone or an Android the same way again.

The operating system is encrypted, for extra security, and it keeps applications running entirely separately so apps can't see what other apps are doing at the same time. This ensures apps don't bleed data between them. No sudden creepy leakage from one app to another.

A few years ago, Jolla engineers developed a clever way for Android apps to work on Sailfish devices. This means you can run almost any application built for an Android phone, on Sailfish. There are several alternative "stores" from which to download these files, called APKs (because they end with the extension .apk, android package kit). Sometimes you run into problems because the app expects a Google Play store or it can't figure out how to talk to Bluetooth or the camera. In such cases, there's typically another app availalble that does the same thing.

It comes with built-in accounts to manage your logins for popular systems, like Microsoft 365 (Exchange OWA support), Twitter, or Google, cloud storage like Dropbox, NextCloud, or OneDrive, or any general email, calendar, or contact info you want to connect. 

I've had no problem connecting Bluetooth speakers, or Sonos systems, or audio devices, or watches, when I choose to do so. Thanks to an application called RockPool, I can still operate my Pebble smartwatch, but others use GadgetBridge to connect to whatever device you might own (maybe not an Apple Watch, walled garden yada yada, but honestly I don't know).

Creative community members have written and put up lots of cool applications for others to use. Mail and calendars integrate with Exchange OWA (good for work). There's good maps software, a bunch of different options for cameras, lots of storage and room for an SD card to expand. There's a fingerprint sensor for unlocking, an easy notifications screen, it all works.

Good battery life, modern connectivity speeds, megapixel cameras, emails, texts and notifications... what more do you need?


Sailfish can pretty much replicate or replace everything you might do on a Big Two smartphone. Here are my some of my favourites apps and equivalents:

  • Terminal. I actually never get tired of the terminal. Because there is no equivalent elsewhere, period (Android terminals are siloed in a little box from the rest of the machine). No one else lets you manage your own phone at this level.
  • Pure Maps. I always have several different mapping apps just in case, including open street maps, Quant maps, and others. But Pure Maps is good for everyday.
  • RockPool. Helps me control my Pebble smartwatch. If you have another smartwatch, consider GadgetBridge, available as an APK.
  • Sailslack. Slack, for Sailfish. 
  • Whisperfish. Signal, for Sailfish. 
  • CuteSpot. Spotify, for Sailfish.
  • Advanced Camera: Gives you lots of creative filters and control over the camera, apart from the basics that come pre-installed.
  • CodeReader: for the now-ubiquitous QR codes we once thought weren't long for this world
  • N9ish icons: makes your Sailfish screen look like an N9 screen. Nostalgia. Also, NASA Pop Ambiences. Gorgeous.
  • Fedilab and TooterBeta: great for Mastodon and fediverse access
  • NewPipe, not a Sailfish app per se, but helps you watch and download YouTube videos so you can store them on your own device. Vodman is a Sailfish native app that does the same thing.
  • Sailfish Utilities. More control panels for the phone.
  • Wordle. I don't need to explain this one.

Don't see a favorite? Write it!

How do I get apps?

Apps for Sailfish are available in three kinds of places.

One is the Jolla Store, which comes pre-installed. Don't think "store" as in shopping, think "store" as in storage. You don't pay for these apps: they're all free. Many are made by community members, they are just distributed and findable by Jolla on the store, and pretty much guaranteed to work on your device.

Another are community member 'stores' (again, think store like storage). Two chief ones are Storeman (which connects to OpenRepos) and Chum. These are basically community code repositories: if you're familiar with Git you'll recognize the concept. If not, don't worry.  The developer will post different versions of the app, you can update or not if you choose, and post or see comments and conversation with the developer about bugs or features in the pipeline, etc.

These are real people, with other jobs. It's not a well-resourced economic powerhouse. So have patience, and contribute where or how you can. 

The third are third-party app stores that allow you to download Android APK's without having to be on the Google store. In a move that reminds me a lot of how we used to get software in the 1990's, people on the internet post recent versions of these APKs for others to download. Install at your own risk, but you can often tell in the comments which are reliable and which are not. I currently use Aptoide, which has a lot of apps on it, and F-Droid, which is only for free and open source Android applications, which sometimes better suit my concerns about privacy.

Oh wait -- there is a fourth way. You can always download software as an .rpm file directly to your phone and then install it from the command line. ;)

The fine print

There are, of course, a few drawbacks. For me, these are acceptable trades, but your mileage may vary.

You will not get 5G (yet). The Xperia 10iii handset is technically compatible with certain 5G bands, but the Sailfish firmware doesn't include that capability yet. It's complicated, but hopefully it will change in future. Yes, it's a tradeoff, but again, I have my priorities and I haven't noticed a big loss.

Multi-party text messages don't work. That is, you can send to and receive SMS's from multiple people, but you can't have a threaded conversation, like a group chat. This is largely because, in Europe, the relative inexpensiveness of data plans pushed people onto data-messaging platforms, like Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp, and WeChat, instead of SMS. I suspect Jolla engineers think that everyone who wants to group chat is on one of those systems anyway. Regardless, that feature hasn't shown up in 6 years so I don't expect it soon.

Your chats won't be "green" on other peoples' Apple devices. Ask yourself if that's something you can live with. ;)

You will miss out on little micro-convenience on iOS or Android that are there to capture more of your data. Because Jolla isn't capturing and managing everything you do, Sailfish won't automatically read your emails to detect calendar invitations and put them on your calendar. It won't use facial recognition systems to tag your photos. It won't sync anything you haven't asked it to.

Of course, for me, these are features, not flaws. But I appreciate that for some people there may be some invented micro-convenience that they miss.

It also means you'll have to set up its backup system. You can schedule it automatically, but there is no iCloud or Picasa on the other side. Again, feature for me, not a flaw.

For some dedicated Free and Open Source Software afficionados, it's a dealbreaker that Sailfish runs on a Red Hat, a flavor of Linux that isn't entirely open source and requires paying a small license fee. The N9 was based on Debian, which is entirely free and open, and there are other phone projects in the works, like PinePhone, that aim for this standard.

Personally, I use a lot of free and open source software, but I also use a lot of software I pay for. That's because my interest is data autonomy: I want to support a range of alternatives and pricing models that give me control over my data. Sometimes these values overlap, sometimes they don't. For instance, Android is free and open source, but it's a Google product so I won't touch it. 99% of Android flavors out there are harvesting user data for Google. I've made my choice: others will make theirs.

The commands in Red Hat are slightly different from those used in the Debian family like Ubuntu or Mint. It's similar enough, but with some wildcard differences for everyday tasks like installing or updating software. If you have never used Linux before, or don't plan to use the terminal on the phone, no worries. If you are command-line curious or experienced, just keep a cheat sheet handy.

How do I get one?

Jolla doesn't make their own phones (they tried that, once--long story). Instead, they will sell you their operating system to put on a phone of your choice. That could have been much harder to do except that a few years ago, Sony opened some of their handsets for customers to put whatever operating system they want on it (the "Sony Open Handset Program."

Since then, Jolla and its community of users have built versions of Sailfish for specific Sony handsets, and provided instructions online for people to make their own.

Basically, you make your own phone.

In the United States (where you are not supposed to be if you get the Sailfish license, but many of us just happen to be here), Sailfish currently works best on an Xperia 10iii with T-Mobile prepaid service. The 10ii works too, but community members report it to be a little more buggy and drops more calls and connections. I used an X and an XA for years, but in spring 2022 the US-networks dropped 3G and only allowed 4G LTE connection. At least Jolla got LTE up and running in time.

I don't mind being stuck with the 10iii.  It is a beautiful phone and, in my opinion, the best Sailfish experience I've had yet.

(And if you have never flashed a phone before, HOORAY! You are welcome here! I was once in your shoes, and now it's one of my favorite hobbies, so be prepared for a fun ride.)

You will need the following:

  1. A handset. I recommend looking on eBay (or the website of your favorite phone reseller) for a Sony Xperia 10iii. Follow my untraceable purchasing tips if you feel like it.
  2. A PC. You're going to need to download a Sony tool called Emma to wipe the phone's operating system and get it ready for Sailfish, and it only runs on a Windows machine. If you don't have a PC, download an emulator for your Mac or Linux box.
  3. A USB cable that can transfer data
  4. A Sailfish license. Go on over to to buy one for your phone of choice.
  5. A credit card that works in Europe, so you can buy the license. It is not officially available for Americans (yet) so you will have to pick the European country that you are obviously in while you are reading this. Note that cards work, which are based on American bank accounts. A Sailfish license costs 50 Euro.
  6. The instructions. They're at 

Make sure you visit as that is where people can help you if you get stuck. Someone probably has already answered a question you have (don't bug them by asking again, start with a search please!).

You will also need to be good at following instructions. In general, you'll start by using the Sony software, Emma, to unlock your phone, wipe the operating system, and install a baseline version. This takes about half an hour. Next, you must test making calls, sending a few texts, and using the camera to be sure it all works. Then download the Sailfish operating system, plug into your computer and follow instructions to "flash" (i.e. install) the Sailfish operating system over the USB cable directly onto the phone. When the phone resets, the Sailfish logo will pop up, followed by the introductory guide.

With the exception of the Sony software, everything else you do through a command line interface, which is the "terminal" program on Mac or a "command prompt" on a PC. It's essentially a way to talk directly to your computer without going through a graphical user interface (the pretty icons, windows, and drop down boxes). You can copy the commands from the instructions and paste them into your terminal so you don't make any mistakes copying them over.

You need patience. It won't always go as planned (but it will work, in the end). You may have to flash more than once. Put aside a good evening to do this. Also, courage. Don't worry about people saying "if you do this, you'll brick your phone!" I mean, heed their warnings, by all means. But I have yet to actually, truly brick a phone. If you are following instructions, it almost always works like a charm.

And charming it is. I love test-driving new phones, but this one is a winner in my book.