Whether it's for reasons of security, national pride, or a mixture of the two, Russia wants to have fewer iPhones and Android phones. Instead of relying on American tech, the country wants to support "independent" mobile operating systems like the Sailfish OS, or Tizen. Last week, government officials met with leading figures in Russia's IT industry and representatives of Jolla — the company that designs Sailfish — to discuss how to crack Apple and Google's duopoly. Between them, the two companies account for around 90 percent of Russia's smartphone sales, but according to news site RBC, the country's government wants to reduce this figure to just 50 percent by the year 2025.
"It’s necessary to develop alternatives to closed or closing mobile platforms."
"We think it’s necessary to develop alternatives to closed or closing mobile platforms based on open operating systems," said Russia's Minister of Telecom and Mass Communications Nikolay Nikiforov in statement, adding that he also wished to involve Russia's fellow BRICS nations — Brazil, India, China, and South Africa. "They all worry about the existing monopoly on global software market and support us in this sphere."
However, contrary to various reports, Jolla chairman Antti Saarnio tells The Verge that Russia is not building its own mobile operating system. Instead, the country is going to be using a number of different methods to try and break its reliance on Android and iOS. One of these methods, according to a translated tweet from Nikiforov in February, will be to give grants to developers who port their apps to the Linux-based Tizen and Sailfish operating systems. Jolla also says that Russia also wants a "localized" version of Sailfish, where Russian services take the place of American ones.
"It doesn't make any sense to have a national operating system."
"We are licensing our code line to vendors, and we are integrating local leading services," says Saarnio. "We’ve already been shipping our devices with [Russia's leading search engine] Yandex's app store. And now we are integrating support for more and more Russian services into Sailfish." He says these initiatives have the Russian government's backing and that reports that the country is building its own mobile OS simply "don't make any sense." He adds: "I think there were some misstatements in the media ... It will not work and it’s not needed."
Even "open source" software comes with licenses and limitations
Certainly, it seems that building a mobile operating system from scratch is a difficult, costly, and perhaps even futile endeavor in today's market. The launch of Samsung-backed Tizen OS was originally slated for 2012, for example, but various development problems delayed the software's launch. In a review of the first ever Tizen device — the low-end, $92 Samsung Z1 — Ars Technica dismissed the OS as a "bad Android clone" that's "no match for the real thing." As well as mentioning weak points like a dodgy UI and a lack of apps (around 1,000 compared to the million-plus on both Android and iOS), Ars notes that the OS is not as open source as it might appear. For example, users need a Samsung Account to sync texts and data — just as Android requires a Google account. Similarly, Jolla's Sailfish OS is based on a mixture of closed and open source licenses.
Russian officials may criticize tightly controlled software like Apple's iOS, but it's wrong to suggest there are always clear lines that divide "closed" and "open" platforms. When figures such as Nikiforov praise platforms like Sailfish and Tizen for being "independent," the implications seem to be more about geopolitics than software development. Following the Snowden revelations in 2013, for example, Nikiforov demanded that Apple hand over its source code to Russia so it could be searched for "undeclared capabilities."
Saario says that Jolla is not considering the political implications of the move. "I’m an entrepreneur and I have one mission: to maximize the user base for our operating system," he says. "And from the point of view of a small technology startup we need great help, so of course, I very much welcome any help from any big country." He adds that he's "not worried at all" about Russia's possible influence over Sailfish. "All the critical know-how is what we have in our people and that's not easily transferred."