The inside story of Russia's 'own mobile OS': It's not what you think

After evaluating Tizen, Russia plumped for closer ties with Jolla's Sailfish OS. Just don't expect a homegrown OS, though.

Earlier this week, reports surfaced that Russia was looking to build its own mobile operating system in an effort to become less dependent on Western technology.

While it might make sense that Russia wants its own mobile OS, that's not the country's plan, according to Antti Saarnio, the chairman of Jolla, the Finnish company supposedly brought in to help develop the software.

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On Monday it was reported that the Russian Ministry had enlisted Jolla, the company founded by former Nokia staffers and which makes the Linux-based Sailfish OS, to help to develop a Kremlin-approved fork of the operating system.

The narrative of Russia going it alone has a certain appeal. Concerns over US technology are likely running high in the country due in part to US spying revealed by its temporary resident Edward Snowden. The precedent for a homegrown OS was also set by China which, for security and competition reasons, is reining in government spending on US software, and has tried, without much success, to develop a Chinese mobile OS.

However, Jolla's Saarnio told ZDNet there is no plan to build a new 'Russian-only' mobile operating system - at least none that involve Sailfish.

"I think it's a misunderstanding that there would be a Russian version of the operating system. There's no need for that," said Saarnio.

"Our approach is to have one code base but then to integrate local internet services and ecommerce services on the user interface. That's enough, there's no need develop their own," he said.

Talks of Russian support for Sailfish occurred during a meeting last Thursday hosted by Russia's telecoms minister Nikolay Nikiforov, and which included Saarnio, Yandex's CEO Gregory Bakunov, and Alt Linux's Alexie Smirnov.

Nikiforov said it was "necessary to develop alternatives to closed or closing mobile platforms based on open operating systems", likely referring to iOS and Google's tightening grip over Android.

"Sailfish is almost an international company today. It is owned not only by Finnish, but also by Russian and Chinese, shareholders. We hope that strategic Indian, Brazilian, and South African investors will also join Sailfish soon," said Nikiforov.

The Russian shareholder that Nikiforov referred to is ESN Group, according to Saarnio, which is Jolla's newest investor and owns "less than 10 percent" of the company.

He declined to disclose the exact amount of the ESN Group's investment or precisely when it occurred, but said Jolla had raised $50m since launching, of which $20m was from the last six months. In December, Saarnio told TechCrunch it had raised $42m since launching.

Sailfish over Tizen

The Russian ministry this spring evaluated both Sailfish and the Samsung-backed Linux project Tizen, according to Saarnio.

"During this process they selected Sailfish as the most open and the most independent operating system," he said, adding that when it comes to those two criteria, there really aren't that many choices.

Tizen has largely been abandoned by the carriers that once made up the Tizen Association, leaving Samsung as its main torchbearer. So far, the company has only launched the Samsung Z and Gear smartwatch running on Tizen.

At the same time, Jolla is yet to hit its stride with Sailfish OS. It marketed the platform early on as an offshoot of Nokia's MeeGo OS, which draws on core components from the Mer project.

Jolla released Sailfish 1.0 on its own device, also called the Jolla, which is sold in Europe, Russia, and India. Fans liked it, but reviewers found the first edition OS rough around the edges. Sailfish 2.0, which will ship on its forthcoming crowdfunded tablet, will be released this summer and is ready to be licensed to OEMs.

While it's the devices side of the business that draws the most attention, handsets are really a means to an end, said Saarnio.

"The company's main focus is licensing the Sailfish OS. That's the main way for us to scale. It wouldn't be possible to finance a device making company. Xiaomi has done it but that's a different circumstance. Of course we are continuing with Jolla devices, but that's not the main business of the company."

No free ride in Moscow

At the moment, the Russian ministry has only endorsed Sailfish as a viable, open, and independent platform, but it hasn't promised any additional funding to Jolla and won't give it special treatment in the country when striking commercial deals.

"There are no short cuts and government support won't help too much there," said Sarrnio.

"The ministry is making a public statement about supporting an open OS, but it remains to be seen what are the actual actions and support on this agenda."

Jolla and Sailfish could nevertheless benefit in less direct ways by the government giving more support to Russian developers, which account for some of Sailfish's "most talented" coders, according to Saarnio.

Russia also needs to think about Android's dominance among government employees.

"They should also be considering what operating system is used in the government employee workforce. That's one very interesting business opportunity for us," he said.

Of course, the only Sailfish OS device right now is Jolla's own hardware but that could change very soon with a deal, not from China - its original focus - but India, where Cyanogen has made inroads with Micromax's Yu smartphones.

According to Saarnio, Jolla is planning to announce a new Indian device vendor partner "very soon".

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"We are proceeding fastest in India at the moment. Indian device makers are very keen to find an alternative to current mobile OSes. And they already see that they still have a chance to build a local ecosystem there. And I believe that's the biggest market and business opportunity for Jolla in the near time."

Under the partnership, Jolla would license the OS to a device vendor and negotiate deals with local media companies to host their services on its user interface. The Finnish company would also strike deals with local Android app stores, similar to that with its own device with the Yandex app store.

Russia's endorsement of Sailfish could also spur further investments in Jolla as it attempts to break new ground in India and South Africa.

Nikiforov has already used Russia's position as this year's chair of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to persuade them to join forces on software development and combat an IT industry that he said was "monopolized by one country and few companies".

His call to action for BRICS nations comes as Russia introduces its "import substitution program" for software and telecoms equipment, which pushes government agencies to buy Russian products where the country has competitive local offerings, such as enterprise software, antivirus and security software, and internet services.

Nikiforov said he wasn't talking about a "total ban" on buying foreign tech - which would likely be impossible to enforce anyhow - but "rational restrictions" on government budgets and "companies with state participation".

"We are expanding partnership with BRICS in sphere of collective software development for these markets. They all worry about the existing monopoly on global software market and support us in this sphere," he said.

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