Creating a smartphone that no one wants!


In the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, the country has experienced a significant exodus of tech companies and services, including some of the world’s largest smartphone brands, Samsung and Apple. This has prompted the Russian government to double down on its efforts to achieve technological self-sufficiency and digital sovereignty. One of Russia’s most recent attempts at technological self-sufficiency is the creation of a new Android smartphone by the National Computer Corporation (NCC), one of Russia’s largest IT companies. According to NCC founder Alexander Kalinin, the company aims to sell 100,000 smartphones and tablets by the end of 2023, and invest 10 billion rubles ($132.9 million) in the project. Kalinin also hopes to capture 10% of the consumer market by 2026.

However, some experts are skeptical of the project’s success. Jan Stryjak, associate director at Counterpoint Research, suggests that a Russian smartphone might have difficulty competing with inexpensive smartphones from China and could face obstacles in using Google’s Android operating system. Google no longer offers paid apps or updates for those apps to Russian users, but it has not prevented people in Russia from using its free services like Gmail, Maps, Play, and YouTube. It remains to be seen whether Google would allow the full license of Android to be used in a Russian smartphone.

Despite these challenges, the Russian government has continued to promote the idea of digital sovereignty, which entails state control over the internet within its borders, including content, data, and infrastructure. The government began promoting this idea after the sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

In some ways, Russia’s efforts at digital sovereignty have been successful. After Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter were blocked in the country, some Russian users switched to domestic social media platforms, particularly VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook. Similarly, Russian companies have been trying to lure users away from popular platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube to homemade variants such as Yappy, Rossgram, and RuTube.

However, many of these platforms have faced criticism for outdated designs, lack of users, or too much state propaganda.

The Russian government has also launched initiatives to create domestic substitutes for foreign electronics, online platforms, and software, on which many Russian companies are dependent. Over a thousand tech companies have stopped or curtailed their operations in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. This has affected entire industries, including mobile operators, factories, startups, and large state-owned companies.

In February, Russian prime minister Mikhail Mishustin announced that the country wants to replace 85% of foreign software with Russian substitutes, opening dozens of so-called import substitution centers. One of the projects under consideration is the creation of a national operating system for devices. However, this plan is still in its early stages, and no road map has been established.

A promising alternative to Android is Aurora OS, a Linux-based smartphone operating system made by the Russian state-owned telecommunications firm Rostelecom. However, Aurora was primarily designed for government use and does not support Android apps. Other Russian smartphone makers, such as BQ, have promised to adapt Huawei’s HarmonyOS for their handsets. But there has been no news of progress since BQ’s announcement in September.

The struggles faced by Huawei, which lost almost a third of its revenue in 2020 after US trade sanctions cut its access to Google Maps, Gmail, and other common Google apps, show the challenges of competing without access to Google services. Thus, the success of Russia’s technological self-sufficiency efforts remains uncertain.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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