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Russia's bid for mobile self-sufficiency may be the saviour of Sailfish

Comrades: We present your official alternative to Android

Comment The quest for freedom from US technologies and patent fees has been a persistent theme in China and has helped shape the new mobile landscape, in which Baidu and Alibaba, not Google and Amazon, dominate the user experience. Less is heard about another massive market, Russia, but here too, the push for technology self-sufficiency is gathering momentum, creating opportunities for alternatives to Android and iOS.

The Russian government has chosen Sailfish – a Finnish Linux-based mobile operating system created by start-up Jolla – as the basis of its own mobile software platform, which will be developed by new venture Open Mobile Platform (OMP) and will be adopted by government agencies and state-owned corporations.

Sailfish’s new direction endorsed

This is a major boost for Sailfish, which was created by former Nokia employees based on the MeeGo OS, codeveloped by Nokia and Intel, but sidelined when the former embraced Windows Phone.

Despite a strong technical pedigree, Sailfish has struggled to gain visibility in a world where even Microsoft could not penetrate the Android/iOS fortress. But it has received a shot in the arm now it has been officially designated as an alternative to Android for Russia, and has received funding from OMP.

This is the first major endorsement of Jolla’s 16-month-old change of strategy, to focus on developing an open software platform, not on designing its own devices. The scale and resources required to succeed in smartphones and tablets proved too daunting for a startup, and although its smartphone made it to market, it has sold only small numbers, while a crowdfunded tablet was scrapped a year ago.

There is far greater potential in a robust, Linux-based mobile OS which can be licensed to manufacturers, not just for smartphones but Internet of Things devices, robots and other emerging categories. In May, Jolla secured $12m in funding in a Series C round, and confirmed that Turing Robotics Industries had selected Sailfish for its security-focused Turing Phone.

Turing CEO Steve Chao said at the time that the OS was running extremely fast on the smartphone, and that he was looking to use it as the foundations for building out a Turing ecosystem.

Superior security, robustness and strong performance in industrial or enterprise applications are claims made for Sailfish, and they could certainly appeal to Russia’s state agencies, at a time when the government has redoubled its efforts to reduce use of US technology and to build up local platforms and ecosystems.

Last month, a bill was proposed which would prevent government bodies from buying any software that was based on proprietary foreign frameworks like IBM Websphere, even if it were developed in Russia. The aim is to reduce reliance on foreign mobile operating systems to 50 per cent by 2025, down from the 95 per cent share held by Android and iOS in 2015.

And the choice of Sailfish is not just a strike against Android by an increasingly USsuspicious administration. There are other mobile OS candidates with roots outside America, including Samsung’s Tizen OS or Alibaba’s Aliyun (though Google claims this is a fork of Android). But the Jolla platform, it seems, offered genuine advantages as well as hailing from a friendly country. For one, it offers compatibility with the huge store of Android apps, unlike some failed challengers like Firefox Mobile.

Russia chooses Jolla over homegrown effort

Russia’s Ministry of Communications assessed various alternatives, according to local reports, and in particular, chose Sailfish over Tizen OS for its greater openness and security. Jolla chairman Antti Saarnio told TechCrunch that the selection process had started back in spring 2015. He added: “It started with the IT Ministry of Russia long-listing available alternative mobile operating systems. They ended up doing a technical analysis of two OSs: one was Tizen, the other was us, Sailfish OS.”

He explained: “After a couple of months very thorough technical evaluation they selected our OS for further collaboration. What we then started was a joint R&D project with a local Russian organization to build an OS version of Sailfish into Russia so that government will have an independent OS but it’s supported by our overall code base. The Russian government has a list of software which can be seen as a national software and which are audited and certified, and in this list of software, our software is the only mobile OS software — currently.”

It seems that there were no credible Russian-developed alternatives to Android, though Jolla is working with Open Mobile to integrate Sailfish code with a Russian services platform. Open Mobile was set up recently with funding from Russian businessman Grigory Berezkin, head of ESN Energy. It has licensed Sailfish and will customize it as the basis of its own platform.

Pavel Eyges, CEO of Open Mobile, said: “We believe that open source-based and independent Sailfish OS is the mobile OS platform of the future. It has great potential in Russia and elsewhere. Sailfish OS RUS is based on principles of participation and partnership, and we are actively recruiting partners and developer community members to take the initiative to new heights in Russia.”

"Our solution is based on open source code and contribution models with partners, which makes it possible to ramp up local systems effectively in six months. We have now done this in Russia with a local partner and using this experience we are looking forward to ramping up similar projects in other countries," Jolla CEO Sami Pienima ki said.

In the past, there have been reports that Russia was planning to support the creation of its own mobile OS from scratch, perhaps based around efforts by the dominant local search engine provider, Yandex, which has been steadily creating a fully fledged mobile experience and app store, based around heavily customized Android user experiences which exclude Google services. It has created a fork of Android using the open sourcecode underpinning the Google OS, not the official Open Handset Alliance specifications, which might be considered suspect by the Russian authorities (though they are royalty-free).

In 2014, Yandex launched its free Kit, which provides a pre-packaged suite of services to replace Google’s, and was immediately adopted by Huawei for devices the Chinese vendor planned to sell in Russia. The suite includes email, mapping, browser, 3D launcher, and Yandex.Store, which boasts around 100,000 apps.

But sources say it was too hard to secure support from a wide range of device makers and apps developers for a completely new OS, either from Yandex or a government project, and that failure would, in turn, deter consumer and even enterprise adoption.

Building a wide base for an anti-Android platform

However, the aim is still to build a significant base of Sailfish apps with Russian local relevance. "We are actively recruiting partners and developer community members to take the initiative to new heights in Russia," said Eyges. In May, Berezkin told Russian reporters that he was in discussions with manufacturers about making a low cost Sailfish handset, and Lenovo said it was open to discussing relationships with Open Mobile.

There are already government initiatives to fund developers to migrate their apps to Sailfish, though it currently has less than 1% of the Russian market, despite a deal for Yandex to sell Sailfish apps alongside Android ones in its store.

So there are many hurdles related to developer and consumer support, but Jolla believes this model is repeatable in other countries. It says it has initiated discussions in China and South Africa about building localized mobile platforms. Sailfish handsets also launched in India this summer under a licensing agreement with a local vendor.

“Sailfish OS development in Russia is an important part of Jolla’s wider agenda, aiming to power various countries' mobile ecosystems,” Pienimaki said in a statement. “Our solution is based on open source code and contribution models with partners, which makes it possible to ramp up local systems effectively in six months. We have now done this in Russia with a local partner and using this experience we are looking forward to ramping up similar projects in other countries.”

Copyright © 2016, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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