Since the invasion of Ukraine one year ago, Russia has faced an exodus of tech companies and services. This includes the exit of Samsung and Apple, two of the world’s most popular smartphone brands. In response, the country has doubled down on its efforts to attain technological self-sufficiency, including creating a new Android smartphone.
The handset, which does not yet have a name, will be built by the National Computer Corporation (NCC), one of Russia’s largest IT companies, with an ambitious goal to sell 100,000 smartphones and tablets by the end of 2023. Alexander Kalinin, the founder of NCC, told local media on Monday that he aims to invest 10 billion rubles ($132.9 million) in the project and hopes to capture 10 percent of the consumer market by 2026.
The news comes just days after the US Department of Commerce banned exports to Russia of phones and other electronics that cost more than $300. Experts say, however, that a Russian smartphone will have a hard time beating inexpensive competitors from China, and it may encounter problems with using Google’s Android.
“I think that while the phones might be Android to begin with, Google might not allow the full license in the near term,” says Jan Stryjak, associate director at Counterpoint Research, an industry analysis firm. “The phones might need to switch to another OS.”
Google no longer offers paid apps, or updates for those apps, to Russian users. But it has stopped short of preventing people in Russia from using its free services, such as Gmail, Maps, Play, and YouTube. Google did not immediately respond to WIRED’s request for comment about Russian companies using Android.
The new smartphone project is just one of many of Russia’s attempts at technological self-sufficiency and digital sovereignty. The country has promised “unprecedented” amounts of funding to develop its electronics industry, which is tempting Russian firms. But not everyone is convinced that government subsidies will result in new products—or whether products like NCC’s phone will succeed.
“Honestly, as far as my knowledge goes, it looks like a PR stunt,” Karen Kazaryan, general director and founder of the Internet Research Institute, says of NCC’s smartphone project.
At its core, this digital sovereignty means state control over the internet within its borders, including content, data, and infrastructure, allowing the government to wall off the country’s online sphere from the rest of the world. The Russian government started promoting the idea after the sanctions that followed its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
In some ways, Russia’s efforts have been successful. After Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter were blocked in the country, some Russian users switched to domestic social media, particularly to VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook. Russian companies, both state-owned and private, have also been trying to lure Russians from TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube to homemade variants such as Yappy, Rossgram, and RuTube. Many of these platforms, however, have attracted criticism for outdated designs, lack of users, or too much state propaganda.
Another project that received much fanfare was the domestic RuStore app store launched in May of last year by VKontakte and the Russian Ministry of Digital Development to replace Google Play and Apple’s App Store. The store has more than 10 million users, according to VKontakte.