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A Russian alternative to Microsoft

Today’s great powers are rightly concerned that over 80 per cent of the world’s desktop computers run on an operating system primarily developed in one country, the US. Attempts by Europeans, Indians and the Chinese to develop their own operating systems (OS) are well recorded and have been less than successful to date. Leaving aside the point of copyright and royalties, it is interesting to note another attempt to break the American hold on the OS market, this time by the Russians.

Some may declare such an attempt absurd and doomed to fail. I believe they are wrong. Carefully reading through testimonials on Windows, one thing is particularly striking; the number of Slavic surnames you come across. The same is true for other operating systems. As I have previously mentioned in the Foreword to my blog, the innovative potential of Russia’s IT companies is the jewel in the fledgling knowledge-based sector of the country’s economy. There should be no doubt that Russians possess the ability and skillset to develop an independent OS. The question is whether the government’s heavy-handed approach is sufficient to mobilise this skillset.

I have my doubts. Microsoft and Apple have built cultures and reputations enabling them to attract talent from across the world. Many have even been selected from Russia’s top universities. But what can Rostelecom offer highly-skilled programmers to motivate them to take on Microsoft as competitors? Driving Microsoft out of the country through protectionist policies and preventing it from participating in state-funded tenders is not the answer. This could reinforce current negative perceptions about Russian state policies, not to mention the country’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ rating.

State-mandated import substitution is simply not working. January 2016 saw the introduction of a new law, compelling state enterprises – from strategic defence industries to public universities – to grant preferential treatment to domestic software companies over foreign competitors. The government has overestimated the readiness of corporates to take this law seriously. Ten months later, it is still widely ignored. For years, state companies have built their IT platforms around Microsoft software and are not ready to abandon it so quickly.

The law may have inspired tech entrepreneur Dmitry Komissarov to take a serious swing at Microsoft in Russia. Having recently developed an innovative and comprehensive office suite, Komissarov believes that, by 2020, his company – New Cloud Technologies (NOT) – will succeed in achieving 30 per cent of Russia’s software market. This is very optimistic, as RBC has recently pointed out. Based on similar domestic software companies in China and Germany, independent experts predict that NOT’s share of market will not rise above 5 per cent. In any event, Microsoft will still be running the show.

Something radically new has to be tried and protectionism is not the answer. I believe an elegant solution is right under our noses. Freeware has numerous supporters, especially amongst programmers and coders. Linux has long offered a free alternative to Microsoft and other commercial operating systems. Should the Russian government offer a transparently awarded grant to develop the world’s first free open code operating system based on Linux, I am confident that such a challenge would draw significant interest from the industry’s top talent.

The introduction of a multi-lingual, free operating system – with the appropriate suite of applications compatible with the most popular commercial requirements – would be a tremendous success globally, especially in parts of the world where the American concept of copyright is culturally alien. Such an approach could reduce national security concerns arising from one country having a monopoly and would also bring enormous benefit to the economy by eliminating a significant component of data processing costs. A state-funded multi-lingual OS could provide a powerful counter-narrative to the West’s negative messaging. It would be exceptionally difficult to portray Russia as the Evil Empire, should its best and brightest succeed in offering the world a free solution for processing data and telecommunications.

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience life in the Soviet Union (and now Russia), the USA, and the UK – the three poles of power which, together with China, for better or worse shape the world’s current agenda. In none of these cultures did I come across any negative connotations around Gutenberg’s printing press, which for centuries built bridges between cultures and nations. A fully-developed, multi-lingual, free operating system could do that for the world once again.

In order to succeed, such a project would have to be designed for public benefit and not for commercial gain. Should this be realised, no protectionist measures would be necessary, as Microsoft would be able to participate in any of the Russian state-funded tenders, provided the price of their offer was no more than zero.

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