Despite the highly-publicised launch of its own HarmonyOS, Huawei is reportedly preparing a pilot-test of Russia’s Aurora OS on its mobile devices. Aurora is based on the Sailfish OS, which was developed in Finland before its adoption by the Russian Open Mobile Platform with the backing of oligarch Grigory Berezkin. In 2018, state-owned carrier Rostelecom acquired a 75% share in the Open Mobile Platform, providing a direct link into the government and its ITC ministries.
As I reported back in June, Russian media claimed that Huawei had “discussed the possible transition of smartphones to Sailfish with [Russia’s] minister of digital development and communications.” According to those reports, “the topic was raised at meetings between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping” at the 2019 St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF).
The political symbolism and the potential for heightened collaboration between China and Russia had put this high on the agenda on both sides.
And so to this week, and to a report from Reuters that Huawei is getting set to install Aurora “on 360,000 of its tablets to conduct Russia’s population census next year.” Reuters’ unnamed sources also claimed that the pilot project is “the first stage of launching the Russian OS on Huawei devices.”
This is consistent with the reports from June, that an individual engaged in the discussions between Huawei and Russian officials had claimed “China is already testing devices with the Aurora pre-installed,” and Aurora is to be installed on “various” Huawei devices “instead of Google’s Android system.”
The same June reports suggested Huawei might begin some Russian production, including “the joint production of chips and software.” The fact that the initial pilot looks set to be a Russian government program is consistent with the implication that there’s a deeper level of collaboration behind the scenes here.
Rostelecom is heavily engaged in Russia’s census, and told Reuters that “various options for collaboration with Huawei are currently being considered with participation of the Ministry of Communications—we don’t disclose details yet, there is an agreement on confidentiality.”
As I’ve written extensively before, HarmonyOS is not a replacement for Android on smartphones, it is an IoT platform. Huawei has acknowledged this and that the hardest part of launching such a replacement onto the international smartphone market is the ecosystem of apps and developers. If the brand is going to shift from Android, embarking on all that effort, then other options are clearly being considered.
The interesting context here is the potential for Russia to support Huawei in future chip and hardware design and development—a further challenge for the company in the light of U.S. restrictions on its supply chain. And so this news will fuel ongoing analysis of the technical split emerging between China and Russia on one side, and the broader international market—led by the U.S.—on the other.