All Devices Sold in Russia Must Come with Pre-Installed Russian Apps

Russian social network mobile apps and e-mail service shown on screen of a smartphone.

As of last week, all smartphones, computers and other connected devices sold in Russia must come pre-installed with domestic software and apps. Companies who break the law, risk a hefty fine. The law’s intent is to give homegrown tech companies a competitive edge, but privacy experts are not convinced. They think Moscow is simply trying to strengthen their control and reduce foreign influence.

Russia’s “Anti-Apple” Law Over A Year in The Making

The new law was announced by President Vladimir Putin at the end of 2019. It was supposed to be implemented in several stages, starting on July 1, 2020. However, the law’s implementation encountered some hurdles. This is because several non-Russian tech giants initially went head-to-head with Moscow in an attempt to circumvent the requirements.

Apple objected especially strongly – hence the law’s nickname “the law against Apple”. The US multinational has always refused to pre-install apps other than their own on iOS devices. In several instances, they’ve also honored users’ privacy over the interest of federal governments, including their own.

However, in mid-March 2021, Apple finally caved in. The tech giant said it would allow people to install Russian software while setting up their device. And added that all apps would be checked to ensure they meet Apple’s privacy and security policies. The only other alternative for Apple would have been to pull out of the Russian market.

Preference for Homegrown Software

The law states that all connected devices, produced after April 1, 2021, must be equipped with homegrown software. The law applies to smartphones, tablets, smart TV’s, laptops, PC’s and other smart devices. No distinction is made between devices produced in Russia or those produced abroad. The responsibility for installing the software falls on the device manufacturer.

According to Moscow, the law will protect Russian consumers. And arm Russian technology companies against “unfair Western competition”. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko said at a meeting with representatives of the IT industry last month that Russia’s IT industry now “has the opportunity and potential to become a locomotive in the process of modernizing the country.”

Critics, however, are convinced the new law is yet another step by those in power to control the digital world. The most controversial move thus far was the introduction of the so-called sovereign internet law. This law allows Russia to cut itself off from the rest of the world wide web.

Long List of Suggested Apps

Backers of the new law argue that Russian consumers may not even realize that there are Russian-made alternatives to many pre-installed software programs and applications. Therefore, Moscow has drawn up a list of products and apps manufacturers must consider.

Manufacturers can choose which application they pre-install. However, on a smartphone, for example, they have to offer a Russian alternative for search engines, antivirus, navigation, messenger, social networks, news, payments, and more.

Meanwhile, Moscow is tightening the thumbscrews on many foreign tech companies. Until at least the end of May, Russia’s media watchdog is intentionally slowing down the speed of Twitter, citing the company’s failure to remove banned content. And just yesterday, TikTok received yet another fine from Russia for showing videos that encourage minors to join political demonstrations.

Dominated by Foreign Companies

Russia’s smartphone market is dominated by foreign companies. According to Statista, in Russia nearly a third (31.8%) of all imported smartphones priced at over 2,000 rubles ($25) were Samsung devices. Huawei used to be the most popular brand, but it has seen its market share decrease to 22.3% while a rival Chinese brand, Xiami, rose to 17.1%. Apple comes in fourth position with 11.4%.

Russian IT giants that will most likely profit most from the new law are Yandex, which dominates the Russian search engine market, and the email service Russian social media variants are Odnoklassniki and VK. For messaging and video calling, Russians can use ICQ, while Rocycnyru is an alternative domestic productivity tool.

Note that, in the end, Apple seems to have been able to strike a deal with Russia. Installing apps on an Apple device is optional, the apps don’t come pre-installed. Instead, when setting up a new device, Russian users are directed to a list of homegrown Russian apps. At a later stage, a new section dedicated to promoting Russian apps is likely to be added to the App Store.

IT communication specialist
Sandra has many years of experience in the IT and tech sector as a communication specialist. She's also been co-director of a company specializing in IT, editorial services and communications project management. For she follows relevant cybercrime and online privacy developments.