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Sovereign OS: the Holy Grail of digital sovereignty? [by Guillaume Tissier, CEIS]

After China, which launched in 2014 a development program of an operating system called sovereign COS (China Operating System), it is the turn of Russia to initiate a development program of a mobile OS. The young Russian Communications Minister Nikolai Nikiforov has just announced that his country was working with Finnish startup Jolla on a national version of Sailfish OS with the aim of reducing the share of Android OS and iOS on the Russian market from 95 to 50% by 2025.

In both Russia and China, these projects respond to both political and economic considerations. Politically, the sovereign OS development is seen as the best way to get rid of American supremacy and win over some ‘non-aligned’ countries. Russia has offered to join the BRICS development program of the new OS in an international consortium. In economic terms, the development of products allows sovereign leverage in large domestic markets, which is for example not the case for Europe. The digital single market remains a dream that the ambitious roadmap unveiled early in May 2015 by the European Commission, and will likely struggle to turn it into reality in a few months.

The development of sovereign operating systems is not within the reach of everyone. It requires a strong technology capability and must comply not only with a political but also an economic logic. The operating system is indeed a generic product that cannot hope to grow without tens of millions of deployments, which in turn creates an ecosystem of applications. Proposed in 2010 by European telecom operators, the idea of a European mobile OS was quickly abandoned. Same thing in 2014 when Bercy had again considered the desirability of creating an OS “made in France”. China, itself, did not obtain the expected success with the launch of RedFlag, a Linux distribution inaugurated in 1999.

Does this mean that without a sovereign operating system there can be no digital sovereignty? No. If it is one of the important attributes of the digital sovereignty, this is not the only one. To it must be added the mastery of material, the virtualization layer, the application portfolio, infrastructure etc. Unable to master the whole. And in an interconnected world, sovereign being alone is useless … At the industrial level, the challenge today is first to master our critical information systems by controlling key areas, both hardware and software. The second call for projects of the future investment program (PIA) focuses on digital security, embedded software and HPC. The objective should not be to run behind the train already missed but boarding the next one by focusing our resources on further courses to take and where we already have some capacities as in the field of connected objects.