I can’t believe at what speed the Runet has transformed. On my previous trip, just 4 years ago I remember feeling confused and disappointed by most Russian websites. Now, being the largest European Internet market, the Russian Internet has not only closed any gap but became a technology leader and boasts global players.
In 2009 only 29% of the Russian population were using the Internet. Since then, this number has doubled (59% in 2013) providing access to over 80mm people to the Runet. But not only that, Russian has actually become the 2nd most used language online.
This explosive growth has been fueled by the demand for uncensored information, free WiFi access in cities, and general online advantages such as free communication. Now, Russians have become avid content creators using local(ish) platforms such as LiveJournal and adapting global ones such as Twitter, probably more eagerly than their peers in the West.
When it comes to mobile, the growth rates are staggering, too. In 2012 mobile internet penetration has reached 55%, up 88% from the previous year. No wonder I’m seeing smartphones all around me in Moscow.
Growth rates like these have attracted investment and created entrepreneurs ready to invest. Most prominently, the Mail.ru group invested in companies such as Facebook, Zynga, and Y Combinator turning Yuri Millner into a VC household name basically over night.
Also Russian Internet businesses started to attract outside investment in ever increasing volume. Just this June Russia’s Lamoda raised $130mm from several investors. This round was preceded by another 9 figure round by Ozon.ru.
Local Players – Global Players
The students in Moscow are of course as Internet savvy as their counterparts in other parts of the world. And their expectations are as high as anywhere. They can tell good experience from a bad one, a beautifully crafted app from one that is not so much.
People I talked to said that they were spoiled by the great experiences provided by local companies nowadays. Indeed, if you look at some well known Russian sites you find that they are as well usable if not better than their western counterparts.
This all is no surprise given the excellent engineering talent in Russia. And this growing market, fed by investment money, and cultivated with local talent has produced a couple of international success stories. Internet companies such as Kaspersky Lab and Yandex have been around for some time. But more recent successes include ZeptoLab (maker of the popular Cut the rope games), Zingaya, AlterGeo, or Speechpro.
These old and new Russian Internet elites also drive technologies. If you’ve set up a server within the last 2-3 years, chances are that you thought about trying out nginx instead of using Apache. The open source project was started by a Russian developer and already runs around 15% of all websites.
Yandex is another company that releases a lot of innovative technology. It’s the largest search engine in Russia and even processes more requests than Bing on a global scale. Among other things they’ve released an own fork of Chromium (Yandex Browser) and are working on an on-site personalization API.
On a Roll
In short: Runet is on a roll! Let’s hope that Putin will hold his promise and keep it as a space of freedom.