The government’s recent announcement that it is considering developing an operating system, is seen as an interesting move to break the dominance enjoyed by Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Although it’s a step in the right direction as India’s very own OS will give a better control over content, data and privacy to the government at local level, it’s going to be not as easy as one thinks. Developing an operating system has its own set of challenges and the government’s statement leaves more questions than answers.
There is a duopoly of Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS across the world, and India is definitely not an exception to this. In this context, the government’s recent announcement to come up with a policy that will facilitate an ecosystem for the industry to create an indigenous operating system, is seen as an interesting move to break the dominance enjoyed by these two tech majors. In order to shake the status quo, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar recently informed the Parliament that “the government is considering development of the operating system, as part of its efforts to create a vibrant design and innovation ecosystem in Electronics and Information Technology.”
“The government is considering development of the operating system, as part of its efforts to create a vibrant design and innovation ecosystem in Electronics and Information Technology”
– Rajeev Chandrasekhar, MoS, Electronics & IT
This development is in addition to the government’s earlier statement that it is talking with tech companies to come up with an indigenous OS. “There is no third one. Therefore, in a lot of ways there is tremendous interest in MeitY (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology) and in the Government of India to even create a new handset operating system. We are talking to people. We are looking at a policy for that,” said Chandrasekhar, in an interview with a news agency.
The government is looking for capabilities within start-up and academic ecosystems for the development of the OS, said Chandrasekhar. “If there is some real capability then we will be very much interested in developing that area because that will create an alternative to iOS and Android which then an Indian brand can grow,” he stated.
As per reports, detailed discussions are presently focusing on setting up clear goals for the project, which will be followed by legislation to target specific development goals. The minister indicated that start-ups and companies working on an Indian OS may be attractive to domestic and foreign investment when raising capital. Interestingly, the project conforms to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambition to create domestic leaders across multiple industries and product categories, as well as strengthen the country’s technology industry.
OS players and breakthroughs
It must be noted that the operating system is the main software of any computer and mobile device that weaves in the entire hardware and software system for effective functioning of the OS. Android and iOS have been ruling the mobile OS market for the last many years, and Microsoft Windows is a leading player in the personal computer segment. According to majority of market estimates, iOS and Android account for nearly 99% of the world’s smartphone market.
While the Android OS rules the roost with 70 per cent market share, iOS is at a distant second with nearly 29 per cent, as per web traffic analysis platform Statcounter. They also have Chrome OS and MacOS platforms, respectively, which run on computers. Control over these platforms gives them a degree of control on how apps are made, data flows, data sharing, and more. On the device front, although India is an increasingly important market to Apple, it continues to face stiff competition from Android handsets in the country.
Remarkably, Microsoft tried to break the duopoly a couple of years back and had even purchased brand Nokia to push out Windows phones, but it failed badly. Even BlackBerry has already burned their hands in this segment. Likewise, Mozilla’s Firefox OS was discontinued after efforts to crack India’s mobile market with low-cost devices failed. The Linux Foundation’s Tizen also didn’t find any takers. According to reports, China’s government has promoted Linux-derived Kylin OS for locals, but it has not won much market share.
Following the US sanctions in 2019, Huawei’s HarmonyOS in China is another attempt by a technology player to try its hands on the operating system. Considering its cross-device communication and many other features, HarmonyOS could be a serious competitor to Android in days to come.
Back in India, we have Indus OS, created by a group of IIT graduates in 2013. However, it’s not a government-mandated or supported OS. We’ll discuss about this later in the story.
A step in the right direction
Although the government has offered no further clarity on its plans, experts believe it’s a step in the right direction. “This is a very interesting and important intent announcement considering the concerns around privacy and monopoly power of the current OS incumbents like Android and iOS in other countries. Our own OS will give a better control over content, data and privacy to the government at local level,” says Navkendar Singh, Associate Research Director, Client Devices & IPDS, IDC India.
Arushi Chawla, Research Analyst at Counterpoint, says the Indian government, by reconsidering the development of an indigenous mobile operating system, is taking forward its aim of becoming self-reliant or “atmanirbhar”. “Indian app companies have been facing obstacles from Google and Apple for the last few years. A couple of years back, Apple increased the process for apps and in-app purchases, which impacted the equalization levy. Last year, following protests, Google decided to slash the commission it charges developers selling products and services on its Play Store. Further, recently, Apple came under an antitrust investigation in India for alleged abuse of dominance,” says Arushi.
While the focus on hardware development is already on, the software and applications should not be left behind. “It is equally strategically important to have our own OS along with the complete app ecosystem. We already have companies like IndusOS which have done great progress in creating a localised mobile ecosystem. I think we need to seriously pursue it,” says Faisal Kawoosa, Founder and Chief Analyst, Techarc.
Timeframe and resources are a must
The government has neither given any timeframe nor has it talked about hardware part which complements software in the development of an operating system. It must be noted that developing an OS takes time as well as resources, which is the reason why majority of the handset makers use Android as their operating system. The government needs to give a sufficient amount of time for the OS development and execution, besides making sure there’s a market for that operating system, experts believe.
As far as hardware is concerned, a smartphone includes important components like screen, cameras, chipset, battery and microphone, which combine with software to make a smartphone work. While developing an OS is important, working towards it without specifications about the hardware is like developing a car’s engine without a body, notes Newslaundry in a report.
In terms of technicalities, there are two types of operating systems today – open source and closed source software platforms. Android works on an open source platform, which means there is a basic version of it that can be twisted by different handset manufacturers to fit and work with their hardware. Popular brands such as Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus, Realme, Tecno, Infinix and others use Android as a base, adding skins and features on top of it to give the software a different feel and user interface for their individual devices. On the other hand, Apple’s iOS works on the closed source model, which means only an Apple device can run it. Apple, hence, offers total control over the design, hardware and software of the device which in turn ensures usability.
The government has not made anything clear on it that how it plans to provide an ecosystem, where new hardware will be designed and developed and how will a new OS be in line.
Areas of concern
Significantly, it took years for iOS, Android and KaiOS to come into being, and companies filed several patents to keep their intellectual property. Google and Android, in particular, hold patents for hardware as well as software – all of which are fiercely guarded. In such a scenario, how will the government’s policy navigate patents held by companies? Navkendar has this to say, “This has to be grounds up effort right from building hardware running an indigenous OS / software / application layer on top of it. Patents will be a roadblock, but licensing arrangements can be looked at to overcome those aspects.”
User privacy is going to be another area of concern, as an OS has access to, and control, all the data input by users into their devices. “A task as simple as sending a message requires data that is processed by the software – such as a phone number and an email address, both of which are connected to various kinds of information like bank accounts. It only gets trickier with more complex functions like making phone calls and payments,” writes tech journalist Nabeel Ahmed in an article on Newslaundry.
“With established operating systems, tech companies are under pressure to deliver on their promises of privacy and safety. This has intensified over the past couple of years, with debates and demands for companies to fix vulnerabilities in their security. It’s why Apple delayed the roll-out of its CSAM feature and jumped to fix an iOS flaw that had allegedly been exploited by the Pegasus spyware,” says Nabeel.
Besides, the government surveillance could be one of the key worries for an operating system that will be driven by the government.
Initial hurdles and way forward
According to Arushi, there are many hurdles in developing an indigenous operating system in a multi-lingual country like India. “Along with technological competencies, there is a need to ensure proper technical maintenance. Besides, competing with companies already having a strong installed base is a challenging task. From a consumer standpoint, it takes much effort and time to convince users to shift to a new technology/platform,” she emphasizes.
“Security and privacy aspects play a very important role here given the increasing digitization in daily lives. However, if India’s efforts in relation to BOSS (Bharat Operating System Solutions) are anything to go by, the country has a long way to go in earning prospective users’ confidence,” Arushi adds. It should be noted that BOSS proved to be ineffective at a mass scale and hackers from China were able to break into the Indian government’s servers.
As discussed above, prior attempts have been made by players such as Microsoft and Blackberry in introducing a different operating system. Even the Indian government has made earlier attempts with BOSS (Bharat Operating System Solution) and Indus OS to develop its indigenous operating system but have been unable to counter and/or match the presence of tech giants. “The past attempts, however, especially with Indus OS, which is available in multiple regional languages inspires the Indian app developers to build locally relevant content, helped the Indian government realize its potential and prepare for the expected bottlenecks for the upcoming journey towards an in-house operating system,” says Arushi.
Talking about other possible bottlenecks in the development of a homegrown OS, Navkendar says the developer ecosystem in the absence of a mass user base and relevant content which can attract that mass base will go hand in hand. “This is the major challenge for any new OS,” he says.
A definitive framework required
“What needs to be explored before embarking on this idea is to find a middle ground and work with Android to solve the issues which are forcing us to look into building an indigenous OS,” suggests Navkendar.
Faisal, on the other hand, says the time in digital journey has come when we start making products that suit us rather than aligning with what’s available to us. “This might also help us solve a major challenge of not being able to bring millions of users in the smartphone ecosystem, who are using a feature phone at the moment. We are already at the threshold of 5G and seem helpless to shut down 2G networks,” he opines.
While the government’s intentions in developing an indigenous operating system may be right, the project needs to be a long-term one with proper planning. It is important to lay down a definitive framework and form strategic alliances with OEMs for the project’s implementation.