Home/ Technology / News/  Why the odds are stacked against BharOS

The website of JandK Operations Pvt Ltd resembles a PowerPoint presentation. The details are sparse and there are no clickable links.

In large fonts, the site poses a few questions: “Why does our mobile upload our personal data every 5 minutes?"; “why does our mobile come with default apps that cannot be removed?"; “why do app stores continue to serve malicious apps?"; “can we still trust them?"

The answer to these questions, the website states, is BharOS, or Bharat OS for mobile devices, a locally developed mobile operating system by the company, “built for earning trust".

Founded by Karthik Ayyar, a technology enthusiast, and Jaffar Sait, a former cop, the operating system is promising mobile users more freedom and flexibility to choose the apps they need. It was launched with some fanfare on 19 January, by the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT-M).

The startup was registered in Chennai only last January. It was incubated by the IIT Madras Pravartak Technologies Foundation, which is funded by the Indian government’s department of science and technology. The foundation runs a technology innovation hub focused on sensors, networking, actuators, and control systems.

But more than a month since its launch, little is known about either the company or its product. For a startup that plans to challenge the might of Google’s Android mobile operating system one day, the founders are surprisingly reticent to talk about the company’s strategy. They prefer to respond by email while V. Kamakoti, the director of IIT Madras, is the current face of the company—he does most of the talking.

In short, this is what we know. BharOS is in the testing phase. There will be no Android or iOS (Apple’s mobile operating system) style app store. And initially, organizations that handle sensitive information could be interested in trying it out.

The sparse details haven’t helped. BharOS, right now, has attracted more skepticism than admiration.

Their question: Will a homegrown mobile operating system, developed by a startup with no app store, be able to rival a company like Alphabet (Google’s parent) that spent $39.5 billion on research and development (R&D) and raked in $280 billion in revenue last year? BharOS will have to compete in a space where even Apple’s iOS has a mere 3.6% market share. Google’s Android has an imposing 96% share in India.

“The operating system war has already been won. Android has an installed base of billions of devices. For an Indian operating system to win, India will have to do what China did in terms of banning Android completely. But India cannot afford to do what China did," Jayanth Kolla, co-founder and partner at Convergence Catalyst, an advisory firm, says.

“The spread of Android and iOS is very deep in the country. Any operating system that is built now needs to have data analytics-led services and solutions at the core. Adoption is often due to the network effect," Kolla adds.

The critics have other concerns. We will come to it in a bit but first, let’s look at the people behind the indigenous operating system and the company’s operations.

A techie & a cop

According to the Registrar of Companies, JandK Operations has two directors.

Karthik Ayyar has had a long association with IIT Madras. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, he founded OOPS, which in collaboration with the IIT, developed India’s first video conferencing over internet in 1997-98. Around 2005, he started living in Kodaikanal, a hill town in Tamil Nadu, and five years later, developed a long-range wifi to connect his remote home with BSNL’s fibre network. He later worked with BSNL’s Tamil Nadu circle to provide the same solution to other residents in Kodaikanal. All along, he also contributed to open source—his contributions related to secure communication are widely deployed as part of the OpenWrt project, a linux operating system used on embedded devices.

The second director, Jaffar Sait, has little to do with technology. He joined the Indian Police Service in 1986 and speaks five languages—Tamil, English, Hindi, French and Malayalam. He has been a cop throughout, working in various roles and districts of Tamil Nadu. One of his postings was that of the director general of police, crime branch CID, Chennai.

We don’t know what Sait’s role is in the company; neither do we know the number of employees the company has, or their credentials. JandK Operations was unwilling to share the number on its rolls.

“Other than the normal process, we provide internships to IIT-M students, including the online bachelor of science program," said a company spokesperson when asked about the hiring plans. The person added that while the office of JandK Operations is based in the IIT Madras campus, its “employees work remotely".

Karthik Ayyar also did not disclose any investment numbers. “Being a private limited organization, we are bound by the agreements with our investors," he said.

What Ayyar is attempting is courageous but not entirely novel.

In 2013, a group of IIT graduates developed Indus OS, a multilingual Android fork.

An Android fork is a legally-modified version of Android built on Google’s Android Open Source Project (AOSP). It allows any handset maker or developer to build a custom version of Android without having to pay any license fee to Google or pre-install any of its apps. A forked Android operating system, however, cannot access Google’s Play Store.

According to Rakesh Deshmukh, co-founder and CEO of Indus OS, their in-house app store for smartphones, called Indus App Bazaar, currently houses over 400,000 apps and caters to over 200 million users across India. Indus OS has about 100 employees and is now a unit of the Walmart-owned PhonePe.

India also has a couple of locally built desktop operating systems. The Bharat Operating System Solutions (BOSS) Linux was developed by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), Chennai. C-DAC is an R&D organization of the ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY). According to the ministry, “BOSS deployments have resulted in indirect savings of over 250 crore by not using proprietary software". The estimated six million users of BOSS include the Indian Navy, the state governments of Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Chattisgarh, Tripura, Punjab, Puducherry, Maharashtra, Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Haryana.

Then, there is PrimeOS, meant for laptops targeted at students. Chitranshu Mahanta, the company’s co-founder and CEO, claims he has “more than three million downloads in 140 countries". PrimeOS, also based on AOSP, cannot access Google Play and so has built its own app store with “more than 10,000 fully compatible apps that are specially designed for students".

Nuts and bolts

So, what is BharOS’ strategy?

The company will initially start catering to government organizations and private sector enterprises.

JandK Operations plans to create a list of approved apps, following which enterprises can pick relevant apps and include it their private (in-house) app stores meant for employees. “Private app store services will provide access to a curated list of apps that have been thoroughly vetted and meet certain security and privacy standards of organizations," says Karthik Ayyar.

“There are two things that we want. If there is any change in the operating system code, it should make the system fail and not allow it to re-boot," says Kamakoti, the director of IIT Madras. “Also, any application that is running on BharOS should be certified by the organization (the user company). They should have complete control over what apps go on a phone. This will give them a sense of confidence and trust," he adds.

Kamakoti claims to have received interest from organizations and very soon, some handset vendors, too, would try the operating system.

While consumers, like you and I, are not a priority at this juncture, Kamakoti says that the end-user model could evolve if some 40-50 million users show interest. Then, handset providers or telco service providers can set up an app store with apps approved by JandK Operations.

What about nurturing the developer ecosystem, like Google and Apple do?

“As we open up the platform for app developers, we will find more and more creative apps coming. Those creative apps will essentially make the whole environment more and more vibrant," hopes Kamakoti. He says that BharOS has already ported digital map app MapMyIndia “and it hardly took two hours to port it".

Rohan Verma, CEO and executive director at MapmyIndia, says that competition breeds innovation. This is why he is excited to see BharOS offering a different set of features compared to Google’s version of Android. “Multiple original equipment manufacturers should look at offering phone and device models with BharOS as an alternative option," he says.

According to Verma, many organizations and consumers want a non-Google Android, which gives BharOS an opportunity in this market. “The challenge and excitement for a player like BharOS is in doing the innovation that helps in carving out a space for oneself in the market," Verma adds.

Privacy doesn’t sell

BharOS’ challenge will also be to convince critics that it not an Android fork.

Kamakoti argues that BharOS has only used an Android type interface. The company has put in lot more underlying work. “New things like the Root of Trust (the foundation on which all secure operations of a computing system depend) and Chain of Trust (verification method to ensure security and integrity) were added, which is not there in conventional Android forks," he explains.

Ayyar adds that software updates will ensure that the device is always running the latest version of the operating system and it has the latest security patches and bug fixes.

Jayanth Kolla of Convergence Catalyst argues that privacy and security are not big selling points in India—people are willing to trade their privacy for functionality and freebies. Apps bring in functionality.

Kolla has a point. Blackberry was once the most valuable company in Canada and the darling of enterprises with its BlackBerry Messenger platform. It was rendered obsolete despite its sharp focus on enterprise security. The company did not have a robust app ecosystem for end users.

Even Microsoft’s now defunct Windows Phone OS lacked many key apps, which experts cite as one of the main reasons for its failure. Samsung’s Tizen OS, on the other hand, is a Linux-based OS that dominates the global smart TV market market but has negligible share in the mobile operating system space—again, due to the lack of a robust app store.

According to Prasanto K. Roy, a tech policy consultant, Google benefits enormously from its global scale. The company has invested in Android development, testing, and support for thousands of handset models. “It would be very challenging to develop an Indian alternative to Android and have it succeed purely on merit and market forces," he says.

Roy opines that even if the government provides incentives and issues mandates, “it will be a non-starter, lead to poorer user experience and severely limit mobile handset options".

S Sadagopan, the former director of the International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Bangalore and chairman of the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Design and Manufacturing, Kancheepuram, concurs. He believes that BharOS is “a good attempt that needs to be lauded" but caveats his statement by adding that the success of any operating system depends not only on the product but also on the product ecosystem. “If the developer community hugs and adopts a product and develops apps for the same, the product will fly," he says.

Even the Indian government appears to be aware of the challenges the indigenous operating system will face.

A week after BharOS’ launch, Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s electronics and IT minister, tested the system by making video and audio calls. He cautioned that “there will be difficulties in this journey...(and)...many people around the world...will not want any such system to be successful."

The makers of BharOS, therefore, will need to show grit and determination. The odds, as of now, are stacked against them.

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Updated: 09 Mar 2023, 11:04 PM IST
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