Last week, India’s IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw unveiled a new operating system called BharatOS or BharOS. This announcement came in the backdrop of the Competition Commission of India imposing a Rs 1337-crore penalty on Google for allegedly monopolising business practices concerning Android, the operating system used in most smartphones in the country.
Despite the Narendra Modi government’s boisterous claims of BharOS changing the software landscape and the dawn of Atmanirbhar technology — BharOS is unlikely to have a tangible impact.
BharOS is Android
The interesting bit is that BharOS is Android. Google gives away Android for free as a part of the Android Open Source Project (ASOP). BharOS is based on ASOP developed by Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras. ASOP doesn’t grant access to Google’s cloud services and applications. Access to apps such as YouTube, Google Maps, Chrome, Search, Google Pay, and most importantly, Play Store is granted only when a manufacturer agrees with Google to preload these applications and make them the system default.
On BharOS, which is an Android fork, there will be access to some Google services, according to the government. Vaishnaw has said that work has begun to localise the app ecosystem so that there is a dedicated app store. He is also talking about a new chipset architecture that piggybacks on the ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) and RISC-V architecture.
With BharOS, one can access a private App Store and third-party manufacturers will be able to use this on their phones instead of developing their skin of Android on top of what Google offers. It will get over-the-air updates and have fewer preloaded apps that are referred to as bloatware, which reduces storage. The government also claims that it will provide better privacy than Android.
Right now, BhartOS is introduced for institutional use — government entities and IIT Madras staff and students can use it. However, no manufacturer is selling a phone with this operating system.
There are two truths here. One, Google apps are the most desirable ones — people want access to Play Store, Google Drive, YouTube, Gmail, Google Search, and Google Docs. Two, it is also true that these apps are also not open source. Through these apps, Google can collect data and also make money through ads. At the core of Google’s business model lies the fact that it is the world’s biggest advertising company.
Google has been critiqued globally for its monopolistic practices. In the United States, the Department of Justice is also looking at ways to break up Google, particularly its advertising business.
Many local app developers have been complaining that Google’s practices stifle competition. MapmyIndia and Indus OS, which provides the Indus App Bazaar, have been staunch critics of Google. MapmyIndia has been around for years and its product is perhaps better than Google Maps in some ways, particularly for India. But because Google Maps is the default mapping software on Android, MapmyIndia’s services don’t get a fair shout. Indus OS is similar — it has a curated app store, but it can’t dare to compete with the mighty Google Play Store.
On top of this, developers want to use their payment gateways. They also want to pay less of a commission to the mighty Google that reserves the right to wipe off their existence on the grid by not letting their app into its store.
A tectonic shift in mobile computing?
The status quo is unlikely to change as BharOS is based on Android, which uses the Linux kernel. The open-source elements of Android are becoming less appetising without the tailwind of Google Mobile Services.
The bigger challenge will be to mobilise an app ecosystem that caters to the Indian market. Meta apps, including Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, services such as YouTube, Google Maps, Google Drive, Google Search, Google Pay, and apps like Google Docs and Chrome — all these are apps Indians have become accustomed to.
When the Donald Trump government banned the use of Huawei equipment in 2019, the Chinese company’s smartphone business, which was the largest in the world for a short while, completely tanked. Even when one goes back to 2012, when Apple removed Google Maps as the default from iOS and launched Apple Maps, it barely changed anything for iPhone users.
Amazon’s ill-fated Fire Phone, which had the curated Amazon Appstore, also got torpedoed by the ubiquity of Google apps. Microsoft also had to make its Surface Duo with Android — the software giant even joined hands with Google for the same.
And India is a Google market. Things are highly unlikely to change.
An added challenge is app development for a certain spec of a device as the Android ecosystem is already quite fragmented.
So far, all forks of Android have come with poorer user experience and security features. At the end of the day, the core development of Android is done by its creator — when one removes the umbilical cord by opting for the ASOP route. One also doesn’t get the advantages of Google’s constant and rapid pace of development.
Are the researchers at IIT Madras better equipped to provide an operating system that comes with grand ambitions? Unlikely. They neither have the resources nor the know-how and ecosystem — in terms of software and hardware — to coalesce toward this endeavour.
Fundamentally, this is another clarion call towards Atmanirbhar Bharat now that we are talking about building semiconductor fabs in India and looking to eat into China’s share in the global manufacturing ecosystem, thanks to geopolitics and Covid.
It also is a way to protect India from potential geopolitical threats in the future that could unbundle the country from the global app economy.
Sahil Mohan Gupta is a Delhi-based technology journalist. He tweets @DigitallyBones. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)