India is rapidly digitising. There are good things and bad, speed-bumps on the way and caveats to be mindful of. The weekly column Terminal focuses on all that is connected and is not – on digital issues, policy, ideas and themes dominating the conversation in India and the world.
Last week, IIT Madras-incubated JandK Operations Private Limited announced an indigenous mobile operating system (OS) called ‘BharOS’. Touted as India’s solution to take on Google, this operating system is all over the news.
BharOS is being promoted as a privacy- and security-oriented OS for organisations that have these requirements. This announcement comes against the backdrop of the Competition Commission of India finding Google guilty of abusing its dominant position in the OS market.
Although there is no publicly available documentation about BharOS and its features, it looks like a ‘fork‘ of the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) led by Google.
It is also unclear which phones BharOS can run on, as the operating system has been announced independent of any specific phone that will run it. While being promoted as an indigenous operating system, BharOS, however, is not entirely a product of Indian origin as the operating system is based on AOSP, which is a global effort by people of multiple nationalities.
In a highly globalised world, it is really hard to produce a truly domestic product from scratch. At present, there are several other operating systems like LineageOS, CalyxOS, GrapheneOS based on AOSP that are supported by independent free and open-source software groups to help people take control of their personal data and mobile phones.
But why is there a need for using operating systems other than the default one supplied with the phone? This is for people who want privacy and don’t want to continuously feed Google with information.
Google has abused its position as a promoter of the Android project by locking several features and apps to the Play Store and Google Play services. The default installation of Google apps and the Google search engine in the Android OS has always been a contentious issue with regulators. In the European Union and India, regulators are pushing back against Google’s dominance in the market.
Apart from privacy issues, operating systems have become the marketplaces which control e-commerce sales. Google’s market dominance in the app store business has also become contentious with the company’s 30% platform fees levied on businesses who sell in-app purchases.
Several Indian companies have opposed this move and have been demanding attention to this problem from regulators. There have been several demands for the need for an Indian app store that does not levy exorbitant fees for sales. These demands from Indian companies were reflected in CCI’s fines on Google and orders to allow other billing systems for sale and other third-party app stores in the Play Store.
While there are multiple domestic interests for a separate OS that can help challenge the Google and Apple duopoly in the space, BharOS may not be the one catering to these needs. It seems to have been designed with organisations in mind – think defence organisations, government agencies, data collection companies which need secure devices with restrictions on what the users of the operating system can do, controlled by the organisation’s IT admins.
Google also provides these services to organisations through its Android Enterprise initiative. Depending on the organisation’s requirements, they can allow employees to either get their own devices to access the organisation’s networks or give them phones which the organisation controls.
Separately, the need for a domestic operating system for military personnel has been long known to avoid the possibility of officers deployed at defence facilities unknowingly sharing their location and other information with third-party nations. The Russia-Ukraine war has shown everyone the scale of 21st-century electronic warfare with the use of commercial phones being a challenge as it can disclose sensitive troop locations.
While the demand and need for indigenous operating systems exist, their development has been historically broken. Efforts like the Bharat Operating System Solutions, commonly referred to as BOSS Linux, and Aakash Tablet have not been fruitful in their goals. If India intends to promote new operating systems to counter the monopoly of Big Tech, it better be serious this time and promote application ecosystems around the operating system.
Apart from the existing ones from BigTech and domestic efforts for new ones, the Linux community has been actively working towards running that operating system on mobile phones.
With the availability of mobile devices like Pinephone, Librem 5, Cosmo Communicator, and Volla Phone, there are multiple Linux for mobile “distros” out there that are building alternatives to the market-sponsored operating systems. Some of the famous Linux distributions for mobile phones include Ubuntu Touch, Postmarket OS, Mobian, Manjaro Linux, Arch Linux, Fedora and Kali Linux. Any individual who wants control over their personal data should consider some of these offerings as the indigenous operating systems are still at an early stage of development and are unlikely to be available anytime soon.
You can explore some of these operating systems by just heading over to libretech.shop and they are an ‘Atmanirbhar’ firm offering liberated phones with LineageOS, CalyxOS and Ubuntu Touch.
Srinivas Kodali is a researcher on digitisation and hacktivist.