India is digitizing rapidly. Along the way, there are good points and bad points, speed bumps and caveats to watch out for. weekly column terminal It focuses on everything connected and not-so-connected on the digital issues, policies, ideas and topics that dominate the conversation between India and the world.
Last week JanK Operations Private Limited, founded at IIT Madras, announced its proprietary mobile operating system (OS) called ‘BharOS’. Touted as India’s solution to dealing with Google, the operating system is all over the news.
BharOS is being promoted as a privacy- and security-oriented OS for organizations with such requirements. The announcement comes against the backdrop of the Indian Competition Commission finding Google guilty of abusing its dominant position in the OS market.
There is no publicly available documentation about BharOS and its features, but it looks like a ‘fork’ of the Google-led Android Open Source Project (AOSP).
It is also unclear which phones will be able to run BharOS, as the operating system has been announced independently of the specific phone that will run BharOS. Although promoted as an indigenous operating system, BharOS is not entirely Indian product as the operating system is based on AOSP, a worldwide effort by people of many nationalities.
In a highly globalized world, producing truly domestic products from scratch is really difficult. There are currently several other operating systems such as LineageOS, CalyxOS, and GrapheneOS based on AOSP, which are supported by independent free and open source software groups that help people control their personal data and phones.
But why use an operating system other than the default operating system that comes with your phone? It’s for people who want privacy and don’t want to continuously provide information to Google.
Google abused its position as 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 Google Search Engine on Android OS has always been a contentious issue with regulators. In the European Union and India, regulators are challenging Google’s market dominance.
Beyond privacy concerns, operating systems have become marketplaces controlling e-commerce sales. Google’s market dominance in the app store business is also contested by the company’s 30% platform fee for businesses that sell in-app purchases.
Several Indian companies have opposed the move and have called for attention from regulators. There have been multiple calls for the need for an Indian app store that doesn’t charge excessive selling fees. This demand from Indian companies was reflected in CCI’s fines against Google and its order to allow the Play Store to sell other payment systems and other third-party app stores.
There are several domestic interests for a separate OS that could help challenge Google’s and Apple’s monopoly in the space, but BharOS may not be one to fill those needs. It seems to have been designed with organizations in mind. Think of defense organizations, government agencies, data collection companies that need a secure device with restrictions on what operating system users can do, and controlled by the organization’s IT administrators.
Google also offers these services to organizations through its Android Enterprise initiative. Depending on your organization’s requirements, you may want to allow your employees to obtain their own devices or provide phones controlled by your organization to access your organization’s network.
Separately, the need for a domestic operating system for military personnel has long been known to avoid the possibility of officers assigned to defense installations unknowingly sharing their location and other information with third countries. The Russian-Ukrainian war showed everyone the scale of electronic warfare in the 21st century. Using commercial telephones was difficult because they could reveal sensitive military locations.
The demand and need for a unique operating system exists, but its development has been historically stalled. Efforts such as the Bharat operating system solution, commonly referred to as BOSS Linux, and the Aakash Tablet have not come to fruition in their goals. If India wants to promote a new operating system to counter Big Tech’s monopoly, this time seriously, it’s better to promote an application ecosystem around the operating system.
Apart from BigTech’s domestic efforts for old and new, the Linux community has been actively working towards running that operating system on mobile phones.
As mobile devices such as the Pinephone, Librem 5, Cosmo Communicator, and Volla Phone become available, there are several Linux for mobile “distributions” that build alternatives to market-sponsored operating systems. Popular Linux distributions for mobile phones include Ubuntu Touch, Postmarket OS, Mobian, Manjaro Linux, Arch Linux, Fedora and Kali Linux. Individuals who want control over their personal data should consider some of these offers, as their own operating systems are still in the early stages of development and are unlikely to become available soon.
You can browse some of these operating systems by going to libretech.shop and these are the ‘Atmanirbhar’ company that offers liberated phones with LineageOS, CalyxOS and Ubuntu Touch.
Srinivas Kodali is a digitization and hacktivist researcher.