Why BharOS makes Indian developers excited and skeptical: ‘More choice is good for consumers… but it’s a long way’

“I think it bodes well for India to have many flavors of Android. We are very happy to see something like BharOS. Innovation happens at the operating system level and more choice is good for consumers,” Rohan Verma, CEO and Executive Director of MapmyIndia, summarizes India Inc’s feeling about the latest development in the smartphone segment in India. For Verma – who has often spoken publicly about Google’s dominance of the Android market – BharOS, presented by an IIT-Madras-incubated company, offers another chance to end Google’s Android monopoly.

BharOS isn’t the first or only India-based alternative to a Google-dominated Android that has been tried. The most famous example is the Noida-based IndusOS, which focused on helping users with regional languages, although it hasn’t seen the popularity of other Android skins. In 2016, Micromax had several phones running versions of IndusOS, but it failed to gain the popularity and approval that other versions of Android enjoyed in India.

Still, the idea of ​​BharOS has also excited other developers. It is pitched as a native alternative to Android, although it is based on the same Android Open Source Project (AOSP). There’s a big difference though – it doesn’t come with pre-installed Google Play services like most other Android phones. The announcement also comes at a time of critical regulatory changes making alternatives like BharOS easier to build. The Competition Commission of India (CCI) ruling against Google has forced the company to make changes to the Android platform in the country, allowing non-compatible forks of Android such as BharOS.

According to Verma, Google “made sure all Android devices were homogeneous,” from a software perspective. According to him, this OS-level innovation represents a new opportunity for OEMs and his argument is that developers and smartphone manufacturers should also have the choice. “There is plenty of cross-platform app development going on and basic capabilities have been improved. It is getting easier for app developers to build multi-platform apps thanks to various tools, some of which are provided by the big companies Microsoft. Developers want more ecosystems,” he added.

Interestingly, Verma’s company has already tested its mapping application ‘Mappls’ on BharOS. He emphasized that it was quite easy to get the Mappls app to work on BharOS as they just had to port the APK (Android Application Package) file of their Android app to BharOS.

For now, BharOS’s Private App Store Services or “PASS” only allows trusted apps from specific organizations. It’s a more “curated list of apps that have been thoroughly vetted and meet certain organizational security and privacy standards,” according to the IIT-Madras press release. But questions about how BharOS improves “privacy and security” – something Google promises on its version of Android – have not yet been fully answered in detail. It should be noted that Google and Apple have long insisted that third-party app stores are not safe.

Meanwhile, IndusOS now also has its own Indus App Bazaar, which powers Samsung’s Galaxy Store in India. Rakesh Deshmukh, co-founder and CEO of Indus OS told indianexpress.com that they screen every app for malware, adult content or banned content. “Only if we successfully pass these rigorous screening tests will we allow the app to go live in our store. These tests help us eliminate the risk of viruses or unfiltered content and also greatly reduce the risk of consumer data leaks,” he added.

BharOS has strong support from the government. Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s Minister of Electronics and Information Technology, recently tested the operating system on what appeared to be a Google Pixel device. Vaishnaw admitted that the challenge would be tough and that India needs to be “cautious, conscious and very persistent” in building such a system.

This has also been noticed by other developers. “As developers, we have to monitor adoption, which may be due to tremendous government pressure. Since BharOS is based on Android, developers can easily switch to it. This will fundamentally change the way digital distribution works in India,” Huzaifa Arab, Creative Director at Hypernova Interactive, a game studio based in Bengaluru, told indianexpress.com.

The need for Indian-made apps and services

But the challenge, as some argue, is not just about the operating system, but rather about building a local set of applications and services from the country, which could effectively replace Google’s. That’s a hard problem to solve, which also explains why the government recently held an India Stack developer conference. DigiLocker, Aadhaar and UPI are examples of products coming from this India Stack.
One company that has built services and apps from India is Zoho, which remains one of the biggest success stories after crossing the $1 billion mark in 2021.

“It’s a good sign. It gives us a lot more pride to see more and more companies and teams coming forward and trying to build something from India. And not just for India, but possibly for the rest of the world as well,” Praval Singh, vice president of Zoho Corp, told indianexpress.com. But he, too, warned that building for India requires a deep dive into “research and development (R&D),” which he says is the core of Zoho.

“This is a longer road. Anything R&D-oriented has a long-term plan,” explains Singh. He also added that talent and upskilling are critical to building a service from India and companies need to invest in talent outside of the larger cities, an approach Zoho has taken since the beginning by establishing a presence in cities and villages on levels two and three. .

According to Aman Verma, co-founder and COO of Primebook – a laptop intended for educational purposes and built on a forked version of Android – creating these India-based services is a mammoth task. “We really believe in the vision of BharOS, but we need to build an India stack in the OS based on AOSP,” he explained over the phone.

Verma said the goal is not to replace AOSP, which would create another set of headaches, such as ensuring chipset compatibility. On the contrary, he called AOSP a good open-source asset made by Google, but emphasized that it is the services that Google provides that will have to be replaced. “The reason people go to iOS and Android is because of the number of applications out there. If we can run those applications on our operating system, without much work being done by the developer of those applications, then the user’s problem is solved,” he said, adding that they have done that with PrimeOS on their laptops, they run the most important education-related applications.

Of course, it’s not easy to guarantee this with every new operating system, as Verma admitted. “You have to get the right skills from people in the country and in your company to solve those problems. Because they are not like application development and website development. It is a very critical problem to know about Android and AOSP,” said the PrimeBook co-founder.

Another advantage is that AOSP is so well integrated with the chipset infrastructure that building a new operating system on it makes for easier adoption. But to get users away from Google services like Maps or GPay or even YouTube, well, that’s going to prove to be the real challenge. And as Zoho’s Singh said, BharOS cannot become an overnight success. One will have to wait and see what kind of adoption it gets in the coming months.