BharOS Is Not The First Made-In-India Operating System, More Like The Third, So What’s New?

Anand Parthasarathy

Feb 11, 2023, 02:44 PM | Updated 03:24 PM IST

Launch of BharOS by IIT Madras director, Prof V Kamakoti (left) and JandK operations director Karthik Ayyar.
Launch of BharOS by IIT Madras director, Prof V Kamakoti (left) and JandK operations director Karthik Ayyar.

On 23 January, IIT Madras and a non-profit entity which incubated it — JandK Operations Pvt Ltd — made a joint announcement of a new made-in-India operating system for mobile devices developed by the latter.

It was called BharOS (presumably short for Bharat Operating System). 

But from the Freudian slips of the tongue made by the spokespersons at the launch event, no prizes for guessing this will soon morph into “BharOSa” (trust) in keeping with the current official trend of English acronyms which spell out Hindi words. (Free suggestion: Make it ‘BHArat Operating System for All’). 

The opening sentence of IIT’s press release claims this “Indigenous Mobile Operating System... can benefit India’s 100 crore mobile phone users”. 

This would imply that BharOS is a product aimed at mass users of mobile phones — that is, a consumer product.

IIT Madras director Prof V Kamakoti said “This innovative system promises to revolutionise the way users think about security and privacy on their mobile devices”.

But remarks made by  JandK operations director Karthik Ayyar seemed to suggest that the product was targeted at “organisations that have stringent privacy and security requirements whose users handle sensitive information that requires confidential communications on restricted apps on mobiles”.

Who were these users?

Nobody named names. 

The main USP of BharOS apparently, was that “users are not forced to use apps that they may not be familiar with or that they may not trust. This approach allows users to have more control over the permissions that apps have on their device, as they can choose to only allow apps that they trust to access certain features or data on their device”.

Rather than depend on Android’s App Store, BharOS would provide access to organisation-specific Private App Store Services (PASS), allowing each user organisation to control what apps could be accessed on BharOS-fuelled phones.

Also promised was NOTA — Native-Over-The-Air updates and patches, which is not a big deal: most leading handset makers now offer this feature.

Launches of new software tools are normally accompanied by an opportunity to experience these tools on devices that have already signed up to preload these tools.

But the makers of BharOS, JandK Operations and its principal mentor, IIT Madras, have bucked the industry practice and remain opaque regarding who is the intended user; when lay users if at all, will get to use it and what conditions must be met to be eligible to use it.

A few days later, two Union Ministers — for Education and Communications/ IT — took part in a public event where, according to the news agency which reported on it, they "tested the indigenous operating system” which was “an Indian government-funded project to develop a free and Open Source operating system for use in government and public systems”.

It was no doubt comforting to know that the principal sponsors of the project got their privileged opportunity to test it — but perhaps not the most ‘open’ manner of sharing with tax payers, the news of a new ‘Open Source’ product launched in the public domain. 

Experts have characterised BharOS as the ‘Forked version’ of Android. This is a term used when a developer uses a copy of the source code of a programme or even an operating system to create a new project based on it. So, this is still Android under the hood.

Who gets to use it?  Will the government mandate it for official mobile devices? Will private enterprise find value in its app-corralling feature? And what about the rest of us?  We wait with bated breath.

C-DAC’s BOSS, the first Indian operating for desktop PCs and laptops.
C-DAC’s BOSS, the first Indian operating for desktop PCs and laptops.

Big BOSS Of Indian Operating Systems

It was not always so. As far back as 2007, the Chennai centre of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) developed a made-for-India distribution of the Open Source GNU/Linux which they called Bharat Operating Systems Solution or BOSS. 

It was released in multiple avatars, for education, enterprise, general user, server version etc. 

IIT Madras partnered in developing the core — what is called kernel — of the OS and had persuaded Japanese device maker Fujitsu to preload BOSS on its laptops so that students could easily work with it.

There was no ambiguity: anyone could easily pick up a free copy of BOSS on a CD at major IT events where C-DAC participated and in fact, I could try it on my PC.

By 2018, BOSS was in its fifth release, “Anokha, but the government was still in discussion on whether to mandate that BOSS, which by then supported 20 Indian languages, replace Windows on all official desktops. There was talk that the Defence services had moved some of their mission critical systems to BOSS  because of its robust and unbreakable code."

But on a larger canvas, the government never followed up on the promise and potential of  the first  truly Indian OS for PCs and laptops.

The IndusOS  App Bazaar (top)  and its  founders  (from left) Rakesh Deshmukh, Akash Dongre and Sudhir B.
The IndusOS App Bazaar (top) and its founders (from left) Rakesh Deshmukh, Akash Dongre and Sudhir B.

IndusOS: Private Innovation

BharOS is not the first instance of an Indian OS - specifically for mobile devices.

In 2013, three IIT-Bombay alumni, Rakesh Deshmukh, Akash Dongre and Sudhir B, founded IndusOS to create an Indian platform for mobile phones, offering multiple language options and opening the door to apps made for Indians.

Within two years, multiple Indian phone brands — including Micromax, Karbonn, Swipe, Intex — came preloaded with IndusOS, touted as the first “Regional Operating System",  while retaining their DNA as Android phones. 

More usefully the Indus App Bazaar covering over 20 languages proved very popular, garnering over 100 million users and one billion installs by 2020. Last year, IndusOS was acquired by PhonPe, the UPI payments player.

In a parallel, but regional development, Kerala’s IT@School project (now Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education — KITE) has over the years  since 2006, created multiple generations of  its own  distribution of GNU/Linux, based on the Ubuntu OS.

This has placed a rich collection of resources and Malayalam-language tools in the hands of its teachers and students in the state.

Will Indians place their bharosa on the BharOS app for phones and help build a truly Indian portable device platform, rather than depending forever on foreign solutions whose commercial practices and near-monopoly position are already leading to some unease?

The coming weeks should provide some answers.

But those in charge will hopefully study the recent history of such initiatives in the past — from BOSS to IndusOS — and will build on this experience both good and bad, to ensure a better, smoother and more sustained rollout of an Indian operating system this time.

Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.

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