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India launches homegrown BharOS

The homegrown Android-based mobile operating system could reduce India’s reliance on foreign software, but uncertainties around market adoption and software updates remain

India has become the latest country to develop its own operating system (OS) in a bid to reduce its reliance on foreign software and enhance its digital sovereignty.

Dubbed BharOS, the OS, based on the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), was built by the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras and funded by the Indian government.

Featuring stronger privacy safeguards, the OS will not have default apps installed, giving users more control and flexibility to choose the apps they want from third-party app stores, including private organisational app stores. Developers can also collaborate with device manufacturers to roll out BharOS for mainstream release, with the ability to side-load apps.  

While BharOS has been applauded as a step towards achieving Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s vision of a developing a “strong, indigenous, and self-reliant digital infrastructure”, it has seen its fair share of proponents and sceptics.

Nityesh Bhatt, chairperson and professor from the Institute of Management at Nirma University, said as the value proposition of BharOS is security and privacy, “it may be immensely beneficial for many government, educational, research and commercial organisations with stringent integrity and confidentiality requirements”.

He added that the OS is also in line with the government’s efforts to build its own technology stack, known as the India Stack, a set of open application programming interfaces (APIs) and digital public goods that aim to unlock the economic primitives of identity data and payments at scale in the country.

Devroop Dhar, co-founder of Primus Partners, a consulting firm, said with Android and iOS app revenues having reached $133bn in 2021, developing an indigenous OS is a step in the right direction to support India’s rapidly digitalising economy and technology-led citizen initiatives.

That said, BharOS would have some challenges to confront. A telecom analyst noted that the new OS is just another flavour of Android, which has tons of alternatives in the market. BharOS will also need strong differentiators and a developer ecosystem before it will see broad adoption, he added.

Ramakrishna Murthy, Securonix’s general manager for India and vice-president of technology services in Asia-Pacific, raised similar concerns about adoption of the OS by Indian consumers who are already very familiar with Android and iOS.

“It is also unclear as to which smartphones will have the new OS, how it will be integrated and how long they will be able to issue updates,” Murthy added. “Since we still don’t know the source code of BharOS, it is hard to comment on its viability, but some experts are referring to it as a version of CalyxOS or LineageOS. I guess we have to wait for further developments about the new OS.”

If the idea is that India should have its own OS that government bodies can use and should not have to worry about data theft, then it’s a good idea and should be implemented
Muzammil Hassan, GreyB

Aleksandr Valentij, information security officer at Surfshark, a digital security firm, questioned if the authorities can successfully keep up with the necessary updates and developments to keep the OS secure.

“It requires significant amounts of resources in terms of budget and a large professional development team. India is renowned for its strong developers, but they need to be successfully attracted, which sometimes can be challenging,” he said.

Besides timely security updates, Valentij said users should have access to a software ecosystem in a user-friendly way, adding, however, that public authorities that developed homegrown OSes have shown the lack the capacity to create such an ecosystem.

Eventually, the OSes were outcompeted and did not become widely used, he said. “With BharOS, it seems possible to side-load apps and therefore extend the software's usability, but that could also bring about security vulnerabilities,” he added.

Valentij also cited lessons from other indigenous OS development efforts, such as North Korea’s Red Star OS, which comes pre-installed with a number of applications that monitor its users. “If a user tries to disable security functions, an error message will appear on the computer, or the OS will crash and reboot,” he said.

Maheswaran Shamugasundaram, country manager of India at Varonis, a data security software company, said uncertainties remain around which devices are supported, the replacement of an existing OS by users, and plans for BharOS to collaborate with hardware manufacturers to support the OS.

Muzammil Hassan, head of intellectual property licensing and commercialisation at technology research firm GreyB, assessed the initiative with a different lens.

“It largely depends on the objective the government or the developing body wants to achieve,” Hassan said. “If the idea is that India should have its own OS that government bodies can use and should not have to worry about data theft, then it’s a good idea and should be implemented. There is nothing that should come in between when it comes to national security.”

But if the idea is for BharOS to be commercialised, then there will be a lot of upfront challenges, including those around intellectual property, Hassan said. “Android faced it, iOS faced it, and you should be ready to put up a fight too.”

Dhar contended that in the long run, efforts around BharOS, along with India’s focus on electronics and semiconductor manufacturing, may help to reduce the cost of devices, hosting and operating applications while making data and systems more secure.

“It would also facilitate data sovereignty and improve Indian language support as more Indians using mobile devices are more comfortable with Indian languages. The success of initiatives like RuPay and Aadhaar augurs well that India can create world class technology solutions, including an OS,” he added.

Concurring, Hassan noted that indigenous inventions are very important and should be motivated. “Inventions not only change the world for good, but they also show a country’s dominance in the sector and the market it has,” he said.

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