The government wants to create a mobile operating system (OS) to compete with the dominant Android, owned by Google, and Apple’s iOS operating systems that have pretty much divided up the global smartphone market (Chinese tech major Huawei uses its own Harmony operating system on its phones after US President Donald Trump ordered Google to deny Android to companies that violated the sanctions against Iran). The government has even come up with a name for it: IndOS.
The ambition is noble, undoubtedly. However, such ambition has to be made of sterner stuff than what alternative OS makers have been able to come up with so far.
Let us recognize that creating an operating system rivaling Android has been a challenge that the likes of Nokia, Microsoft, and Mozilla have failed, miserably. Another tech major, Samsung, with a large share of the smartphone market, tried to popularise its own Tizen operating system but has gradually reduced its deployment to wearable devices and TVs.
Pros and cons of indigenous OS
Just because it has not been done till now does not mean that it cannot be done. But before committing major resources to upstage Android, let us weigh the pros and cons of creating a separate OS for India.
Millions of apps are developed around the world and some of them find traction with users, making their makers rise a considerable distance above the poverty line, like all the way up to the moon. Think of the payment apps popular in India, music apps, messaging apps, healthcare apps, video streaming apps, educational apps, gaming apps, etc.
These apps are tailored to function on specific operating systems. The dominance of Android and iOS worldwide means, for an app developers, that if their app works on these operating systems, their market is potentially the world. If someone were to develop a game that appeals to young people in south Mumbai, it could well appeal to young people in Seoul, Shanghai, Sydney, Saigon, Surabaya, San Francisco, São Paulo, Stockholm, Southampton, Saint Petersburg, Kinshasa, and Timbuktu. That could apply to location-non-specific utility apps as well.
Once an IndOS is adopted, the app would have to work on that OS, besides Android and iOS. That is extra work and cost for the developer.
What is the potential gain of having an OS for India? The elite would continue to use the latest version of the iPhone, with its own evolving operating system. While they remain happily captive to one of the world’s largest corporate titans, the masses would be set free, to choose between Android, for the security of whose app store Google deploys its technological prowess, and the IndOS, conceivably the logical testing ground for would-be developers of malware targeting OS vulnerabilities.
Having a non-Android OS would help users avoid having some Google apps pre-installed. What a blessing it would be, to be spared apps that provide the world’s best search engine, the most widely used email service, and the most efficient map service. Imagine the frisson in exercising free choice, searching out and downloading the Google apps of your liking, instead of being infantilized by having these apps pre-installed on your Android phone.
The only real advantage of having a non-Google OS available as an option is being able to countenance the contingency in which Google is forbidden to provide its OS and other services to Indian customers, on American national security grounds.
This sounds far-fetched. After all, India is a quasi-ally for the US, a member of the quartet of Australia, India, Japan, and the US constituting the Quad grouping that is meant to countervail China’s growing power and assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. India conducts the Malabar joint exercises along with the forces of the US, Japan, and Australia and is working to achieve interoperability of national forces.
Partnered, not pushed
As far as the world is concerned, India is its largest democracy, an example of how a large, diverse, and low-income country can more than subsist without collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions. It is to be partnered, rather than pushed into the company of totalitarian regimes.
Therefore, the compulsion is weak to have strategic insurance against being denied access to privately owned technologies that the world has come to treat as global commons. That leaves competition as the sole rationale for an IndOS.
A rail track, a port, or an airport is a local monopoly. Trying to create competition for these in the same locality is costly and wasteful. It is far simpler to regulate these local monopolies than to create competing alternatives.
The EU competition authority’s — and, following its steps, the Indian competition authority’s — decision to fine Google for alleged violation of market dominance should, therefore, be welcome. But there is a rider: provided the alleged malpractice is real rather than assumed. And that is far from obvious. But that is a separate story.
For purposes of determining the desirability of creating synthetic competition to Google, it is sufficient to establish the amenability of Google to regulation: it is not necessary to go into whether the regulation that has taken place has been fair or not. The case for fairness is indisputable and the point is to establish or refute the fairness of any attempt at regulation.
Why bash Big Tech?
Bashing Big Tech is quite the fashion in the US and Western Europe. For India, tech is not a wolf waiting for the right moment to tear off its sheep’s clothing; rather tech is their ticket to ride — to a more prosperous, fulfilling future. For lower middle-class Indians, a tech job is a route to the middle class. For those already in the middle class, tech holds out Opportunity with a Capital O, to make it big, drawing on the world’s savings, the finest talent, and a global market. For those not directly engaged in the tech industry, tech is a powerful enabler. We Indians don’t want any tech bashing for the sake of bashing.
But that does not mean there is any harm in trying to develop an alternative OS, in the sense in we tolerate so many me-too apps that try to replicate what has already been entrenched. The re-invented wheel might just turn out to be a little more round, right?
This article was first published in The Federal as The case for IndOS: Does India need its very own Android? on Jan 17, 2023.
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