Why India Wants to Create Its Own Phone OS

Security, sovereignty, and control

Key Takeaways

  • India wants to create its own home-grown mobile operating system.
  • Relying on other countries’ tech for critical infrastructure is a security risk. 
  • Creating a new mobile OS is hard; getting people to switch might be even harder.
An Indian citizen using a smartphone reflected in an automobile window.

Shilajit D.C. / Unsplash

India's government plans to create an 'indigenous' operating system (OS) to rival iOS and Android. 

Currently, there are only two alternatives for phone operating systems, both of which are controlled by US companies in California (iOS and Android). India wants a third, home-grown choice, and it also plans to grow its electronics manufacturing industry from $75 billion per year to $300 billion, which could include Indian-designed phones for the domestic market. India's Minister of State for Electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar has announced a desire to mix things up. 

"Due to national security reasons, countries like India, for example, need to have their own OS as well as secure chips for sensitive applications. I think it is a good move that the Indian government has started investing in software engineering industries to come up with its own OS for the use of government employees, banks and financial institutions, space agencies, and other critical agencies that are vulnerable to state-sponsored hacking," technology writer Victoria Mendoza told Lifewire via email. 

Security

The US government has already dealt with similar concerns. Recently it banned Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE from providing networking equipment. This measure is important for 5G mobile networks, which would otherwise run on hardware potentially under the control of the Chinese government. 

"Due to national security reasons, countries like India, for example, need to have their own OS as well as secure chips for sensitive applications."

Looking at it that way, it’s easy to see why India, and perhaps other countries, would prefer to use a domestically-built operating system for phones and potentially also build the hardware to run it. Apple is already expanding its manufacturing in India, and the expertise learned there would help India’s plans. 

Not So Easy

Right now, the Indian government's wishes are just that. 

According to the article in India's Economic Times, the government has plans to create policies that will direct the creation of an "indigenous operating system." It's hard to get much more hand-wavy than that. 

But even if India manages to create a viable operating system, and hardware to run it on, there are still significant barriers. First, it will have to convince users not to use iPhones and Android phones. Given that our lives are almost inextricably tied up in our mobile computers, that's a hugely difficult task already. There would have to be apps, which will only come if the platform is compelling, and enough people use it to make developing those apps worthwhile. It's the classic chicken and egg problem.

"The problem of having a state-owned and separate OS is that many app developers as well companies will have to make separate apps and software compatible with the government initiated OS," says Mendoza

A person holding a black iPhone at arm's length with the Netflix logo on the screen.

Sayan Ghosh / Unsplash

Android and the iPhone avoided this largely by being there at the beginning. Apple arguably created the modern mobile app ecosystem with the App Store, but could it do it now if it was coming this late to the game? Even Microsoft couldn't manage to break into mobile with its Windows Phone. Although perhaps not calling it 'Windows' would have helped. 

India could theoretically make its own phone mandatory by banning the alternatives, but there would still be a gap to bridge before apps were ready. 

And remember, India's current mobile ecosystem already runs on the same apps and services we all use. Switching off payment and messaging platforms could be economically disastrous, for example. 

"In my view, however, the Indian government cannot compel its people to stop using Android and iOS-run phones, but they can advocate for the use of phones running on Indian-developed OS, giving them options to choose for a more secure system that will protect the interests of the state and of the people," says Mendoza.

So while it is desirable, and—if all goes as well as possible—advantageous, to create and control the technology used by your country, it's a very difficult task. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't give it a shot. And who knows? Maybe India's phones and OS are so good that people outside the country decide to switch to them. At the very least, it would add a bit of diversity and competition to the powerful and somewhat moribund duopoly we have right now.

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