In January, Rajeev Chandrasekhar that India is “looking at a policy” and “capabilities” to create an indigenous operating system for mobile phones – one that will rival Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.
The union minister of state for electronics and IT said the government has “tremendous interest” in this plan for an alternative operating system.
The government has offered no further clarity on its plans. So, Newslaundry has five questions for Chandrasekhar.
What’s the timeline?
An operating system is what enables users to interact with their smartphones. Every function, from downloading an app to clicking on an image, is dictated by the phone’s software and its integration with the hardware.
Developing an operating system takes time and resources. It’s precisely why many mobile phone manufacturers use Android as their OS. If the government is mulling a policy to develop an indigenous OS, it will need to account for ample time for its development and deployment. Importantly, it will also need to make sure there’s a market for this OS.
Where will the hardware come from?
Hardware for a smartphone includes key components like the chipset, battery, screen, cameras and microphone. These, when tied together with software, is what makes a smartphone work.
While developing an OS is important, working towards it without specifications about the hardware is like developing a car’s engine without a body. It may well be the most amazing engine ever made but without a body, it can’t be used.
The dominant operating systems today work as either open source or closed source software platforms. Apple’s software works on the closed source model and only Apple manufactured hardware can run it. So, Apple has total control over the design, hardware and software of the device which in turn ensures usability.
Android, on the other hand, works on an open source platform, meaning there is a basic version of Android that can be tweaked by different hardware manufacturers to fit and work with their hardware. Currently brands like Samsung, OnePlus, Xiaomi, Oppo and others use Android as a base, adding skins and features on top of it to give the software a different feel and user interface for their individual devices.
So, how does the government plan to provide an ecosystem where such, if needed, new hardware will be designed and developed and how will a new OS fit in?
Will there be patent protections? How will the development of a new OS circumvent existing patents?
Operating systems like iOS, Android and KaiOS were developed over a long period of time, and companies filed numerous patents to protect their intellectual property. Google and Android hold patents for hardware as well as software – all of which are .
How will the government’s policy navigate patents held by companies?
How will the policy ensure user privacy?
Operating systems have access to, and control, all the data input by users into their phones. A task as simple as sending a message requires data that is processed by the software – such as a phone number and an email address, both of which are connected to various kinds of information like bank accounts. It only gets trickier with more complex functions like making phone calls and payments.
With established operating systems, tech companies are under pressure to deliver on their promises of privacy and safety. This has intensified over the past couple of years, with and demands for companies to fix vulnerabilities in their security. It’s why Apple delayed the roll-out of its and jumped to that had allegedly been exploited by the Pegasus spyware.
Meanwhile, India still hasn’t implemented the . It was handed over to a parliamentary committee which made certain recommendations like data localisation and making distinctions between private data and explicit permissions being required by data processing companies before processing data of private nature. The bill itself raises issues on the high degree of .
Contrast this with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which sets down detailed regulations on data and its use. As Dr Tilak Jha, an assistant professor at Bennett University said, an indigenous OS raises questions on the kind of “leverage” the government will have and whether the government can be trusted to “handle this data prudently” in the absence of a legal framework.
How involved will the government be in the entire process?
In the past, Indian citizens have faced multiple privacy threats, from to the over the Arogya Setu app being made mandatory during the pandemic. Given these concerns, the risk is even more profound with an indigenous operating system that will have even more control over devices.
And while the idea of a homegrown OS competing with the likes of Apple and Google is commendable, the reality is that there is no transparent process for its development and implementation, or a law to protect personal data. These are issues that need to be explored before users can get excited.
Newslaundry sent a questionnaire to Prasad Nair, assistant personal secretary at Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s office. This report will be updated if we receive a response.
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