Made in India Mobile OS that Outrun Apple and Microsoft

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In 2013, RAKESH DESHMUKH was already into his second venture - a mobile application development company, when he realized how regional language support offered by Android in smartphones was layered on a broken user experience. While user access to content in their native languages was available but not in the way that users understood. Deshmukh turned this idea of facilitating a seamless transition from feature phone to smartphone into India’s second largest smartphone operating system – Indus OS.

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He tried doing a Paytm for feature phones back in 2007. However, the idea of making payments via feature phones at that time, he believes was ahead of its time. But the idea for a new OS for smartphones in 2013 seemed aptly timed, as smartphone penetration in India and particularly among native language speaking population started to break out. Working for a client in Myanmar, who wanted a customized interface for smartphones in Burmese language, during his second venture (MoFirst Solutions) gave Deshmukh sharp insights on how Android and OS integration of smartphone works.

“We were the first company to build the Burmese language smartphone keyboard for the Myanmar market,” remembers Deshmukh. He exited MoFirst in August 2013 after running it for five years and raising Series A investment. Moreover, talking to users who have been switching to smartphones from feature phones offered him serious ground realities.

Out of more than 1.3 billion India’s population, explains Deshmukh, only around 150 million people are English speaking, around 350 million are a mix of English and native languages and the largest chunk where Indus OS targets is of around 800 million people that have native as primary language. “The problems we heard were that people said they don’t know how to use a smartphone, forget about the language support. Also locating icons for let’s say making calls was a problem. People felt that their smartphones didn’t have calling capability. They also had no idea of what Google Play store is,” adds Deshmukh. 

The gap, hence, has been huge between the way we understand technology and the way market understands it. The report published by market research firm, Counterpoint Research, in January this year claimed Indus OS as the second largest OS in India with 7.6 per cent market share and above six million users followed by Chinese smartphone brand, Xiaomi’s MIUI OS, with 5.1 per cent share and iOS by Apple way behind at 2 per cent. Android, nonetheless, remained the default OS with a whooping 82.3 per cent share.

Mobile OS for Bharat

Indus OS allows translation of text from English to any of the 12 languages (spoken by 90 per cent of India’s population) it supports by simply swiping over the message. Accuracy of that however depends on syntax. The OS has all the icons of important features like calls and messages displayed on the home screen the way they appear on a feature phone.

Currently Indus’s regional app store called, App Bazaar, has more than 50,000 apps from all the leading publishers including Facebook, Microsoft, Truecaller, Times Music etc. where users can read about the apps in their languages unlike in Android and iOS. “We wanted to make the smartphone experience simpler as feature phone users migrating to smartphones have a certain mindset of how they use feature phones,” claims Deshmukh.

The start-up is also the first OS in India to launch text-to-speech solution in nine native languages. The 100-people company, Indus OS is now aspiring to expand. “We accomplished our first milestone of putting Indus into every leading smartphone brands. Now we are looking at Chinese mobile brands to sign up with and have Indus as their default OS,” concludes Deshmukh.

(This article was first published in the March issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)