Tech

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

Forgive the Chinese if they start feeling a certain amount of OS envy.

For more than 15 years, China has unsuccessfully attempted to come up with a homegrown operating system that would be loved by the masses and allow the country to be freed from the shackles of Western technological imperialism.

India has achieved that feat in less than two years.

Indus OS is now India's second-most popular smartphone platform with a 6.3 percent market share, behind Alphabet's Android. The multilingual system, one of many based on Android itself, reached No. 2 at the end of 2015 and maintained that position in the first two quarters, according to data released this week by Counterpoint Research. It leads iOS and other Android variants including Xiaomi's MIUI and Cyanogen.

China's path toward operating system nationalism is littered with the shells of failures including China OS (COS), Kylin, Red Flag and YunOS. They were all unsuccessful in getting traction for varying but similar reasons that include being pushed by the government or by a corporation with skin in the game.   It matters little whether they're for desktop or mobile devices, China has failed at both.

Originally called Firstouch, Indus OS got its big break in mid-2015 when local smartphone giant Micromax decided to start using it for some models instead of Alphabet's Android.  

With at least 12 major Indian languages supported, Indus OS has tapped into what the market needs, not what a government wants. That's powerful because it means the software is developing and pivoting according to demand. For example, it offers simplified predictive typing and translation between regional languages.

Make in India
India's homegrown Indus OS overtook iOS in the fourth quarter and has extended its lead, proving interest in the local alternative remains strong
Source: Counterpoint Research

Indus OS also offers carrier billing in its App Bazaar, which means users can pay for downloads via their phone bill, for which network providers likely take a cut. This is a big motivator not only for consumers and app publishers but also for the operators themselves, who are less than happy about being left out of a smartphone party where Android and iOS drink more than their fair share of the champagne.

Since it's in their best interests to have more phones on their networks that will bill through their payment systems, operators have an incentive to promote Indus OS devices. And in turn, smartphone makers have a good reason to develop Indus OS models over Android.

Getting Smarter
India's smartphone market is expected to grow by 68 percent over the next two years
Source: Counterpoint Research

Such success shows how market forces can trump government directives, and the outcome also ends up playing out well for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Make in India campaign. In theory, a Chinese-made smartphone could have Indus OS installed -- and that'll probably happen one day -- yet the reality is that any foreign company that wants to capture this part of the market will need to set up operations locally.

While Beijing has done a lot to try and wean the country off the dominance of American software makers, India shows that all it really takes is a good product and market forces.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. The same could be said for Apple's closed iOS, but the company offers more than just an OS and has a full ecosystem.

  2. Firstouch made some of its own phones in a short pilot project in one Indian state before focusing solely on the OS.

To contact the author of this story:
Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katrina Nicholas at knicholas2@bloomberg.net