Indus OS, which is looking to become the de-facto mobile operating system for India, is eyeing a user base of 100 million by 2018. With support for regional languages baked right into the OS, the firm is targeting the country's next 300 million Internet users whose first language is not English.
A big part of this strategy to capture regional language users is providing a native text-to-speech engine, which Indus OS is co-developing with the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY). This will allow users to operate smartphones through voice commands in their mother tongue, essential for first-time users.
"We're at an inflection point where consumers that know English are already on the Internet. You can continue built technology for them, but there are tons of players there, the biggest being Android. However, the next 900 million people need something in their native language and that's where the real opportunity is," said Rakesh Deshmukh, co-founder and CEO at Indus OS.
Historically, it is seen that as hardware gets commoditised the industry's focus shifts to software differentiation. Apple has famously remained ahead of its competition in the US because of this and Xiaomi is now proving the same in China. While this wave hasn't hit India just yet, the entry of Chinese manufacturers has left no room to innovate with hardware, forcing the change.
Deshmukh says there's a need for a native experience for regional language users. He adds that even the simple process of installing a native language keyboard on an Android phone is far too complicated for a first-time user who has no understanding of the English language, and he's right.
A user has to open the Google PlayStore, which requires them to sign in using an email id. They then have to search for the keyboard app in English, download and install it, and then jump through no less than three settings menus in order to make the native language keyboard the default keyboard on their device. All this is assuming they have a working data connection.
In the January to March quarter of 2016, out of the 27 million smartphone activations in the country, 1.6 million devices were running on Indus OS.
So far the firm's software runs on 35 odd smartphone models from Micromax, but it is exploring partnerships with other Indian as well as global manufacturers that sell devices in India. Deshmukh says that two to three more smartphone brands could opt to use Indus OS on their devices by June.
"If in India we want consumers to adopt technology, then this technology has to work for them in their native language and more importantly has to be the default. For example, if I pick Marathi has my default language, then my phone language, my keyboard, the app store and to a larger extent my Internet browsing experience has got to be in Marathi," said Deshmukh.
Despite building a native experience for users, apps, which are the cornerstone of smartphone use either don't support regional languages or users aren't aware that they do. To fix the issue of discovery, Indus OS has its own app store, dubbed App Bazaar, which customises the apps shown to users based on their default language selection. In order to help more add developers localise their apps, the company is also working on a tool that will be launched in the coming months.
Moreover, the text-to-speech functions which Indus has built along with DeitY will be available in the next three months in seven languages and will function even when the device isn't connected to the Internet. The government has spent seven years building the technology, but the firm has addressed optimisation issues. Migrating the text-to-speech engine from the cloud to the device itself, Indus has dropped the size of the engine from 2.2GB to 6MB.
Going forward, Indus OS plans to partner with more original equipment manufacturers (OEM) to run its software on their hardware and also with app developers, to help them localise their apps and be discovered by regional language users. The company has also signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the government to further develop technologies that will help deliver the internet to users in regional languages.
There is no company in India that is building a native experience for regional language users. There are some that have built native language keyboards, but if you look at the process of even switching from the inbuilt English keyboard to this keyboard, all the steps (and there are many) are in English.