When Akash Dongre and Sudheer B were talking about how Indians used entry-level smartphones just to call and send messages, their fellow IIT-Bombay classmate Rakesh Deshmukh thought it was a great idea to build an operating system that worked in Indian languages. The three friends, who’d already been working for a few years, decided to build on the idea, and in 2012, they rolled out Indus OS, the indigenous operating system that has had great success reaching first-time smartphone users. It now works with eight Indian mobile phone brands, including Micromax and Karbonn, has 10 million users, and is second only to Android in India. It has its own app store in 12 Indian languages. Deshmukh tells TOI that 77% of his customers are from Tier 2-3 cities.
Was the focus of Indus OS always on Indian languages?
In India, only 10% of the population considers English its first, second or third language. So it’s important to provide technology to Indians in the language of their choice. The Indus OS platform supports English and 23 Indian regional languages. Language technology remains the bedrock of every India-centric innovation. We have introduced Aadhaar integration to balance analytics.
What was Indus OS’ turning point?
In 2014, we did a pilot in Saurashtra with a few thousand devices running an operating system in Gujarati. Customers were very happy with it. Within a year we created an operating system in English and 10 Indian regional languages and signed up with Micromax, which was the leading domestic smartphone brand at that time. In May 2015, we launched our first device with Micromax, Unite 3. Our aim was to have 50,000 customers for Unite 3 within a month of the launch. We reached 75,000 in just 17 days. Till date, Unite 3 is one of Micromax’s highest selling devices. We then became available across all Micromax devices priced under Rs 10,000. And we became the No. 2 OS in India by market share, ahead of global giants such as Microsoft Windows and Apple iOS. It was a huge achievement and helped us partner with more smartphone brands like Intex, Karbonn and Celkon. Recently, we announced our first international smartphone brand partner in Itel.
Did you have enough capital to fund your startup?
In the initial days, we were funded by serial entrepreneur Hari Padmanabhan. This was followed by angel investors such as Mayank Singhal from Temasek Holdings, Pranay Chulet of Quikr, Amit Gupta and Naveen Tewari of InMobi, and Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal of Snapdeal. After our initial success with Micromax, we got Series A funding from Omidyar Network, JSW Ventures and VenturEast.
A lot of smartphones and operating systems have introduced regional languages now. How is Indus different?
Most other smartphones and operating systems that support Indian regional languages have a simple menu text translation, which is limited to the UI or the screen you see. If a user receives an SMS in English, they do not offer the user the opportunity to read it in a regional language. We provide deep, OS-level integration of language and technology. When we add a language, we not only support the language in the menu text but also create a complete language ecosystem for the user and developer. We have developed features such as regional keyboards with word/matra predictions and auto-correction, the patented Indus Swipe (to translate and transliterate English text to regional languages), Indus Reader (a text-to-speech feature in regional languages for English content), and App Bazaar to bring regional language content and apps to the user.
What were the initial challenges you faced? How did you counter them?
Establishing value in the market was one. The OS was created at a time when the market had seen several failed attempts for a localized technology solution by global giants. We knew this could be a potential roadblock when opening conversations for partnerships. However, our pilot study in Saurashtra received an excellent response from consumers and retailers. Creating the right team took significant time and effort as our work was niche. Today, we have a team of 100.