Rakesh Deshmukh is the CEO and founder of Indus OS, which created the first mobile operating system catering solely to India’s regional languages. That OS is no longer active, but the company’s Indus App Bazaar has since become the foundation for Samsung’s Galaxy Store in India, which has over 170 million users. He previously started a company bringing mobile-payment tech to feature phones and created the first Burmese-language keyboard.

The law of large numbers

A hundred million people in India read and write in English fluently. The majority of the country can’t read, write, or understand English at all. That’s over 90% of India.

Yet every mobile operating system in the country was geared towards English speakers. Even the Hindi keyboard was superimposed on a QWERTY layout, which makes no sense in Hindi, as we have twice the number of letters and several variations for our vowels, or matras.

We approached the problem in 2013 not only from a language perspective but also from a user experience [UX] design perspective. We would need to build Android [Google’s open-source operating system] from the ground up, for people who were not only uncomfortable using an operating system in English but also for people who were coming online for the first time. 

In 2015, we launched our operating system with the flagship phone of Micromax, one of the biggest Indian smartphone manufacturers at the time. The operating system was eventually adopted by every major Indian smartphone manufacturer, from Intex to Karbonn Mobiles. At its peak, Indus OS was India’s second most popular mobile operating system in India, controlling about 8% of the market share, ahead of both Apple’s and Microsoft’s mobile operating systems at the time.

When to hold ’em …

What we saw in the market was a top-down approach, where big Silicon Valley companies were producing platforms for India without truly understanding the Indian market. For example, while nearly every Western internet user has an email account, most new Indian internet users use WhatsApp like you might use email. Less than half of mobile internet users in India even have an email address. This meant that we would not only redesign the keyboard but also contact lists and the app store, to suit the needs of Indian internet users. 

In most cases, this meant simplifying the user design. In our contact list, we removed every field except a contact’s name and phone number. Most Indian users found these features unnecessary. Our app store, aside from being available in 12 Indian languages, didn’t require an email address to login and download apps. You only needed to input your phone number. 

Nearly 40% of app downloads in India are sideloaded, a process by which program files are downloaded from another device or computer rather than an official app store. This is primarily because users were still uncomfortable using the Google Play Store. They still faced a language problem, where all the content they may want to consume is only in English. On the developers’ end, this also means that their apps in Marathi, Hindi, or any of the other languages we cater to would not get as much traction on the Play Store. This is a huge problem for developers who make money through ads. 

We began refining our hyper-localization features. Eventually, we even added a machine-learning feature which could change our app store’s language automatically. For example, if a user was in Maharashtra, and the app store was in English, we would include a section for apps that were in Marathi. If the algorithm found the user to interact with that content more than the English content, it would automatically include more Marathi content the next time the user opened Indus App Bazaar. 

We began offering a service to developers to further localize their apps by using our team to either translate their app descriptions or their user interfaces into any of the languages we had expertise in. 

By curating and prioritizing their apps in our app store, we wanted to send a message to native language developers that “We are here for you. We stand for you. And we’ll provide you with sufficient visibility to distribute and monetize your app on our platform.”

… and when to fold ’em

By 2016, everything changed. Chinese smartphone manufacturers began flooding the market with aggressively priced phones with better hardware. The brands we were working with like Micromax and Intex, which collectively owned half the market share, were no longer able to compete. 

We put in a lot of resources in designing an entire interface for their phones, and now we needed to make a pivot. As an entrepreneur, I had pivoted multiple times in my past, and I knew that I had to go with market sentiments. Eventually, we pitched Indus App Bazaar to Samsung in India. 

We found a team that had similar experiences in the Korean market who understood the use case for our product, but also a local team with the right decision-making power. It took about eight months for us to finalize the deal, and there were several checkpoints and policies to get us on board, especially because we would be controlling one of Samsung’s key products in the Indian market. Samsung invested $5 million into us in 2019. Every Samsung phone in India comes with Indus App Bazaar.

Typically, most tech companies think “What worked in the U.S.? Let’s make it work in India,” but I think it’s time that thinking changes. Local businesses know their customers, and that’s the most prestigious position to be in. 

As an entrepreneur, seeing this gap in the market and creating what some thought of as a niche product in the market, having a giant like Samsung believe in it was the biggest validation we could receive.