“I’m from Indore,” Rakesh Deshmukh tells me. “It’s in Madhya Pradesh.” He grins sheepishly when I tell him I do know where Indore is, but the fact he thinks he needs to explain is telling. Most people who have lived their lives in the metros have just a foggy idea of other cities. But this is not a story of the other India. It’s not even the story of how three college-mates developed Indus OS, a multilingual operating system for mobile phones that has become more popular than Apple’s iOS. Rather, it’s the story of how those three students turned what’s widely seen as a disadvantage—not understanding English—into a phenomenal business success.

The story of Indus is about the impact of one language in a post-colonial society and how the yearning to use and access that language can transform a business. In fact, to me, the Indus tale is as much about the English language as it is about an operating system.

It sounds a bit like those “inspiring stories” you see all over social media, but sometimes those stories are true. “Our entire business model is based on the lessons from what we saw around us,” says Sudhir Bangarambandi, CTO of Indus OS, and one of the founders. “Language was the biggest challenge.”

Akash Dongre, chief of product and operations and the third founder, adds: “Our breakthrough idea was not to think of language as another app or service in the ecosystem but to think of the entire ecosystem as dedicated to solving the language problem.”

To explain this, it’s important to understand that these three students represent most Indians—for whom English is not the first or often even the second language of communication. All three agree that their experiences at home helped shape Indus; they found that family members were unable to read simple messages sent by their banks, because the messages were in English. But Android is available in all major Indian languages, I say. “Most operating systems just change the language options on the menu text,” Deshmukh explains. “That’s hardly enough.”

Their solution: providing immediate translation and transliteration of any message. So, let’s say you’ve chosen Hindi as the language of choice on your phone running Indus OS. Then, if you get a message in English, swiping right will show you the Hindi translation, and swiping left will show you the English message written in Devanagari script. Add to that a simple and easy interface and it’s easy to see why first-time users opt for this.

Today, Indus OS has a market share of 7.6%, compared with 2.5% for iOS. Of course, it’s nowhere close to the giant that is Android, which has a whopping 82.3% share of the Indian mobile phone market.

(In the interest of clarity, Indus OS is built on the Android Open Source Project, which is basically the Android source code that Google provides to developers to help them easily build mobile phone applications. Some developers add layers to the existing Android code resulting in products like CyanogenMod; others change everything. The beauty of the Android Open Source Project is that there’s space for every kind of developer.)

As far as the business model goes, Indus is similar to China’s Yun OS, which is also second to Android in that country.

The big difference is that Google claims that Yun violates the rules of Android Open Source Project, and stopped handset manufacturer Acer from shipping Yun powered phones outside China. Which is not the case with Indus; Indus-powered phones are shipped to Bangladesh.

A series of smart tie-ups, notably with handset maker Micromax, saw Indus reach some 6 million users. Indus does not declare revenue but the founders say they hope to reach 100 million customers and revenue of $5 million (Rs 31.5 crore) by mid-2018.

The founders mopped up $5 million in Series A funding from the Omidyar Network and Venture East in January 2016, as well as funding from angel investors including Kunal Bahl, founder of Snapdeal, and Pranay Chulet, founder of Quikr.

“Indus is at the forefront of what we call local innovation, that is disruptive innovation targeted at the mass market Indian developed through a deep customer insight,”says Badri Pillapakkam, investment partner, Omidyar Network.

So far, it seems like the story of any successful startup with a good product.

Where Indus goes off-script is in its collaboration with the government’s Department of Electronics and IT (DeitY) to offer text-to-speech in nine languages. Swaran Lata, senior director and head of department of the Technology Development for Indian Languages programme of DeitY, says partnerships with companies like Indus enables some of groundwork funded by the government to take the shape of products.

“We keep talking about a world where anyone has access to any information but how much of that is easily searchable and accessible to people who don’t use English regularly? Not much. The government is spending money to fund research to build technological platforms that can solve this problem in a country with so many diverse languages like India,” says Lata.

The feature addresses the problem of users not knowing English, and, as important, also tackles the issue of users who may not be able to read. It works like this: If there’s a word, phrase or even entire message in your phone that you cannot understand, simply tap the speaker icon. The software translates that into the language chosen and reads out the message or phrase.

The speech-to-text option is available in nine languages now, and the OS itself supports 12 Indian languages including Urdu, Assamese, and Odia.

It has a far more intuitive word-prediction feature than Android; for instance, an error message in Hindi on Android reads “truti ho gayi”, an absurdly formal and rarely used phrase. On Indus, the message says “galat ho gaya” a more colloquial and frequently used phrase. Small things, but they matter in making the user experience that much better.

Such specialised services, though free now, are seen as a potential source of revenue. The founders hope that by providing smooth local language search to its customers, it would encourage them to search and browse more and that in turn would make money for the company.

In 2014 when Indus (then called Firstouch) ran its first prototype, they chose to work in Gujarati. “We didn’t want Hindi because we thought people wouldn’t really understand the difference we are trying to create—it would just pass off as another language app experiment. One option was Marathi, but there also the letters are close to Hindi. So we chose Gujarati, which is close to Hindi but different enough. Also, Gujarat is considered a tough market as people are very value conscious—so if we could crack Gujarati, it would give us a big boost,”
says Dongre.

The pilot sold 5,000 handsets in a month in Saurashtra. The pilot was a handset designed by Indus and manufactured in China. “We launched the pilot with the tagline ‘India’s first Gujarati smartphone’, and its success taught us that this is the market to tap into. The content that people wanted to access or even translate was in English but we had to bring it to them in the language that was most familiar to them. It was as much a language lesson as a mobile handset sale,” Dongre adds.

In May 2015, Indus tied up an exclusive deal with Micromax, then the second-largest handset maker in India. “They told us we will put your OS in 100,000 units of one model (Unite 3) and if it sells 50% of the stock in one month, we will continue with the contract or we will pull out,” recalls Deshmukh. “We sold 85,000 phones
in 17 days.”

This resulted in a one-year exclusive contract with Micromax which came to an end in May 2016. Since then, Indus has signed up five other handset makers including Intex, Karbonn, Swipe, and Celkon. “Out of these, two brands—Intex and Celkon—approached us.”

Ranjit Mishra, 27, is one of the people who uses a Micromax phone which works on Indus OS. A sales executive in a courier company, Mishra says he bought the phone because it “does not make me feel bad”.

“I don’t like looking at my phone and being stuck with English words that I don’t understand. Now when they appear in Hindi, not only do I understand but I also try to learn that this English word means this.”

One of the most fascinating pieces of detailing in the Indus OS is its easy-to-use keyboard, which is designed specifically for regional users. Since these phones are generally targeted at first-time smartphone users, it’s important to make typing Indian languages intuitive and smooth. The focus is on matras, or accent marks, that define Indian languages.

Whether it is Hindi or Urdu or Assamese, matras are the most important aspect of intuitively getting Indian regional languages right while writing. Indus hires doctorates in linguistics to get grammar, syntax and phonetics just right.

I saw how this made typing (and word prediction while typing) much faster; Indus has fed in 2.5 million matra combinations into its system. I type a word in Hindi—akash—on my Android phone and then on the Indus phone; it took six taps or keystrokes and a screen change on the Android, and three on Indus without any screen change.

I meet one of the language experts who does this sort of intuitive programming—Kishore Datta, 27.

With a master’s in linguistics from Gauhati University, Datta’s job is to help the Indus engineers get Assamese right. “I feel I am learning more than I am working,” Datta told me in hesitant but textbook-correct English.

Coming to work for Indus in Mumbai is the first time he had been to any Indian metro. He too was trying, through his job, to get a bit of English right—through his mother tongue.