HomeIndiaWhy a startup led by IITians developed PrimeOS for their maiden laptop

Why a startup led by IITians developed PrimeOS for their maiden laptop

When Chitranshu Mahant and Aman Varma, batchmates from IIT-Delhi, were brainstorming the idea to create an affordable notebook for students, they wanted the device to be a laptop dock which got its processing power and internet connectivity when connected to a smartphone. Although it never materialised due to hardware challenges, Mahant and Varma did manage to develop a low-cost laptop with a custom operating system based on Android. They did so without getting into the complexities that derailed their plans to launch a smartphone-powered shell-less notebook.

“We had this concept called Superbook in our mind, an accessory which when connected to your smartphone powers a dumb shell of a notebook with a screen and keyboard, giving users a laptop-like experience,” Mahant, of Floydwiz Technologies, said, recalling how they worked on a Motorola Lapdock-like device but later shifted their focus to Primebook.

Mahant is the former head of sales at ed-tech startup Smartivity, while Verma was a team lead at mobile payments firm Paytm.

Mahant said developing the laptop dock was not only an expensive proposition for a young startup but they also faced a lot of technical challenges. “We always wanted to deliver Android experience in a laptop form factor and while the laptop dock was an interesting idea, we learned that we could actually get a complete laptop experience with a similar price point with the Primebook,” Mahant told in an interview.

Primebook’s specifications, as you would have guessed, are entry-level.

The Primebook is a different kind of notebook but promises to offer the same functionalities as any other laptop. It runs on PrimeOS, a forked version of the Android operating system. Although Google makes Android, it is an open-source operating system in nature, meaning any company is free to take Android and modify it. That’s what Mahant’s company has done with PrimeOS. They used the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) and modified it into its own operating system for laptops.

“The education app ecosystem is Android first, it’s not Windows first or browser first,” Mahant reasoned as to why he thought Android would make sense as an operating system to power a laptop that’s primarily intended for students. He cited the case of Byju’s educational content which can’t be fully experienced on Windows or a browser since it’s a mobile-only learning platform. In fact, there are many educational platforms that only use mobile apps.

One of the strong points of Android has always been the level of customisation it allows. But Mahant said there were also other reasons for opting for Android over Windows and ChromeOS for the Primebook. It included not paying a license fee to Microsoft or Google which drastically increases the cost of the hardware to the end consumer. “Android and ARM give a better price-to-performance ratio, than Intel and Windows,” he said, adding that Android has a familiarity among users who were born in a mobile-first world, especially in a market like India.

But Android hasn’t been adopted the same way by PC makers as smartphones and TV manufacturers. It’s a primary mobile operating system powering all types of smartphones and tablets but Android has seen less adoption on laptops over the years due to the lack of multitasking capability and also because its apps are not made for use in a laptop or desktop settings. To overcome those challenges, Mahant and his team developed PrimeOS, which has an app drawer that automatically sorts all the apps you have installed on your device as well as a taskbar and a start button that are stapled to a Windows operating system. “PrimeOS has a very low learning curve, and we wanted to design the UX exactly the way it should be,” he said.

Mahant said the team has brought in several small tweaks across the operating system that you won’t find on a tablet. “Our main proposition is that there has to be a capability from a device side to provide multitasking, whereas students can resize the particular window of an application and use multiple applications at one time in a very seamless way,” Varma chimed in, adding that PrimeOS is designed to offer all the features of an operating system that one would expect it to on a real laptop.

Primebook’s specifications, as you would have guessed, are entry-level but Varma said it’s the end experience that matters to users. It sports an 11.6-inch HD display and is powered by a MediaTek processor coupled with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. But the laptop also supports 4G SIM connectivity and can last up to 10 hours on a single charge.

Primebook, Primebook 4G, PrimeOS, Android laptops, PrimeOS Android, Android laptops for students Varma (left) and Mahant (right) always wanted to make an Android-powered notebook. 

“If a student wants to do a serious study, or they want to do a serious work over a device, a laptop is a device which will fulfil all the requirements, not a smartphone, or tablet, which is actually a bigger version of a smartphone,” he added.

In the future, Mahant’s team will be working on a capability that emulates x86 applications, promising the same experience as one would get on a traditional Windows system.

However, one aspect of Android that you won’t find on the Primebook is the part everyone associates with a typical vanilla Android experience— there is no Google Play Store. Instead, the device ships with an app store of its own, with apps totalling 10,000 in number. Mahant said the app store does have access to popular apps like Chrome, YouTube and Spotify, among others.

Mahant’s company will start selling the Primebook for Rs 16,990 when it goes on sale on Flipkart in mid-March. The plan is also to pitch the Android-based notebook to schools and institutions.

But just offering a low-cost notebook with an operating system isn’t the end goal for the young, Delhi-based startup. Mahant said he wants to open the PrimeOS to other OEMs outside of India as part of licensing deal, which will open revenue streams in the future.

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