The Bangalore lab, which opened in January 2005, represents the company’s gambit to tap into India’s rich university research community and considerable software engineering talent. Bangalore, capital of the state of Karnataka in southern India, is home to hundreds of information-technology companies, including two of the country’s three largest software firms, and is often called “India’s Silicon Valley.” Thus, for U.S. technology companies to be putting software labs in Bangalore is, in many respects, a no-brainer. Indeed, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and other corporations already have labs there.
[For images of children in MSR’s program, click here.]
But a presence in India may be especially important for Microsoft. Not only does the company hope to put its Windows and Office software on a larger share of computers in India – where desktop PC sales grew more than 20 percent between March 2005 and March 2006 – but it sees the country’s billion-plus population as a market for future Microsoft products, such as educational software specialized for schools in poor, rural communities.
Last week, MSR India’s assistant managing director, Kentaro Toyama, was in Berkeley, CA, coordinating an international conference on information and communications technology for developing economies. Technology Review Senior Editor Wade Roush caught up with him there.
Technology Review: Why is it important to Microsoft to have a software lab in India?
Kentaro Toyama: India provides a unique environment for certain kinds of research. It has a booming IT economy while at the same time having a large percentage of the population still in poverty. So there are certain kinds of research that would be difficult to do in the United States that we can do there, particularly with respect to the role of computing in poor communities. And there is a well-educated base of computer scientists and engineers, including a returning diaspora, if you will, of Indians who have worked overseas.
TR: What kinds of research are you starting with?
KT: The six research areas we’re currently focusing on are cryptography*; digital geographies, which includes any kind of digital map or location-based services and software; multilingual systems, including speech recognition, natural language processing, and building systems that interact across different languages; hardware for communications, including distributed sensor networks; software engineering, which looks at creating tools that make software development easier; and emerging markets, or how computing will impact social and economic development.
TR: Say a bit more about multilingual systems – India would seem to be the perfect place for that kind of research.
KT: Yes, India is an amazingly diverse country in terms of languages. There are 22 officially recognized languages and hundreds of other languages and dialects. The average person on the street is bilingual and often trilingual. They’re quite comfortable switching back and forth. But most computer interfaces are for people who only speak one language. We’re very interested in supporting technologies for multilingual use of the computers. For example, if you’re doing a search online, you want to be able to return results that are well adapted to the users’ languages.
TR: What specific problems are you looking at in the area of software engineering techniques?
KT: In India a lot of the software development that happens needs to be coordinated with efforts in the U.S. or other countries. Usually these places are thousands of miles away and there are problems of coordination. The question is: What are the actual problems – the real issues when you’re trying to do programming across continents? Is it possible, for example, to write specifications for a particular program such that you can really just throw it over the fence [to a team in a different country] and it doesn’t require a lot of discussion?
TR: You’re in Berkeley leading a conference on community technology for developing countries. How does MSR India’s own work fit into that theme?
KT: We are interested in finding ways for computing to make an impact in rural villages or in urban slums. You can go and do user studies with people who live in these communities, and because India has a fairly good IT infrastructure, all of the hardware and software is right there across the street. And there is a lot of interest in India in doing work like this. I’m surprised by the sheer number of nonprofits and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] working in this area. There is a cultural inclination toward doing this kind of work.
* Correction, June 2, 2006: Due to a transcription error, the original version of this story listed photography as one of the Bangalore lab’s main themes, rather than cryptography.