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2/10/2006
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Invented In India

India isn't just for outsourcing. It's fast becoming a center of strategic R&D and a growing market for tech products. Third of three parts in the Inside India series.

Technology Reservoir
Microsoft has outsourced portions of Windows development to Wipro Technologies and has hired Satyam Computer Services to develop parts of its .Net and mobile device software. At the same time, Microsoft Research is expanding in India. It's getting its researchers more involved with international computer-science conferences, funding projects with the Indian government and universities that can have social benefits, and investing in new areas such as software engineering and cryptography that take advantage of skills taught in Indian universities. During a speech in Bangalore last month, Microsoft's Rashid said the company might double the number of researchers it has in India within a year to 60. Basic research provides a "reservoir of technology" that can let Microsoft adapt quickly when the technology market changes, he said.

The day before, Microsoft held a meeting in Bangalore of its India research technical advisory board of about a dozen people. Presentations included work on multilingual research, social sciences, software engineering, and encryption. At the press conference, Microsoft unveiled Virtual India, a new Web site, developed with the Indian government's science and technology ministry, that generates maps of the country using satellite imagery that show cities, roads, and state boundaries in several Indian languages. The idea is to help ordinary Indians find roads, quality hotels, and other landmarks.


Anandan of Microsoft Research India (right, with professor Desai) wants to link Indian researchers with the outside tech world. -- Photo by Mahesh Bhat/Getty Images

Anandan of Microsoft Research India (right, with professor Desai) wants to link Indian researchers with the outside tech world.

Photo by Mahesh Bhat/Getty Images
Microsoft's Bangalore lab is hiring software engineers and cryptographers, among other people, Rashid says. It's working on search engines and machine-translation software that functions across several Indian languages. The goal is to create applications that increase Indians' access to basic information using computer speech and video, without relying on the written word. The company also is doing research on schoolroom PCs with multiple mice that would let students share a machine.

Microsoft Research managing director P. Anandan is trying to link the company's Indian researchers more closely with the outside tech world. Most Indian IT researchers haven't published a lot or traveled much to conferences. That's starting to change. Microsoft Research's Indian researchers published more than 15 papers last year, with 20 more in the works. Conference travel has picked up, too. The younger generation of Indian computer scientists, Anandan says, "is much more hungry for global recognition."

Microsoft also funds outside projects that use technology to address uniquely Indian problems. Uday Desai, a professor of electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, received a grant from Microsoft Research to explore how networks of low-cost, low-powered sensors deployed along rail lines in India's western mountains can detect the landslides that hit each monsoon season with greater accuracy and at lower cost than existing systems.

IBM's innovation strategy in India is a mix of product development for worldwide sales and research into technology tailored for India. IBM's Bangalore software lab employs 2,100 developers who work on IBM's operating systems and its Lotus, DB2, WebSphere, Rational, and Tivoli product lines. IBM also has an RFID team in India that's developing systems for Nestlé, Metro Group, and other customers. In November, IBM signed a deal with HCL Technologies establishing an outsourced design center in Chennai for its Power architecture chips, the first such center outside IBM's corporate control.

On the research side, IBM's Delhi lab, on the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, has built prototype software that renders speech for voice-driven user interfaces in Indian-accented English and another system that recognizes spoken Hindi. The average Indian may not work with a standard PC running productivity apps, IBM Research director P.S. Gopalakrishnan says. More useful applications could include kiosks that let patients in hospitals access their medical records by scanning a card or that let a merchant look up crop prices. "PC literacy is only one gate into this," Gopalakrishnan says. "Often, we get sidetracked."

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