There’s an app for everything in this hyper-digital world. Want to count your calories? There’s an app for that. Looking for the right partner to get married? Again, there’s a gazillion apps to choose from. Or can’t figure out where to invest your money? Think no more, an app will get you all sorted. Short of helping you breathe, it seems apps can pretty much do anything for you digitally. Quite naturally, when I first heard about Kaizala, Microsoft’s mobile app for large group communications and work management, I was overcome by digital fatigue. So, when I went to meet Rajiv Kumar, corporate vice president, Office Product Group, Microsoft India, I was a bit sceptical. Okay, more than a bit. “Is it really possible to transform businesses and the country through a simple, secure mobile chat app like Kaizala?” I ask with more than a hint of disbelief.

Kumar’s answer is a resounding yes. “This technology is truly transformational. We think that the whole country can run on the Kaizala app on mobile,” he says. “It is all about breaking down work across sectors and verticals through a series of chats on simple cards to increase workplace productivity and efficiency because human beings are wired for communication.” We are sitting in his office in Microsoft’s sprawling India Development Center (MSIDC) in Hyderabad, the hotbed of the company’s hi-tech innovations, the largest development centre after the Redmond headquarters in the U.S. Set up in 1998, the MSIDC represents CEO Satya Nadella’s new strategy of building transformational products from India for the world to power businesses and individuals in different sectors.

I still don’t feel convinced. Sensing my disbelief, Kumar, an Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee alumnus and a lifer at Microsoft, goes that extra mile to explain the revolutionary Kaizala technology built mainly for mobile-first countries like India and China, which have leapfrogged the communications tech cycle. “Kaizala is all about using the simplicity of the chat with the computing power of the desktop in the mobile to increase the efficiency and productivity of workers, especially those in the field,” he says. His thesis is based on the simple principle that “all kinds of work can be reduced to a series of conversations”. Kaizala was initially conceived in The Garage, an experimentation and incubation centre on Microsoft’s Hyderabad campus. Kumar says within a year of Kaizala’s launch in July 2017, more than 10,000 organisations in India had downloaded the app and now it has a presence in 28 countries. Its adoption in India cuts across sectors. Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu uses the app to connect with 250,000 people daily on “Write to the CM”—a two-way, real-time communication app that not only allows the chief minister to discuss what is happening in the state every day with virtually every citizen, but also allows them to air their grievances and comment on policy measures directly to the chief minister.

The app also plays an important role in saving lives at Narayana Health, a chain of 21 hospitals run by leading cardiologist Dr. Devi Shetty. It allows him to use the Kaizala platform as an electronic medical record, which in turn helps him monitor the health of his patients 24x7, whether he is sitting in his office, in another building, or at home. The communication app allows for real-time uploading of a patient’s medical health record and also relays Shetty’s views on a case to the doctors concerned, saving precious time. “Kaizala can save lives,” Shetty contends, “because traditional electronic medical records are designed for the desktop, whereas Kaizala is designed for the mobile”.

Microsoft office in Hyderabad.      
Microsoft office in Hyderabad.     
Image : Sanjay Rawat

Similarly, the country’s largest bank, State Bank of India, uses Kaizala to send messages to its tellers. The app was also used to manage 108 ghats during Andhra Pradesh’s grand Pushkaram festival in Vijayawada—the Kumbh Mela of the south. And it is also being used by the Uttar Pradesh government to monitor all the activities at the Kumbh ghats through a central command centre, from where it can direct the workers through the app to minimise the chances of any mishap. And yet, “What is so revolutionary about this app?” I ask persistently. Kumar is patient. The beauty of the app, he points out, is that there is no limit to the number of people that one can connect with simultaneously. You can have one-on-one chats, set up different groups for chatting, and also have hierarchical chats where the management of any organisation can chat with either all its employees or a specific team. Moreover, since it is sector-agnostic, it can be used across sectors from logistics to retail, and from banking to manufacturing. “We are not only allowing the government to connect with millions of citizens but also empowering citizens to talk to the powers-that-be through a simple chat app. Isn’t that revolutionary?” he asks me in turn. I can only nod in agreement.

It’s been 21 years since MSIDC was set up. Kaizala is part of its wider strategy to leverage its latest technological breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), Office 360, and Windows to create platforms that can be used by other companies or even individuals for further innovations depending on their sectors or industries. “Right from understanding our customers’ challenges to collaborating with different stakeholders for unique solutions and truly making a difference, MSIDC embodies the company’s mission of empowering every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more,” says Anant Maheshwari, president, Microsoft India.

Unlike its tech peers like IBM, Facebook or Google, it is not interested in becoming a major player in any single sector or industry but has a broader mission that is aligned to the objective and mission statement of Microsoft. As the 52-year-old Anil Bhansali, managing director of Microsoft India (R&D) since 2004, explains: “Our mission talks about empowering every individual and organisation on this planet to achieve more through a digital transformation.” Bhansali is categorical that every sector or industry will have to undergo a digital transformation if they wish to succeed in these competitive times. Last year, Microsoft announced that it will invest nearly $5 billion in the next four years in IoT. The idea is to support its technology platform, as well as its programmes, which will allow it to innovate in key areas including securing IoT, creating development tools and intelligent services for IoT.

So what is special about Microsoft’s platforms, I ask Sunder Srinivasan, general manager and head of AI and research at MSIDC. Microsoft platforms connect intelligent devices—from the kitchen to traffic lights—which have AI embedded in them to an intelligent cloud, which has far higher processing power and storage capacity. This allows the devices to generate more data and helps with predictive and preventive analytics not just to increase the life of the machines, but also create better products and services.

Such efforts are already showing results. For instance, its cloud platform, Azure IoT, is powering India’s first smart street lighting project for Jaipur. Its partner, Samudra LED, has deployed a customised Microsoft IoT platform-based solution to control and manage smart LED street lights, an experiment that has been far more successful than when it was run by the Jaipur Municipal Corporation.Similarly, Tata Motors is leveraging Microsoft’s connected vehicle technologies that bring together AI, advanced machine learning, and IoT capabilities on its Azure cloud, to create a highly personalised, smart and safe driving experience for its customers.

And if playing a big role in the country’s digital transformation through AI is the Holy Grail for tech companies, MSIDC has already created some revolutionary AI products for India and its citizens. Its PowerPoint Translator, an AI-based real-time language translator, is a boon for students who come from tier 2 and tier 3 cities and are not too comfortable with the English language. So while the professor speaks in English, the device translates the lecture in real time into vernacular languages to help the students. “It is our own way of bringing inclusion into the country,” says Srinivasan, an electrical engineer from IIT Bombay, who has specialised in search engines. In the use of AI in speech recognition, Microsoft has created speech technologies that are not just way ahead of its tech competitors, but are better at taking dictation than even the best of stenographers. On a global “Switchboard Speech Test”, which does random voice tests, it has achieved a word-error rate of 5.6%, getting 94.4 of 100 words compared to 93 or 94 for human beings. “What this tells you is that in certain narrow tasks, the AI-embedded machine can do better than the best human beings,” says Srinivasan, who began his Microsoft career at the Hyderabad MSIDC.

But Srinivasan is really proud of his AI-based Q&A Maker which allows newly-recruited employees to converse with a bot and get all their answers about the organisation they have joined. “What the Q&A Maker does is that it sucks up all the information from documents, random conversations, records, and other sources, then generates a bot and allows the employee to converse. Hence, the machine can not only generate answers but also questions,” says Srinivasan. The Q&A Maker is far ahead of machines that can take only dictation because it can not only read reports and documents, but also comprehend them to answer questions.

Microsoft office in Hyderabad.      
Microsoft office in Hyderabad.     
Image : Sanjay Rawat

Bhansali’s focus remains on the three core areas of healthcare, agriculture, and skilling or education because each of these or at least a combination of all three touches every citizen in this country and the world. “Moreover, these are some of the biggest and deepest problems confronting the world today and by solving them you can actually and truly empower the last mile and bring about a transformation,” says Bhansali, who has a master’s degree in computer science from State University of New York, Stony Brook, U.S. Take agriculture, for instance. MSIDC, working along with a group of groundnut farmers in Andhra Pradesh, showed how yield can be improved using AI, cloud, and proper data modelling by predicting the best date for sowing. “We advised the farmers to delay kharif sowing by nearly three weeks—from June 5 to June 26—[and] we got great results,” says Bhansali. The yield rose 30%. It owes its success to a research project on agriculture called Microsoft Farmbeats that enables seamless data collection from various sensors, cameras, and drones. It comprises two broad areas—a data-acquisition system consisting of drones and sensors and a data-analysis system consisting of connectivity pieces, cloud storage, and predictive analysis. Yields can be even higher if farmers were to adopt precision farming techniques advocated by MSIDC. It includes not just sowing on the right day, but also using the right quantity of water, fertiliser, pesticide, and weedicide in line with soil requirements. “It will mean abiding by the MSIDC advisories at every stage of the farming value chain, from sowing to the final marketing of the product,” says Bhansali, adding that their modelling could even predict the kind of pests that might attack the crop.

However, setting up the agricultural value chain for different kinds of crops is a complex exercise and Microsoft has no intention of providing all the solutions, since it does not want to be a serious agricultural player. Its only interest is in creating a hi-tech Azure platform, or as Bhansali puts it, providing a reference point for what can be achieved for other agricultural majors to leverage. And like the Kaizala model, only those who want to use the premium services of the platform will have to pay, not the farmers or smaller players.

Microsoftoffice building in Hyderabad
Microsoftoffice building in Hyderabad
Image : Sanjay Rawat

MSIDC has developed a technology to detect—in real time—diabetic retinopathy, a disease that affects nearly 80 million in India and 422 million globally, according to a study by the World Health Organization. All that a technician needs to do is peer into a person’s eyes and check the laptop display. It has been made possible by integrating AI with Microsoft’s cloud computing Azure IoT and its 3 Nethra retinal imaging device.

To emphasise the point that Microsoft is different from other tech companies, Bhansali points out that while the IT giant is not a healthcare company, it will provide the platform on which the entire ecosystem of healthcare companies will succeed. “Similarly in agriculture, we will never become an agricultural company, but all innovations in the farm sector—whether it is from the producers, suppliers, distributors or even input providers—should happen on our Azure platform,” he says. “We want Microsoft to become the reason for their success. That will be our biggest achievement.”

As unemployment mounts and job losses become a national concern, it has taken a different route to skill India through Project Sangam. It not only provides a certification course to plumbers, electricians, etc. but also ensures that they get jobs by connecting them with potential employers. Project Sangam is a mobile app on which courses can be easily downloaded. Such an approach means that students are no longer constrained either by the size of the classroom or the timing of the classes. “What LinkedIn and LinkedIn Learning did and continue to do for professionals, we are doing the same for electricians, plumbers, etc. through Project Sangam,” says Bhansali. Media reports say that Microsoft plans to train 500,000 students in AI.

Precision farming techniques that increase yield, a chat app which a chief minister uses to keep in touch with people, an app that furthers the goal of Skill India—I leave the MSIDC premises a believer in the potential of the transformational capabilities of cutting-edge technology.

THE GARAGE

Like most other global tech players, Microsoft is reaping the benefits of having a bottom-up innovation strategy

Virtual Reality lab in Microsoft’s Hyderabad office
Virtual Reality lab in Microsoft’s Hyderabad office
Image : Sanjay Rawat

The Garage India is a nerd’s dream. Set on the ground floor of building No. 3 on Microsoft’s Hyderabad campus, the experimentation and incubation centre comprises laboratories where geeky, brainy people are hard at work in pursuit of the next big thing in artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, quantum computing, and virtual reality. Of the various devices that figure here, a striking one is the replica of a human brain that is all wired up. There’s also a robot that represents the melding of some of the aforementioned technologies, Softy, which answers simple questions. I wonder why it is called The Garage. I am handed a booklet bound by brown cardboard. In it lies the answer: all great tech companies—Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft—were born in garages. “It [The Garage] is the only place in this large organisation, where even the junior-most members are welcome to test new ideas and receive real customer feedback. It is a bottom-up approach to innovation, because we believe that innovation has nothing to do with age or experience,” says Reena Dayal Yadav, director, The Garage India. The Kaizala and SMS Organiser apps were incubated here.

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