Bangalore: Lalit Katragadda, a software engineer, and Dimple Batra, a product manager, relax in the cafeteria on the third floor of the Google India research and development headquarters in Bangalore.
It’s lunchtime, and at least 100 employees are scattered across the sunlit room.
Making an impact: A Google India team compares virtual maps with the hard copy at the company’s R&D headquarters in Bangalore. Lalit Katragadda (not in the picture), who leads the team, has invented Google Mapmaker, a programme that allows users to add landmarks to the ubiquitous Google Maps. Hemant Mishra/Mint
Katragadda is in the limelight himself right now, having made an impact on the tightly knit world of “Googlers” (his slang for local Google employees) with the invention of Google Mapmaker, a programme that allows users to add roads and landmarks to the ubiquitous Google Maps.
The programme was born in India, but Katragadda says it was always intended for the whole world.
“In late 2004, a little after we moved to India, we realized that only 15% of the world is mapped,” says the 40-year-old. “We wanted to build a product that was globally useful.”
Over the course of two years, Katragadda and his team created Google Mapmaker, a programme that would allow the company to get accurate maps of India without paying for the maps data.
Also Read More articles in the series
While Google Maps takes existing map data and makes it interactive, allowing users to look up landmarks and directions on the Internet, Mapmaker allows users to add their own landmarks, buildings and even streets—creating, in effect, their own maps, which they can then share with others.
“The most difficult part was not the coding, but the structure,” he says. “After all, how do you know which users to trust?”
As anyone who has asked for directions on the street knows, not everyone can make maps.
So the Google India team invented a software solution that treats each new edit like a separate page. Over time, the machine learns which users are trustworthy. When a user has reliably labelled enough points, he graduates from the system and can moderate other users’ map making too.
Google initially launched the programme outside India, in Vietnam, the Philippines and a few other developing countries.
It launched in India in September 2006. “Within two months, the top 10 cities were largely mapped,” says Batra, 36.
The programme got an unexpected boost in January. A devastating earthquake hit Haiti, an island nation in the Caribbean and one of the world’s least-developed countries. Aid workers on the ground in Haiti used Mapmaker to label collapsed bridges, broken roads and makeshift hospitals, data that shifted every minute.
Google recently gave Mapmaker-created maps for 46 countries to the United Nations, which released them to its disaster relief offices.
Mapmaker is now in 180 countries, but development is still under way.
“We want to create more features that let users interact with each other,” says Batra. “We want every nook and cranny of the world mapped.”
A lucky break
Mapmaker is one of the luckier programmes. At Google India, about 90% of new applications don’t make it through the development process.
“When you’re on the cutting edge, you’re going to bleed,” says Katragadda. “But we don’t want to design just for ‘California Indians’.”
Katragadda uses this phrase frequently and with fond frustration.
A glance around the employee café, where salads and dals come with calorie labels, shows the type of person he’s talking about—Net-savvy, cosmopolitan, wealthy.
People like Katragadda and Batra, both transplants from the US, and Prasad Ram, 44, the former head of Google India’s R&D arm, who recently moved back to the US.
People like Vinay Goel, country head for products, who stops by the table with a casual directive to “try the sweet dish”.
The big challenge for Google is to find a way to keep creating products that can serve both the elite—whom they have taken by storm—and everyone else.
The offices in India could be the answer.
Google’s India labs are already at the forefront of designing for the next generation of users—a generation that will demand that all its information be accessible online all the time.
The irony, though, is that Google’s Indian R&D operations started out as a joke.
It was 2003 and Katragadda, a lanky engineer who still has more than a whiff of the nerd about him, was then developing software at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.
“All my ideas for applications came from looking at the problems around me there,” says Katragadda, who still describes himself as a “Bombay boy”. “I knew we couldn’t design products for India unless we were based in India, facing Indian problems on a daily basis.”
So he and a group of his Indian colleagues got together and, “just for fun”, put down their vision for a Google India research centre.
A few weeks later, Katragadda got a call saying his “just-for-fun” design doc had been approved by the management, and he and three friends, along with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were scheduled to fly to Bangalore to begin setting up an India R&D centre.
Today, Katragadda’s design doc has grown into a 300-strong software engineering force based at two offices, in Hyderabad and Bangalore, creating programmes for cloud computing and mobile navigation, two of the hottest areas in software development.
True to the original vision, Google’s relatively new team designs solutions for Net users in India and, by extension, markets beyond the US.
An uphill battle
Talking to Google India’s engineers and executives shows a company that is still struggling to learn how to cater to markets beyond its core, developed-world demographic.
The growth of Orkut, Google’s social network, now lags behind rival Facebook in India. Yahoo is giving Google stiff competition in the search market.
And one of Google India’s first products—Indic language transliteration, which converted English text into Hindi characters, allowing users to blog and email in their mother tongue—never really took off.
“We think it suffered a discoverability problem,” says Goel, the country head for products.
Although Indic language transliteration does have its diehard users, Goel admits that the main growth is in English.
“Maybe it will always be that way,” he says, making it a lesson that Google India has learned the hard way.
Asked how much competition factors into Google’s R&D, Katragadda’s answer is circumspect, but revealing.
“I used to say Google would never build a phone,” he says, “but then we built a phone.”
In many ways, Google Inc. is in the midst of a worldwide identity shift. The company’s decision to release both a smartphone—the Nexus One—and an operating system, Android, have led to antitrust allegations in Europe and similar whispers in America, besides public spats.
The company has aggressive ambitions that extend far beyond its core search business. Many of these new initiatives, says Goel, will be incubated at the Indian labs.
Google recently announced that it plans to focus its creative energies on designing programmes for mobiles, rather than computers. In Bangalore, mobiles have been the focus from the start.
These labs recently developed an SMS (short message service) channels programme that delivers targeted information through phones, and a new voice search feature.
Both programmes have done well, although another SMS-based feature, tied into Orkut, failed.
Asked about the company’s strategic R&D initiatives, Goel picks two. The first is designing more services, especially location services such as Mapmaker, for cellphones.
The other is cloud computing, the storage and transfer of files entirely through the Internet. Engineers at Google’s Hyderabad office are working on a cloud computing platform for businesses that will launch sometime next month.
India: the place to be
If Google is in the midst of an identity crisis, there’s no better place for it than here, the country with one of the world’s most fluid identities.
“The software scene has never been this vibrant,” says Vengat Krishnaraj, a manager and leader of the technology research group at Mape Advisory Group. “We’re still not a Silicon Valley, but I think a lot of the key challenges are getting addressed.”
A few multinational companies have set up software development offices in India in the past few years, inspired by the growing talent pool and their recent success with business process outsourcing firms.
Indian technology start-ups, many of which focus on delivering mobile and cloud services, are also on the increase. Venture capital investors, for many years absent in India, have poured money into these efforts. In early April, the Indian branch of Sequoia Capital, one of the world’s biggest private equity funds, invested $5 million (Rs23 crore today) in an Indian firm that creates software for corporate laptops. “Quite a few startups are building applications on the mobile side too,” says Krishnaraj.
The pressure on the Google India team to deliver is intense. And in order to deliver, they will have to understand what the Indian market wants, an understanding that multinational companies have historically struggled with.
“The most difficult thing for me when I shifted back to India was the visceral realization that there are hundreds of Indians,” says Katragadda.
There are few other countries where the company can simultaneously test a cutting-edge technology product such as enterprise cloud computing and a hyper-local product such as Maps navigation via local landmarks. (Landmarks navigation is a feature launched first in India earlier this year, drawn from the large volume of Mapmaker data submitted by Indian users.)
“India is a huge strategic market for us. And we plan to be R&D-driven,” Goel says.
If Google India’s R&D can figure out how to design for all these Indians, it will be several steps closer to serving the world.
Google Started operations in India: Late 2003
Products: Google Mapmaker, Indic language transliteration, voice search for mobiles, SMS channels
R&D spend: According to public filings, Google spent $2.8 billion on R&D in 2009, making it one of the world’s top R&D spenders. The company will not disclose how much of that went to India.