Some of Microsoft Corp.'s top researchers spend their time thinking about complex software, algorithms and security systems. Others contemplate azolla, an aquatic fern fed to cattle in the hopes of increasing milk production.
The azolla experts are part of a nine-person team at Microsoft Research India that approaches the technology of emerging markets in unconventional ways. These computer scientists say they have the freedom to forget about personal computers, or PCs, and software altogether as they tackle problems. Most often, they rely on a mix of sociology and empirical testing to see whether quirky ideas can make technology useful to those who have heretofore lived without it.
A project called Digital Green, for instance, flourished only after Microsoft tried a “Farmer Idol” approach—a rather rustic take on the American Idol singing contest featuring local farmers.
Unconventional approach: Kentaro Toyama, assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India. Toyama says an offbeat approach gives them some core knowledge about what works in emerging markets. Peter DaSilva/NYT
Digital Green researchers have been distributing training DVDs to farmers in a dozen Indian villages. Villagers respond well to seeing their peers in the training sessions and will view multiple showings of the detailed presentations if a new farmer they recognize appears in each video. The farmers have been competing to stand out as local stars.
“The farmers love being on TV,” said Kentaro Toyama, assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India and the head of the Technology for Emerging Markets research group. “This gives us some core knowledge about what works in this particular environment.”
Microsoft feared that the farmers, who live about two hours outside Bangalore, would ignore the training advice unless it could prove a quick, valuable return. And so, one set of videos centres on azolla, which can cover the top of a water tank in about a week and lead to much higher milk production from cows.
Within four months, Microsoft will spin off Digital Green as an independent non-governmental organization. Rikin Gandhi, a computer scientist, plans to leave Microsoft to oversee the organization, which will champion the Digital Green methods throughout South Asia and Africa.
Microsoft is also extending the Digital Green ideas through another effort called Featherweight Computing, in which it is experimenting with electronic posters and cards that can be sent to farmers. These products include pictures and audio to remind farmers about techniques learnt through the videos.
A somewhat similar project, Warana Unwired, sought to give members of farming cooperatives fast, simple ways to update records and receive pricing data on crops. A network of about 55 villages had been relying on PCs to collect information about fertilizer purchases, water bills and inventory. The PCs, however, often broke down or were unavailable. To work around these issues, Microsoft turned one PC, which could be properly managed, into a hub for collecting short messages sent via cellphones.
“If you want to register your land, a farmer just types in ‘reg’, the identification number of the farm, the season and how large of a plot he wants,” said Rajesh Veeraraghavan, who was a Microsoft researcher before he left to earn a doctorate in information communications for developing areas. The cellphone system proved cheaper to run and gave farmers near-instant access to their information.
Other Microsoft research products cater more towards the company's traditional strengths. Software that Microsoft calls MultiPoint lets numerous mice connect to a computer, allowing several students to interact with a machine at the same time. Children can play games where they hear a word and then compete to identify the text on a screen to the matching sound.
“I have not yet seen a situation where there is one PC per child,” Toyama said. “Children are usually lined up three deep behind a computer and you see them crawling all over each other. This technology provides a different level of engagement.”
Studies run by Microsoft have shown that students learn just as well through the shared approach as they do on their own machines, although girls, who tend to cooperate to find the information, scored better than boys, who rushed to click without really learning. “For the boys, we'll have to think more about how the software is designed,” Toyama said.
Toyama acknowledges his group is afforded a certain amount of luxury in dabbling in areas that are interesting “purely because they extend the reach of technology”. Whether or not the work results in a Microsoft product matters less than forming ties with governments and understanding various people and regions. “In the very long term, what makes a difference to Microsoft's stock price is the global economy,” he said. “Continuing the growth of that overall economy helps out our business.”
If technology like MultiPoint proves compelling, Microsoft's Unlimited Potential group, a more formal organization directing technology to poor people, will try to incorporate it in commercial products.
“It’s real easy for people to get a bunch of money and install a satellite link for schools,” said James Utzschneider, general manager of Unlimited Potential, “but unless you can find ways to pay bills on an ongoing basis, you just end up with this weird thing on top of a building.”
Luis Anavitarte, an analyst at Gartner Inc., credits Microsoft with taking the right approach to these markets by relying on its creativity. "But, ultimately, the local governments have to be committed to these projects for them to work," he added.
In the end, Microsoft's best intentions may not satisfy what locals want. The company surveyed 8,000 people in emerging markets and found their most pressing needs for technology often revolved around entertainment and surfing the Internet.
“It reinforced for us that the emerging middle classes are sort of like the middle classes here except they don't have as much money,” Toyama said. “It’s sometimes easy for us to get caught up in things and forget we are serving the needs of real people.”
©2008/The New York Times