Home / Companies / People /  ‘India can become data capital of the world’

BENGALURU : As President of Microsoft India, Anant Maheshwari is responsible for the company’s overall business in the country. He is also vice-chairperson of industry body Nasscom. In an interview, he shares his thoughts on tech layoffs, emerging technologies like AI and the metaverse, and digital transformation trends. Edited excerpts: 

How is Microsoft’s business progressing in India?

Five years back, I would say we were largely a legacy tech company and trying to figure out how to get better on the cloud--not just Microsoft in India but globally too. That is what Satya (Satya Nadella, Chairman and CEO of Microsoft Corp.) got us onto as a journey. 

I joined Microsoft from outside of the industry (in August 2016), so the cloud and the software side of it was still new to me. I asked myself that if you want to be big on the cloud, why are we not working with digital natives? It worked, and the last five years have been phenomenal. Our traditional partnership and strength with all the IT services companies in India, too, has continued to prosper. 

We also continue to do a bunch of work with the government and small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in the country. 

But how is your approach different from any of the other cloud vendors?

Our ability to bring an end-to-end solution to them is what distinguishes us. We don’t just show up to say hey, listen, let me take your computing infrastructure from your premise and take it to the cloud. 

We ask questions such as: What can I do with and make your own data powerful for you? How can I convert that data into AI? How do we create that hybrid work capability for you? How can we put your business applications onto the cloud and support the innovation you’re driving with apps? The result is that with IaaS (infrastructure-as-a-service), PAAS (platform-as-a-service), and SaaS (software-as-a-service) as part of a public cloud, we are the number one player. 

You maintain that India has the potential to become the data capital of the planet. Please elaborate.

Look at the data that exists, and the data that will get created. We will soon be the most populous nation on the planet, and if a billion of those people have devices with them that are generating data every moment, you have a natural advantage of creating data. So, billion people doing that can do a much better job than 200 million people in any other country. And if all of them are on digital platforms, combined with our regulation and tech environment to do work here, it is a natural outcome that we can become the data capital of the planet. 

But if digital is working for companies, why are tech companies retrenching so many people, and Microsoft is no exception?

It’s definitely a business cycle. There were a lot of moves made in the last two years and people are now taking a pause and working through it. 

It’s also affected by all the macroeconomic impacts like the war, money supply, and all of that. Microsoft is not immune to that. 

However, our business model is such that it is configured to get more done with less. We are a primarily a B2B (business-to-business) commercial business and have $100 billion of cloud revenue. I think we have a better opportunity to support all the work to be done in this cycle than many other players who may be purely depending on advertising (since Microsoft also has LinkedIn advertising). 

How is Microsoft addressing the work from home (WFH), and hybrid work trends?

Today, we operate in the real world and virtual one. The first allows you to meet in person; the other allows you to log in to a conversation at different points in time. This gives rise to four different modes of work that you could potentially do: asynchronous, synchronous, real, and virtual. Using technology to support all of those four work nodes can help you seamlessly shift between them. At Microsoft, we have said that anybody can work from home for a period of time in a week or work from anywhere. But there is a very critical importance of coming together for collaboration. The operating word is flexibility.

What are the tech trends that you are spotting globally, and here in India?

Technology becomes the only deflationary force in an inflationary environment because it allows you to do more with less, and that piece is Artificial Intelligence (AI), which allows you to do more with less and focus on the right things. What we see globally, is happening in India too. When I was asked on 15th August what I thought about India at 75, I asked myself: What happened in India at 50? At that point in time, I was just getting into the workforce, and I got the first mobile phone in my hand. Suddenly I was accessible anywhere and I could call anybody from anywhere. Nobody at that point in time could have imagined what the mobile phone will end up doing in the next 25 years. It’s beyond a supercomputer in our hands today. Similarly, somebody who’s entering the workforce today, or getting an education today, has AI in their hands. Tech in India has a very significant play going forward.

Does this imply that Indian companies are making steady progress with digital transformation initiatives, or has the pace slackened after the COVID push?

I think we’re on a hockey stick curve right now. Look at the phenomenal work that has happened on the India stack--the whole identity layer of Aadhaar, the transaction layer of UPI, the data consent layer, and many other capabilities. Businesses were forced in a way due to the pandemic to think differently and now they’ve tested all of that. But many companies tend to reduce their digital spends during times of slowdown, and many digital transformation initiatives appear to be more pilots than large-scale projects.

We have over 2,000 direct customers in addition to countless SMBs customers in the country. I believe that digital transformation has moved the pilot stage. It’s a fundamental shift.

Microsoft is a partner of the Indian government’s Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC) programme. What’s the progress you have made?

We definitely have supported a lot of the government initiatives such as the ONDC, which is an opportunity for us to create a new business model from the country. Tech capability is creating templates for the world. ONDC is one of those templates, but it is not the only template. We have more than 18,000 employees in the country and therefore, we’re able to engage at a very deep level in many of these innovation projects. Bhashini (Microsoft is one of the partners in this government initiative), for instance, will help everyone in the country to talk to each other, work with each other seamlessly without a language barrier, and thus unleash a very different capability in the country.

Microsoft also works with innovative tech startups. But many appear to lack clear business models and are burning cash while chasing valuations. What’s your take?

Innovation is not a playbook that you can have Six Sigma predictability on succeeding. There is trial and error which is very natural in that process and especially with digital natives. I think the trial-and-error percentages become very tough because the ones that succeed become really big and the others that do not succeed in the pivot don’t take off the ground the way they would like to. I am a big believer that entrepreneurship will solve our biggest problems. There are day-to-day problems to be solved on infrastructure, on education, on scaling, on food. I think a lot of these companies are attacking those problems. And I feel very enthused that there’s a lot of entrepreneurial energy with good capital, and good technology supporting it.

You have spoken about AI. But how do you look at the metaverse and web3 technology adoption in India?

This whole opportunity to convert spaces into places along with the avatars that are coming in teams is going to be the best way to think about how the metaverse will work. Also, we are the largest gaming on the planet. So, if there is one company that is already operating multiple metaverses, it is Microsoft where people do lots of gaming, go into a different world, live a different life in that gaming world, but do it in a hybrid way.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leslie D'Monte

Leslie D'Monte has been a journalist for almost three decades. He specialises in technology and science writing, having worked with leading media groups--both as a reporter and an editor. He is passionate about digital transformation and deep-tech topics including artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, crypto, metaverses, quantum computing, genetics, fintech, electric vehicles, solar power and autonomous vehicles. Leslie is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Knight Science Journalism Fellow (2010-11). In his other avatar, he curates tech events and moderates panels.
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