May 30, 2016

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella just tried to charm the Indian government that is obsessed with open-source software

BYPranav Dixit

Satya Nadella stands on stage wearing black pants, black shoes, a black blazer, and a shirt so white it reflects the spotlights trained on him. He beams at the large audience of developers, entrepreneurs, students, and investors, who have all made the pilgrimage to the Taj Palace Hotel in New Delhi on a rainy Monday morning to hear him speak.
Unlike Apple CEO Tim Cook who spent four days flying round the country last earlier this month, Nadella’s visit is brief — just six hours — says a PR handler. The agenda is unclear. This is Nadella’s fourth visit to the country since he became CEO in 2014. The first time he visited, he announced three Microsoft data centres in India that would offer Microsoft Azure cloud services to the country’s businesses.
Nadella’s visit also comes a year after the government mandated that every project under its Digital India program such as Aadhar and India Stack, shall be created using open-source software. Shortly after the announcement, Microsoft’s India Chairman, Bhaskar Pramanik, expressed his displeasure with the government’s policy, but Nadella has been mum on the subject.
This rainy morning, though, is about more exciting things. Nadella speaks about bots, which will make apps irrelevant and let you have a conversation with your phone to get things done. He speaks about devices around us that will inevitably understand natural human speech and be intelligent. He speaks about how augmented reality, which will be “transformative.”
And then, to thunderous applause, he breaks into an Urdu couplet written by 19th century Persian poet, Mirza Ghalib: “Hazaaron khwaishein aisi, ke har khwaish pe dum nikle…” (Thousands of aspirations, and each one takes your breath away).
The aspirations, Nadella explains, refer to the dreams of thousands of young Indians — like the ones in the audience — to build something meaningful using technology. This reflects in Microsoft’s brand new mission statement: To empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more.
Nadella never explicitly plugs Microsoft’s products on stage. “It is not about celebrating our technologies, it is about celebrating the technologies that you all in India create,” he says.
Still, the message, though subtle, is clear. A startup CEO describes how he uses Microsoft technologies to power his product. A leading fashion designer explains how she uses her Surface Pro 4 to sketch her designs.
Microsoft, explains Nadella, wants to “be the platform that fosters the ingenuity of what is happening in India,” before stepping off the stage to welcome the Minister of State for Finance, Jayant Sinha.
Sinha is dressed in a black jacket thrown atop a brick-red kurta, and sports an Apple Watch on his wrist. “We have to start thinking a little bit differently about India,” he tells Nadella. “The kind of innovation you do in San Francisco’s Union Square, or New York’s Times Square, or London’s Piccadilly Circus, is not the kind of innovation that will work in Jhanda Chowk in Hazaribagh (a constituency Sinha represents). We have to innovate in India for India.”
Nadella, who has taken a seat in the front row, nods astutely, as Sinha throws up a slide filled with hieroglyphs titled “Transformation Architecture for India.” The crowd groans. Sinha chuckles and blames it on his “McKinsey background.”
“We are a pro-poor government,” he declares. “And that is why are we also a pro-market government.”
He spends the next 10 minutes talking about the government’s programs like universal social security using Aadhar, Digital India, Startup India and half a dozen others that use technology at the core as the crowd taps its feet impatiently.
“Microsoft is a platform for India’s growth,” Sinha says, and ends his speech.
Microsoft’s invitation to the media explicitly forbids questions, so none of the assembled journalists get to ask Sinha about the government’s policy to use open-source software to build all government services under Digital India.
In any case, there is no time. Both Sinha and Nadella are ushered out of the hotel by a crew of Microsoft staff dressed head to toe in black formals. Nadella has a meeting with telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad about how Microsoft can play a greater role in Digital India.
Outside, the rain has stopped. It’s a bright, sunny day.

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Pranav Dixit is a writer of FactorDaily.