For decades, the name Microsoft has been synonymous with Windows. But in March this year, the company launched a massive overhaul -- placing the cloud at the forefront of its business.

For Zhang Yaqin though, the idea that the cloud holds the key to the future is nothing new. The Baidu president, who was Microsoft’s man in China before he jumped ship in 2014, has long championed the technology.

“We’ve been growing on the cloud since day one,” Zhang told the South China Morning Post in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. “Artificial intelligence is the core of [Baidu's] business… and the cloud is what’s supporting it.”

Baidu president Zhang Yaqin says the company is focused on cloud technology. (Picture: South China Morning Post)

Tech giants in both the US and China are racing to build more powerful cloud platforms to support advancing AI technology. Baidu also believes the cloud has more potential than providing just basic computing power and storage.

Zhang said one example is empowering self-driving or smart cars. Experts say AI-supported cloud systems can process a huge amount of navigation data in real time, such as traveling speed and nearby obstacles, to help make decisions like braking or switching lanes. 

Considered an autonomous driving pioneer in China, Baidu has been working on its Apollo platform since 2013. Its first driverless car hit the road in Beijing in 2015. And recently, CEO Robin Li announced the first batch of Apollo-powered electric buses would go into mass production in July.

Outside of China, Baidu is collaborating with Microsoft to run Apollo on the US company’s Azure cloud.

A Baidu driverless car on the streets of Wuzhen, China in November 2016. (Picture: South China Morning Post)

Beyond that, Zhang said Baidu also relies on cloud technology to support its search engine -- the biggest in China -- as well as its ecosystem for internet-connected home devices, or Internet of Things.

At CES in Las Vegas this year, the company showed off the Raven H -- a colorfully designed, stackable smart speaker that runs on DuerOS, Baidu’s conversational AI system.

Still, Baidu’s cloud business remains the smallest among China’s three biggest tech giants known as BAT -- Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent -- according to research by Deutsche Bank. (Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba).

Zhang said, “We don’t aim for the biggest, but we aim to provide the most intelligent cloud.”

Born in January 1966 in Shanxi province, Zhang was admitted to the University of Science and Technology of China at the age of 12 -- the country’s youngest college student at the time. By 23, he earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from George Washington University in the US. He joined Microsoft in 1999 as one of the key founders of the company’s Asia research arm.