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Gates speaks to the CEO masses

Microsoft's chief welcomes more than 100 luminaries from the corporate world to Redmond, with a message focused on how to better manage information in corporate networks and offices.

REDMOND, Washington--When Microsoft chief Bill Gates speaks, global business leaders listen.

Gates welcomed more than 100 luminaries from all corners of the corporate world to Microsoft's headquarters here, with a message focused on how to better manage information in networks and offices.

The annual CEO summit, now inSee related story: The new world order its third year, offers further proof of the drawing power of Gates, and the increasing importance of computing and the Internet to business performance. Included in the audience were General Electric's chief Jack Welch and Berkshire Hathaway kingpin Warren Buffett, among others.

The event also gave Gates the chance to deliver his latest "state of the industry" speech, offering his thoughts on the challenges that corporations now face. While firms try to manage the mountain of paper and digital information spread across corporate networks and offices, the importance of "knowledge workers"--those employees that manage the data on a daily basis--increases.

Two years ago at this event, Gates introduced the concept of the "digital nervous system," a vision of the potential for computers and networks to work in concert in a business setting.

Executives said the summit offered the opportunity to consult with their peers to determine how they are doing with their own information technology (IT) investments.

Paul O'Neill, chief executive at Alcoa, said after attending the Microsoft summit last year, he realized his company wasn't taking advantage of e-commerce technology. "I was able to calibrate what we were doing against other businesses in the world," he said at a press conference following Gates' speech.

"I certainly want to share what we're doing, but I also want to learn what other firms are doing," added Michael Dell, chief of Dell Computer.

Though Gates promoted various software from his company during his speech, the executive said the point of the gathering was not to push technology, but to understand how it is being used in the business world.

"We make sure none of this is focused on products and licensing," Gates said. "Here we're really talking about approaches."

This year, Microsoft's chief showed off technology that could allow a user to combine elements of the Web, such as stock quotes and news, with corporate resources, such as email and internal sales data. Dubbed the "Digital Dashboard," the tool is essentially a customized version of the company's current Outlook email client, Gates said.

Microsoft's chief said the summit gives his company an opportunity to check its development efforts against what businesses execs say they need to compete. "It makes you realize we have a long ways to go," he said.

Now that computer technology is a ubiquitous force in business, Gates said, it will be how companies use available resources to unify information--most likely with Web-based technology--that will separate successful businesses from the rest.

"How you take these tools and use them inside the company?is what's going to provide the competitive differentiation," Gates told the gathered crowd.

The founder of Microsoft also lamented the continued use of paper within offices, noting the slow evolution to digital business. "Face-to-face is still the primary way information is transferred," he said. "This is a world that is very paper-driven."

Gates also showed off various devices, including an "ebook" pad and a flat computer tablet, as evidence that the industry is getting closer to providing various means for true portable offices. He also noted the rapid acceptance of wireless networking at Microsoft, allowing employees to be more mobile as they jet from their offices to meetings, for example.

Microsoft rolled out an alliance with copier giant Xerox yesterday, based on the company's desire to tie computing and digital information to traditional paper-based business systems.

The topic of "knowledge management" also found its way into Gates' recently released book, "Business @ the Speed of Thought."

Gates' message plays into the company's long-term plans. Microsoft has invested heavily to make its server-based Windows NT operating system software, now called Windows 2000, palatable for corporate needs. It has also charged forward with various server-based application software efforts.

Those strategies--combined with Microsoft's dominant position in desktop operating systems and applications--allows the firm to tie its server and client-side technology efforts more closely together.