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Microsoft looks beyond Gates for new ideas

The company is developing an internal technology that will let more of its employees have a say in the company's technical direction.

Microsoft is looking to replace Bill Gates with a computer.

Okay, that's not entirely true. Many of Gates' duties are being handed off to Ray Ozzie and Craig Mundie as part of the tech icon's effort to step away from day-to-day technical leadership at Microsoft.

But while the company is looking for individual leaders, the company is also aiming to further democratize its technical leadership. A key part of that is a new internal communications system designed to allow workers to spitball ideas on where the company should be headed, CNET has learned.

In an interview Thursday, Gates said that the system, known as Quests, is still in the early stages of development. Still, it "gets us to be really specific about the future of the home, the future of the office, the future of the data center," Gates said.

The idea is to draw more of Microsoft's technical minds into the process of planning for the future. "It will be a SharePoint wiki thing internally so people can say where they disagree or we're missing something," Gates said.

It's part of Microsoft's effort to make the company less dependent on any particular individuals, including Gates.

"Two years from now...the commitment I made to Bill is that we're going to be in the position where hopefully we would anticipate anything he would suggest to us," Ballmer said. "That's part of getting the company to the place where it can have this broad, big agenda and it's got to be driven by not only guys like me, but the next generation of leaders."

Special coverage: The end of the Gates era

Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer declined to offer too many specifics on the system, or say when it will be up and running." It's a good exercise that (CTO) David Vaskevitch and Bill and Ray (Ozzie) are championing to have a little bit more regular, informal way to actually call on people to express and help the company shape its long-term technical direction," Ballmer said.

Google has its own system in which workers can be inspired by what their colleagues are working on. On its internal Web site, Google workers can see each employee's key objectives and results, thereby getting a sense of what co-workers are up to.

However, Gates and Ballmer took pains to contrast what Microsoft is doing with Google's system.

"This is different," Gates said. "This is about what the future is."

Ballmer concurred. "This is where you kind of synthesize what you think we ought to do as opposed to just saying 'Hey what is everybody up to?'"

Greg DeMichillie, an analyst at research firm Directions on Microsoft, said the key is whether the system helps Microsoft come up with concrete plans.

"I don't think Microsoft is suffering from a lack of ideas," he said. "(Windows) Vista isn't in trouble because of a lack of ideas. It's a shortage of planning, scheduling and estimating."

DeMichillie said, from his perspective, Microsoft's biggest problems is stitching together all of its ideas into coherent plans. "One of Microsoft's big problems is that they have all of these different (product) teams," he said. "How does that ever get tied together in a way that makes sense for customers?"

Such a system is important for the broadening giant, Ballmer maintains. "We like to think it as a way of being intentional about the key technology transformations that we think will be important over the next 10 years, even if the business models are uncertain, which for a lot of things, they will be uncertain for a long time."