REDMOND, Wash. -- No matter how good a corporation's computer networks are, it can't hurt a chief executive officer to get a little face time with the world's richest man.
So 107 top-level executives, including heavyweights such as General Electric Co.'s (NYSE:GE) Jack Welch, News Corp.'s (NYSE:NWS) Rupert Murdoch and Berkshire Hathaway Inc.'s (NYSE:BRKa) Warren Buffett, are gathering at Microsoft Corp.'s (Nasdaq:MSFT) corporate campus in this Seattle suburb for the three-day, third annual Microsoft CEO summit.
The forum is Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates's opportunity to play the role of big thinker and for the company to do a little networking of the social variety.
"Conversation is still the most efficient networking protocol that exists," says Bob Muglia, senior vice president of Microsoft's business productivity group. "There are still benefits to physical person-person interaction."
At the first CEO gathering two years ago, Gates coined the phrase digital nervous system" to refer to a company's information networks, and he has since used the term extensively, including in his book, "Business at the Speed of Thought." In his keynote address Wednesday, Gates is expected to focus on the related theme of "knowledge management," and in particular, the "knowledge workers" that make up the bulk of the information-economy work force.
Microsoft officials say Gates will steer clear of overt pitches for the company's products. But his talk will feature multiple technology demonstrations, including "digital dashboard" software for keeping track of corporate information and prototypes of a number of new devices, such as a tablet-size computer that can be operated with a stylus rather than a keyboard.
Though competition isn't listed on the agenda, Microsoft's knowledge-management strategy is important in the battle with International Business Machines Corp. and its Lotus Notes software, still a major force in messaging and collaboration software. In recent interviews, Gates has said that corporations that adopt Notes are a big problem for the company, because they tend to reduce their reliance on Microsoft's Windows operating system and the Office suite of application programs.
Muglia said his group is working to more closely integrate Office with Exchange, Microsoft's messaging product. A new version due out next year, code-named Platinum, will also be more closely integrated with the Web, Muglia said.
Linking non-PC devices
In addition, Muglia's group is working to link a variety of non-PC devices, including cellular phones and hand-held computers, directly to Exchange servers, in order to make corporate information more available. As part of that thrust, Microsoft last week announced a $120 million acquisition of Sendit AB, a Swedish company that produces a system for sending Internet data to cellular phones.
Gates also is expected to announce that Microsoft is building a high-speed wireless network on its own campus and will complete the project within a year. Two buildings, housing the Exchange and Windows CE development teams, are already equipped with the wireless transmitters.
"It's all about breaking down the barriers in people's communication," Muglia said.
The executives at the CEO gathering will have plenty of time to schmooze among themselves. Wednesday night, they are expected to arrive by boat for dinner at Gates's lakeside mansion, where Buffett will introduce Welch for a fireside chat. Also speaking during the conference will be Jacques Nasser of Ford Motor Co., Michael Dell of Dell Computer Corp., Noboyuki Idei of Sony Corp., John Chambers of Cisco Systems Inc., and Steven Wheelwright, a professor at the Harvard Business School.
Other attendees include Martha Stewart, who heads her media company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia LLC; Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com Inc.; and David Glass of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The guest list also includes the heads of more than a dozen foreign banks and telecommunications carriers from Bahrain, Portugal, Hong Kong, New Zealand and other countries.