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Technology Talks in Shadow of Gates' Virtual Mansion

Seminar: Microsoft's bid to strengthen customer ties tops agenda, but dinner at the CEO's $50-million home is main event.


SEATTLE — More than 100 chief executives and government officials from around the world gathered here Thursday to talk about technology trends with billionaire and high-tech guru Bill Gates.

There was talk of the new economy, the transformative power of technology and the acute shortage of knowledge workers. But for many of the illustrious visitors, the main attraction may have been dinner at the Microsoft Corp. chairman's nearly completed $50-million home.

The CEOs were scheduled to take a boat to Gates' home on the shore of Lake Washington to dine in the spacious reception hall on salmon and other Northwest delicacies as digital images flashed across a wall of video screens.

Even Vice President Al Gore broke from a weighty speech to the CEOs to turn to Gates and say, "I'm looking forward to seeing this magnificent house later on, Bill."

The two-day seminar hosted by Microsoft is an effort by the software giant to establish closer relations with its largest customers as part of a massive effort to sell software for large-scale applications. The impressive roster of participants includes chief executives from United Airlines, Sprint, GTE, American Airlines, Siemens Nixdorf of Germany, Universal Studios and Aetna Insurance.

In a morning speech, Gates hailed the victory of the personal computer over old mainframe systems and urged the executives to arm their employees with the best technology because computer networks are the "digital nervous system" of the modern corporation.

Gates predicted that the majority of adults within 10 years will live a "Web lifestyle" now common among college students who use the Internet to communicate, shop and do research.

For many participants, the chance to rub elbows with Gates appears to have been a main incentive for the trip.

"Bill Gates has influenced my thinking in lots and lots of ways, and having the chance to interact and dialogue with him is a rare opportunity," said Charles Lee, chief executive at Irving, Tex.-based GTE. "A lot of other people are here because Bill is hosting it, and Bill is a full participant."

A key theme that emerged was the acute shortage of technically skilled workers throughout the developed world.

"What they are saying is that every company is an IT [information technology] company whether it sells computers or cement," said Microsoft Vice President Robert McDowell, who described some of the discussions from the event, which was mostly closed to the public and the media. "The gap in the number of qualified people is real and could be an impediment."

FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, fresh from unveiling a blueprint for overhauling the telecommunications industry, said he was surprised at the absence of discussion on the impact of technology on society.

"Instead of listening to them talk about the lack of knowledge workers, I want my five minutes to talk about how we are connecting all classrooms" to the Internet, Hundt said. As part of Wednesday's landmark overhaul, Hundt said, the FCC has proposed channeling $4 billion a year from telecommunications revenues to give grants to get schools and libraries wired to the Internet beginning in 1998.

"The CEOs here are positioned so that they are capable of building a huge, interconnected, interactive economy in a world where two-thirds of the people haven't even made a phone call," Hundt said.

Gore focused on the need for improved education to prepare the nation for an increasingly technological society. "Our budget increase makes the largest increase in education investment in a long time," Gore said.

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