Microsoft's "Thoreau" takes to woods to ponder future

One way to peek into technology's crystal ball last month was to take a winding road into a cedar forest in the Pacific Northwest to seek out one of tech's top thinkers. A sunny Thursday afternoon found him waiting alone behind the gate of his secluded cottage.

"Hi, thanks for coming," said Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, appearing eager for company after four days alone at the waterfront cottage. He was there for his "Think Week," a seven-day stretch of seclusion he uses to ponder the future of technology and then propagate those thoughts across the Microsoft empire.

It's a twice-yearly ritual that can influence the future of Microsoft and the tech industry. A Think Week thought can give the green light to a new technology that millions of people will use, or send Microsoft into new markets.

One week in 1995 inspired Gates' paper, "The Internet Tidal Wave," which led Microsoft to develop its Internet browser and crush Netscape. Plans to create Microsoft's Tablet PC, build more-secure software and start an online video-game business were also catalyzed during Think Weeks.

Gates' retreats are famous in the computer industry, but what happens in them has been a tightly held corporate secret. Gates agreed to show his hideaway to a reporter, the first journalist to visit in the many years he's been holding Think Weeks, on the condition the location be kept secret.

The week typically starts with Gates, 49, taking a helicopter or seaplane to the two-story clapboard cottage on a quiet waterfront. It's a tidy, relatively modest place with a small bedroom for Gates. During the week, he bars all outside visitors, including family and Microsoft staff, except for a caretaker who slips him two simple meals a day.

He starts the morning in bed poring through papers mostly by Microsoft engineers, executives and product managers and scribbling notes on the covers. Skipping breakfast, he patters upstairs in his stocking feet to read more papers.

Noon and dinnertime bring him back downstairs to read papers over meals at the kitchen table, where he has a view of the Olympic Mountains. Thursday's lunch was grilled-cheese sandwiches and clam chowder. His main staple for the week, he said, is a steady stream of Diet Orange Crush.

Four days into this Think Week, Gates had read 56 papers, working 18 hours straight some days. His record is 112 papers.

"I don't know if I'll catch my record, but I'll certainly do 100," he said. Among the unread papers: "10 Crazy Ideas to Shake Up Microsoft."

What had he read of interest this week? "Actually, let's go upstairs real quick, and I'll show you, because that's where I spend all my time," he responded, as he popped out of his chair and bounded up the stairs two steps at a time, landing in his upstairs study.

Facing the windows with a water view stood a desk with two Dell personal-computer monitors. To the side was a bookshelf lined with "The Great Books" series of literature classics. A portrait of Victor Hugo hung on the wall.

Fridge with soft drinks

A bathroom and a small refrigerator, stocked with Diet Orange Crush and Diet Coke, were added to the office in recent years, Gates said, so he could maximize his reading time by not having to go downstairs.

Papers in bright orange covers littered the floor, their pages stamped "Microsoft Confidential."

Standing at his desk with ink-stained hands, Gates flipped through a 62-page paper titled "Virtual Earth," covered with his notes. It described future mapping services that deliver travel directions with live images of destinations and details on traffic conditions and other information.

Some of the ideas he later dismissed as "overly Jetsons," but he prefaced the comments he would send to its authors with a ringing endorsement: "I love the vision here."

Gates settled behind the PC monitors, which displayed a database of nearly 300 papers for this week. Among the topics: the growth of Internet video, hard-drive capacity and the diminishing advances in microprocessor "clock speed," historically the driver of PC-market growth.

Other paper topics include trends in digital photography, computing trends in 2005 and ways for software to better handle languages like Vietnamese.

"There's one here on security that's just a breakthrough," Gates said, tipping forward in his chair and clicking on a paper titled "Can We Contain Internet Worms?" from Microsoft's research group in England.

Tellingly, 31 papers on the list — the largest category — were on software security, a critical problem for Microsoft. The worm paper describes a new way Microsoft might stop the spread of a type of destructive code that has plagued the Internet lately.

Think Week's reading and thinking spawns a flood of e-mail and comments from Gates. A paper might inspire an e-mail to dozens of employees around the world.

Employees anticipate the week with hopes that their projects will get a green light or influence the company's direction. "It's the world's coolest suggestion box," says Stephen Lawler, a Microsoft general manager of the MapPoint group.

Working until the wee hours the night before, Gates had begun spreading his thoughts on the worm paper around the world. In an e-mail to Microsoft executives, he mused that the approach seemed almost too good to be true and might have a flaw.

But if it doesn't, he explained aloud, "we've got to deploy this thing."

By morning, he had e-mail responses from as far away as Cambridge, England.

Gates has held some form of Think Week since the 1980s, first as a quiet time to visit his grandmother while reading and strategizing. Think Week's material has evolved from heaps of paper reports to a computerized library that has fields for Gates to enter comments and links to related documents — backed up by paper versions.

Two months before Gates' February seclusion, his technical assistant, Alex Gounares, collected papers from every corner of Microsoft and culled what he thought should be Gates' priorities. It's an open call for papers that lets employees of any level reach the top with their ideas.

Some papers make pleas for more people and money, but most are focused on technology trends and development. Gates says he finds the latter "more relaxing" to read.

"They're rarely saying, 'We're doomed. Give me $100 million and we won't be doomed anymore.' "

Pressured pace

Gates got a head start reading over the weekend, arriving at his retreat Monday. But he was already worried about his pace the next day. "I had worked so hard. I had worked 24 hours" yet had only finished a dozen papers.

One of them was a 120-pager titled "The Book of Xenon" that details plans for Microsoft's next video-game machine, code-named Xenon, and posits a video-game strategy for the next 20 years.

Gates soon hit his stride, reading the 80-page "Education Product Strategy at Microsoft" on how to hone the company's appeal to the education market. He responded to the authors online, promising that "we're going to get some progress" toward the paper's recommendations, adding it would be a "tragedy" if the project's funding ended, one author said later.

Gates said he e-mailed a note telling Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer to read the paper.

Working through midnight Tuesday, Gates was feeling punchy. Reading a paper titled "Speech Synthesis," he says, he began reading aloud words like "anger," "boredom" and "playfulness," pronouncing each in the emotional tone it evoked.

"It was two in the morning so I was being goofy," he said.

For breaks, Gates allowed himself five minutes to solve a daily online bridge problem. Wednesday, he donned shoes for the first time and left the cottage to stroll the beach for 30 minutes. "I just walked outside thinking about, actually, video on the Internet," he said.

As the sun set over the water Thursday, Gates vowed to read 24 more papers by bedtime. "Tonight, because I'm pretty well slept now, I'll go until like 2 or 3," he said.

By week's end, Gates would read 100 papers, send e-mails to hundreds of people and write a Think Week summary for executives. He would send his top executives a reading list, including papers on software security and the growing power of cellphones.

The effects of this Think Week are rippling through Microsoft.

Yusuf Mehdi, vice president in the MSN online group, says he lugged a 6-inch-thick printout of Gates' Think Week comments on a business trip.

In the Office-software division, one group says it used Gates' comments to change direction on whether to team up with or acquire certain companies. (They won't say which way.) A team member was soon in Europe meeting potential partners.

In the MapPoint unit, source of the "Virtual Earth" paper, general manager Lawler called a meeting to brainstorm on Gates' comments.

Gates put the kibosh on certain ideas. But word of his endorsement of the paper's overall vision had spread across Microsoft. Several other groups, including Microsoft's research arm, are now involved in the project.

Craig Bartholomew's spirits lifted when he opened an e-mail with Gates' comments on his group's education-strategy paper. Bartholomew, the group's general manager, quickly instructed his team to factor the insights into product plans and posted Gates' comments on an internal Web site to solicit input from the group.

Before Think Week, there was "hope but there wasn't belief" that the team's plans would fly, Bartholomew says. "People in my group are optimistic now."

In the weeks since returning to his regular schedule, Gates has settled into a stretch of follow-up meetings spawned by Think Week, including two, he says, on security strategy. Last week he huddled for two hours with the Virtual Earth team helping plot its next move.

Gates is well aware of the potential impact of his comments and doesn't take writing them lightly. "If I write a comment that says, 'We should do this,' things will be re-orged, engineers will move," he says. "It's not like I can just read this paper and say, 'Hey, cool, looks good.' They'll assign 20 people to it then."

Reading list

Some of the papers Bill Gates read this year at "Think Week":

Computing Trends: Contains annual report on trends in microprocessors, graphics chips, Web sites, phones, security and other computing areas.

Education: Makes recommendations for how Microsoft's core products can better address the education market.

Language: Describes new method that could allow software to more easily support languages including Vietnamese, Romanian and Danish.

Mapping: Titled "Virtual Earth," lays out history and future of electronic mapping services.

Office: Describes road map for Microsoft's Office business-productivity and collaboration software.

Security: Describes research that could allow Microsoft to block Internet worms faster than it can today.

Speech: Details method for software to model emotional factors in language.

Video games: Outlines Microsoft's long-term strategy to use video-game consoles, online games and the PC to expand its consumer business.

Source: Microsoft