One last chance to hear Bill Gates speak before he leaves the company he co-founded to head up his humanitarian efforts drew tens of thousands of Microsoft employees to the company’s annual meeting at Safeco Field in Seattle late last week.

But garnering the most buzz, according to attendees blogging about Thursday’s event, was a demo of Microsoft’s revamp to its flagship Web search engine, which is expected to be launched later this month. Additionally, CEO Steve Ballmer’s rousing call for Microsoft to be “bold” and incorporate great design into its products — the strategy that has lifted rival Apple Inc. — made a big impression.

Others hailed Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie’s speech on Microsoft’s “software+services” vision, and the awarding of a new technical award to the longtime Microsoft engineer who headed up the development of Windows NT among other products.

Mini-Microsoft, the anonymous blog purportedly written by a Microsoft employee, enthused in its typical, half-sarcastic way: “I love this company. I love this company’s Company Meeting.”

Criticism of the all-day event, which takes place every year at the home field of baseball’s Seattle Mariners, included the lack of parody videos as have been presented in the past, and other product demos so boring they inspired employees sitting in the upper decks to rain paper airplanes onto employees sitting at field level.

Estimates of this year’s attendance ranged from 20,000 to 35,000.

A Live wire
At the meeting, a new version of Windows Live Search was shown off. Live Search 2.0 will include better relevance, a larger index, instant answers and other features, attendees said. It’s all an attempt to match Google technically and bolster Microsoft’s small search-market share.

Microsoft reportedly plans to launch Live Search 2.0 later this month. But Mini-Microsoft called for the company to ship Live Search 2.0 “Now. Right now. Ship it please. Awesome stuff.”

Other demos were not as well-received, and some lacked polish. Attendees critiquing those presentations called for greater brevity and more technical info, with fewer dumbed-down sales spiels.

“Some interesting stuff, but each of the speakers could have made their points in about half the time. The demos were particularly bad as there was no good motivation for each,” complained one commenter to Mini-Microsoft.

Many external observers were interested in the announcement that Microsoft will begin a new Wi-Fi-enabled commuter bus service to help employees beat Seattle traffic jams.

Microsoft also said it will rent space in a number of Seattle office buildings developed by Microsoft’s other co-founder, Paul Allen. Last year’s big external announcement was that Microsoft had donated more than US$2.5 billion in cash, goods and employee contributions to charity since 1983.

Microsoft said it had added 12,800 employees worldwide in its most recent fiscal year ending June 30, while losing 8.3 percent of employees to attrition, according to one attendee report.

One of those new Microsoft employees blogged that the meeting “the weirdest thing ever. More like a rally than a meeting.”

He drew an illustration that showed where attendees in matching hats or shirts sat, and that in at least three different locations around SafeCo field, there was “no beer.”

Speech, speech
Gates’ swan song speech was tepidly received by many attendees, who said it was similar to speeches in the past.

The speech by Ozzie, who replaces Gates as Redmond’s chief visionary, received better reviews, though some groused that it lacked specifics.

There was plenty of praise for Ballmer’s speech, which attendees said gave a frank scorecard of how Microsoft is doing against competitors such as Apple, IBM, and Google.

Ballmer’s “report cards gave me faith that at least at his level, there is no reality distortion,” wrote one poster.

Another wrote about Ballmer’s speech: “He didn’t paint an overly rosy picture which is classic Microsoft self-criticism. It’s funny how the outside world doesn’t really see that side of the company.”

But another poster complained that that the event was too full of “rah-rah” speeches by anonymous executives that failed to give employees a good sense of the company’s vision, and how they can help enable that.

Legendary, angry, recognized
Meanwhile, Microsoft programming legend Dave Cutler was awarded the new Bill Gates Award, a technical award which one blogger dubbed “the new ultra-supreme award for contributions to Microsoft.”

At Digital Equipment Corp., Cutler helped develop the VAX and VMS operating systems. At Microsoft, Cutler directly led the teams building Windows NT, as well as the 64-bit versions of Windows XP Pro and Windows Server 2003 SP. Cutler is now working on Microsoft’s Windows Live Platform.

Known as a gruff, no-nonsense boss whose high standards for bug-free code inspired employees to call him both the “greatest programmer/engineer project leader they’ve ever seen” as well as the “angriest and scariest person they’ve ever worked for,” Cutler received a standing ovation from thousands of employees when he received the award.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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