Bill Gates' secretive annual gathering of chief executives begins today in Redmond, but Microsoft let one detail slip out early. The company announced last...

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Bill Gates’ secretive annual gathering of chief executives begins today in Redmond, but Microsoft let one detail slip out early.

The company announced last night that a test version of the new Office software will be released this fall, and the final product will go on sale in the second half of 2006, around the time a new version of Windows is launched.

Gates will offer a preview of the Office technology at his CEO Summit in Redmond, an annual gathering for executives to schmooze, discuss technology at Microsoft and dine at his waterfront mansion in Medina.

Ivan Seidenberg

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About 100 executives are expected to attend, including chief executives Jeff Bezos of; Ivan Seidenberg of Verizon; Bradbury Anderson of Best Buy; Robert Greifeld of the Nasdaq Stock Market and Joseph McGrath of Unisys.

Microsoft’s public-relations agency compares the two-day event to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, but Davos attendees don’t get as much information about Microsoft productivity software.

In addition to an early peek at the next Office, attendees will receive several reports by analysts and academics about how technology is changing the workplace and an essay on “The New World of Work” by Gates.

Getting Bill time

Here’s a partial list Microsoft provided of the roughly 100 executives attending Bill Gates’ annual CEO Summit today and tomorrow in Redmond.

Jeff Bezos: Founder and chief executive,

Chartsiri Sophonpanich: President, Bangkok Bank

Bradbury Anderson: Chief executive and vice chairman, Best Buy

Oswald Grubel: Chief executive, Credit Suisse Group

Bernard Charles: President and chief executive, Dassault Systemes

Olza Nicely: Chairman, president and chief executive, Geico

Edward Rogers: President and chief executive, Rogers Communications

Leonard Schrank: Chief executive, SWIFT

Robert Greifeld: President and chief executive, Nasdaq Stock Market

Ivan Seidenberg: Chairman and chief executive, Verizon

Vivek Paul: Vice chairman, Wipro

Joseph McGrath: President and chief executive, Unisys

Source: Microsoft

Today’s workplace challenges include handling and sorting a flood of information and improving the way workers collaborate and communicate. The new version of Office, which Microsoft refers to as Office 12, will address many of those challenges, said Takeshi Numoto, senior director of Office.

“The whole notion here is that the current world of work is really starting to change,” he said. “This is our articulation of all the customer needs we’ve been hearing.”

On Monday, Gates was in Geneva calling on the private sector, governments and scientists to do a better job providing vaccines, preventive care and treatments to fight diseases hurting the world’s poor.

His CEO Summit is more focused on business topics. Breakout sessions include “Changing the Customer Experience,” “Finding Growth in Financial Services,” “Strategy, Discipline and Market Leadership,” “Growing Globally: The Capabilities Challenge.”

New this year is a session called “Meet the Blogger,” moderated by Michael Schrage, co-director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. The speakers are Jeff Raikes, group vice president in charge of Office, and Ray Ozzie, Microsoft chief technology officer.

Gates began holding CEO Summits in 1997. The summit is closed to the media and public, and the full list of attendees is kept secret.

Reporters are invited to watch a telecast of Gates’ opening speech.

Early summits were criticized for “being essentially glorified sales gatherings,” said Friday Harbor technology commentator Mark Anderson, who declined an invitation this year because he’s preparing for the Future In Review technology conference he’s hosting next week in San Diego.

The CEO Summit is not Davos but it has improved since Microsoft refocused it as a gathering “to share its corporate vision with its best customers,” Anderson said.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or