Party at Bill's Place or Phil's Place?


In 1995, when I was a freshman at Stanford, a former co-worker of my mom’s invited me to brunch with some of his friends. I was eager to meet some people from the Silicon Valley tech world and happily biked over to Hobee’s for some overpriced smoothies. One of the people at brunch was Paul Mercer, who had been involved with several startups, and was a key player in Apple engineering history. At the time, Paul was informally advising two startups that were both looking for college-age interns. He got me interviews with both. One had just made an announcement about what they were doing. The company was Be, Inc. and they were developing a consumer PC and multimedia operating system (later, just the OS, then later after that, nothing). The other was a mysterious set-top box company started by some former Apple and General Magic superstars who wouldn’t tell me what they were doing, but dropped enough hints that it was pretty obvious. My interview was with another Apple legend — Bruce Leak, who brought us 32-bit QuickDraw and QuickTime. I remember him taking me through the former auto repair garage that housed the company (codenamed Artemis Research) and casually introducing people that were demigods to me (e.g. “This is Dave. He designed the motherboard for the Quadra 700.”)

Despite being in total awe of everyone at Artemis, I took the job with Be, probably because I was so star-struck with both companies that I just wanted to start ASAP with whomever called me back first. Be was a great gig while it lasted — I learned basic network programming from filesystem guru Dominic Giampaolo (now at Apple) and helped design the first Be web site (which is why Be founder and former Apple exec Jean Louis-Gassee would always say, “Ah, ze web-master!” when he saw me). Maybe I’ll talk about Be some other time though — this is really about the job I *didn’t* take.

Even though I passed on the Artemis Research job (which, now that I think about it, was basically some rudimentary QA work), I continued to be interested in the company. A few years later, they were bought out by Microsoft and I took it as an opportunity to do the requisite Stanford Microsoft internship without really working for Microsoft.

Interning at WebTV was great. There must’ve been around 20 interns in what was still a fairly small division of Microsoft. I sat in the Intern Bunker, sharing space with a bunch of other college-age engineers. Like everyone else, we had TV’s on our desks with a link to the WebTV cable system. So whether we were watching HBO or the WebTV Usability Labs channel, the opportunities to goof off abounded. We also got to work on real features that were destined to ship some day. I was the lead (only) engineer on TV Chat, which let you have an IRC chat about a TV show with other people who were watching that show. It never actually shipped, but it was fun nonetheless.

Part of the way through the summer, one of the other interns told everyone that it was traditional for Bill Gates to have all of the Microsoft summer interns over to his house for a BBQ. In prior years, Microsoft probably didn’t have many interns (if any at all) in the Bay Area, so the “come to Bill’s house” program was likely designed to only accommodate Redmond-based interns. But we were a vocal group, and we all petulantly demanded that we be included in this essential part of our Microsoft experience. Someone pulled some strings, and pretty soon, the entire intern group of WebTV, plus our managers, were on a plane to Seattle.

The BBQ at Bill’s was a pretty ho-hum affair. Bill’s house was on a lake, and we managed to convince Charlie (a freshman intern) that the ducks were actually robots with video cameras to watch the guests. Supposedly, someone overheard Bill asking his assistant, “What are all these WebTV people doing here?”

Personally, I had contempt for Microsoft at the time, even though I loved WebTV. I was still an Apple guy, and when we had assembled in the hotel prior to leaving for Bill’s house, I came downstairs with my Apple t-shirt. My manager asked that I at least cover it up. So I threw on a flannel shirt, which I promptly removed upon arriving at the Gates Mansion.

I don’t think Bill Gates was there for the entire BBQ, but when he was there, he was surrounded by a swarm of interns. I had no interest in listening to what he had to say, but towards the end of the evening, my fellow WebTV intern Ashley suddenly ran up to me and said, “Someone asked him about Apple! Come listen!” So Ashley grabbed my arm and flung me into the intern swarm. I found myself in front of all the other interns, face to face with Gates, who, I swear, looked right at me, looked down at my Apple t-shirt, and took a half-step back.

His answer to the “What will happen to Apple?” question wasn’t very interesting. I think he said that they’d never have a substantial market share but would continue to innovate and be successful in niche markets like design. I didn’t really care about his answer — I was just happy to leave Seattle with a mildly embellished story about wearing an Apple shirt at Bill Gates’ house.

A month or two later, all the interns got invited to another party. This time, it was at WebTV founder Phil Goldman’s house. Phil was, at the time, WebTV’s VP of Engineering. He was largely responsible for all the senseless fun we had as interns, and also largely responsible for making WebTV so much fun in general. From the moment we arrived at his house for the party, it was clear that he had two goals — Make sure that everyone felt at home, and make sure that he out-did Bill Gates in every possible way.

I have much more vivid memories of the party at Phil’s place than I do of the party at Bill’s place. Phil had this incredible rock swimming pool in his backyard and the interns all frolicked in the pool while the managers mostly sat around making fun of us. There was good food, and plenty of WebTV branded schwag. I recall a WebTV towel and I think some WebTV chapstick (or possibly WebTV sunblock).

The best gift of all though was the t-shirts we got, which we were told to shut the hell up about if anybody ever asked. On the front, the question, “Party at Bill’s Place or Phil’s Place?” On the back, “Phil’s Place”. I think we all unanomously agreed that Phil could throw a better party and we wore the t-shirts with pride.

Sadly, Phil passed away a few years later. He was only 39 and, as I recall, kept himself pretty healthy. My t-shirt is kind of ratty now, but so is my Apple shirt and I still wear that. Whenever I wear the “Phil’s Place” shirt, I think about how Phil won us over so easily by being welcoming and fun. I really miss all the folks from WebTV — they were a talented and entertaining bunch, who continue to do good work at companies like Danger.

3 Comments

  1. January 15, 2007

    I think everyone you mention is friend-of-a-friend of mine. Do you know Konstantin Othmer? I actually worked at WebTV for a short period right before they were bought out. I was on a project to get the units installed in hotels.

    My first job in high school was at Catapult, which was Steve Perlman’s previous company. I believe a lot of the ideas for WebTV came from the work done at Catapult. Matt Hershensen and Joe Britt were at Catapult too.

    It’s spelled Hobee’s, dude. 🙂

  2. klep
    January 15, 2007

    Thanks — fixed the spelling, though nobody would take issue with the overpriced smoothies!

  3. August 17, 2007

    Hello my name is tim and was a Webtv User for @least 8 years and truly miss it but was wanting to post a link to something i did for OUR FRIEND Phil hopoe you all like it and please feel free to email me anytime 🙂

    Sincerely Tim Gibbs in Wewoka Oklahoma

    http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSmpid=46549378&GRid=8220066&

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