Brought up in an upper-middle- class household, he excelled in academics but says he felt like an outsider among his peer group. He found sanctuary at the Talcott Mountain Science Center, with a school for gifted kids just a few miles from his home.
His parents enrolled him in weekend and summer courses at the center when he was 10. "It's the only place that I really fit into," he said and donated $1 million to the Center after he hit the mother lode with WebTV. "It's the only place that could keep up with me and I could keep up with it."
The school is founded on the principle of "fitting programs to kids, not kids to programs," and there he was introduced to the scientific process and tons of then current technology, including a black-and-white reel-to-reel videotape system, radio electornics, and a time-share computer system running Basic and Fortran.
"He practically lived here," says Talcott president Don La salle, who has known him since he first came to the Center almost 35 years ago. Evan as child, La Salle says, he exhibited unusual focus, "what we call persevereance and stick-to-it-ness in gifted children. He has always been passionate with a capital P."
While at Talcott in the early '70's, he invented his first commercially viable product--a device that converted analog information to digital data for the local utility company who was studying the effectiveness of solar-panel technology. It took him about a year to build the system.
High school was another matter. Until he was 15, he earned straight A's, enrolled in every Advanced Placement class he could, and played alto sax in the jazz band. But then he built his first home computer, a Southwest Technical Products 6800, a text-only terminal. In 1976, e taught himself how the system worked, syating up late reading manuals and programming. He even founded a company, Innovative Softronics, to get access to prototype chips and software. Eventually, he bought himself a book on TV innards and designed his first major digital circuit, a color graphics display, so that he could use a TV set to play the videogames he'd programmed for the system. In a contest between computing and high school, high school lost.
"I didn't know what was going on, " he recalls. "I was working so hard doing all these different things, and the only outcome was to get a grade. With that computer, when I created something, I had something real -- something that was working." He eventually completed the minimum coursework to receive a diploma and was accepted to Columbia University.
"There are horses, and then there are racehorses," said a spokesperson at Microsoft. "There are cars and then there are race cars. He is definitely a sports car."