Steve Perlman: Icon

Steve-PerlmanSPEND AN HOUR WITH STEVE PERLMAN AND YOU’LL understand why more than 600 friends turned out earlier this year for the unveiling of his new loft in downtown San Francisco. He’s a computer honcho who doesn’t twitch, rock or fall into stony trances; he can talk about technology in ways that make even the Bic-ballpoint generation relax. Funny and extremely self-possessed, the Connecticut-raised, Columbia-educated Perlman, 39, looks like your average post-teenager in a leather jacket,jeans shredding a bit around the knees. But get him started on where technology is going in the years to come, and you’ll find that he has an almost evangelical ability to get you to embrace his ideas. WebTV Networks, one of his biggest, lured venture capital from Paul Allen’s Vulcan Ventures, Hollywood mogul Marvin Davis and Bill Gates himself before being acquired outright by Microsoft in 1997. The deal for the groundbreaking interactive TV start-up netted Perlman, his two partners, their employees and investors $503 million.

Last fall, after two years with Microsoft, Perlman decided to go back out on his own. The blowout this winter celebrated his latest undertaking: a new business and the loft that will be its headquarters, in a converted warehouse building near an on-ramp to the Bay Bridge.

In some ways the loft could be considered a prototype for the living room of the future. Perlman, working with San Francisco architect Jim Jennings, has taken a 2,400-square-foot space with 18-foot ceilings and shoehorned in enough digital equipment to create his own state-of-the-art film production studio–no more, he thinks optimistically, than the typical high-end living room might have in twenty years’ time (see box for details). Though the space also includes a sleeping loft, a dressing room, two baths and a kitchen, Perlman doesn’t plan to live there full-time. He and his wife Sandi Dobrowolsky, a computer programmer and former agronomist, are based down the peninsula in Palo Alto, and they get away on many weekends to their house on Lake Tahoe. Instead, the San Francisco space is more like a playroom, a place where Steve and his business associates can experiment in making their dreams for both the near and not-so-near future come to fruition. The playroom’s toy chest, as it were, is a 10-by-12-foot control center off the living room/workspace from which the loft’s production studio is run. “A geek tank,” Perlman says succinctly. “CBS in a box,” boasts Stephen Dolan, his building consultant.

Like many people in the Valley right now, Perlman realizes that Web content is still in its infancy–on a par, he says, with film in the Teens, radio in the Twenties and TV in the Fifties. Hence the goal of his latest business: to nurture fledgling digital-technology companies, to create new forms of content for the Web, and to simplify the way we access that content at home. Rearden Steel, the name given the start-up (after an Ayn Rand character in Atlas Shrugged), will provide studio technology and seed capital to people who want to mine the Web’s potential.

“If you look at what’s on the Internet today,” says Perlman, poking around the loft with some visitors, “you’ll see how cheesy it is–crackling sound, crumbly images. But you can get a snippet of what the future might hold on the new interactive TV. There you can stop any show, not just one you’ve taped, and rewind or freeze the image, record it, even shop from it or delve deeper into aspects of its content. My wife watches cooking shows, and she’s always freezing the screen to write down techniques and recipes or print them out from a Web site.”

As he tours the loft, Perlman poses the big-picture question that lies at the heart of his new company: “How far can we go in extending the reach of our experiences, and in sharing them with others?” He envisions the Web as a much more interactive medium in the future, a synthesis of video games and television. With motion-capture technology, for example, a golf lover might be able to put himself on-screen right from his living room and tune up his swing alongside Tiger Woods; or a teenager in San Francisco might create and star in her own Web show, with her cousin in Spokane making a “virtual” guest appearance. The possibilities send Pearlman spiraling into the intellectual equivalent of a sugar high.

“What I really love about Steve is his open-ended vision,” says architect Jim Jennings. “Much of what’s happening in Silicon Valley now has become so businesslike, so results-oriented. Steve just never stops throwing open his doors to new things.” Jennings saw this happen, literally, at the loft, which began as a more traditional pied-a-terre and studio for Steve and Sandi and morphed into an “idea lab” for new companies after Steve left Microsoft. But in fact, the underpinnings of the idea lab were there from the start.

“Our program for the loft was to make an elegant environment to live in for short periods of time–weekends or overnights in the city,” Jennings explains. “But it was always meant to be a twenty-four-hour space. Steve knows how computer people work–nobody has control over when the ideas come to him. Here, everything is in one place, so you can eat, sleep and work in the same space. The flow that results can aid the creative process. For Steve, that process is not drawing or painting but an intellectual creativity. It’s science becoming art, in a way.”

In the loft, it was Jennings’ job to put art at the service of science. He worked closely with Perlman and a team of specialists to ensure the complete integration of technology and architecture, a process that was neither smooth nor quick; the whole thing took almost two years. But the spectacular results prove that the struggle was worth it. Since the building was landmarked, the architect could not make major structural changes. And so he devised a large-scale cabinetry system that was effectively inserted within the existing four walls, with original fir columns intervening here and there. The entire place is now sheathed in a sensuous chocolate-colored mahogany that conceals everything from shelving and trays for cable wiring to deep drawers for production equipment. The resulting play of past, present and future–the 1905 building, the paneled insertion and the computer-driven activity within–creates a fascinating dialectic.

Jennings’ biggest challenge in the design of the loft was finding places to put all the conduits, switching equipment and coils of fiber-optic wire, places that would keep the soul of the new machine well organized and accessible without being on view. “It’s very different from the so-called high-tech spaces of the Eighties, when buildings were trying to look like machines,” he muses. “Here, the building and the machines are each doing what they’re supposed to do.” Take the linked entertainment system, for instance. From a touch-screen control panel in almost every room, Steve can access a favorite CD, the Internet, e-mail, a video or TV programming over the room’s plasma display screen. What’s more, the entire system is linked to the one at the Tahoe house, so that content in one location–600 CDs stored on digital disk, for instance–can be accessed from the other.

While Perlman clearly supports the development of home technology, he says he has little interest in the whiz-bang aspects of the “smart house”–talking refrigerators, self-cooking microwaves and sun-sensitive window shades. “The question is this,” he levels. “What are the things that don’t work well right now? I think light switches work just fine.” (For most people, he might have added: the loft makes use of not one but three computerized lighting systems–Crestron, Vantage and ETC.)

Even after a lengthy renovation on the downtown loft and an ongoing battle to wire his Tahoe house–conventional cable was difficult to install, and North Lake Tahoe doesn’t yet allow the laying of broadband DSL (digital subscriber line)–Perlman is eager to start again. This month, he and Sandi break ground on a new house in Portola Valley, which will eventually be their main residence. Designed by San Franciscan Loring Sagan, the 14,000-square-foot domain will be built of stone, steel and glass–and every inch of it will be wired.

“We’re future-proofing it,” says Sagan, sounding only partly relieved at the prospect. “I’m allowing for vast amounts of wiring and making it all accessible–we’re developing flip-up baseboards, for instance. And we’re also going to leave room for technology that hasn’t yet been invented.”

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