Tangled WebTV

How did a rare technology prototype from Microsoft wind up as one man's Hanukkah gift?

As if the story weren't weird enough, there's the matter of the name. Samuel Posner is a lawyer in New York City. Richard Posner is an appeals court judge in Chicago—who, as the recently appointed special mediator in the federal lawsuit against Microsoft, is Bill Gates' best hope for getting his ass out of the antitrust wringer with only minor contusions.

"That's just total coincidence," says Sam Posner: He's not related to Judge Posner and doesn't do antitrust law. But coincidences seem to be the norm in the strange saga that's embroiled Posner and his family with police in New York and California, with a certain company in Redmond whose right hand doesn't seem to know what it's left hand is shipping, and with a mysterious million-dollar black box that came for Hanukkah but didn't stay.

The box was a WebTV unit, used to get Internet access with a TV set, that Posner's son Scott, a bank employee, gave him on December 11. "For me it was a surprise gift," says Sam Posner. "I don't have a computer—that's how it all started. My sons decided they were going to introduce me to the 21st century."

Instead he got introduced to a new side of the legal system. On December 16, two detectives from the NYPD Computer Investigations Unit came banging on the door of son Scott Posner's apartment—where his wife, seven months pregnant and under doctor's orders to stay in bed, was home alone. Fortunately, father Sam Posner says, she happened to be on the phone with him; they figured out what the detectives wanted and told them to come to his place, 10 blocks away, to retrieve the box, which he still hadn't opened. The cops did that and then told an eye-opening tale: Though it looked like an ordinary $300 WebTV unit, this was in fact a unique prototype worth $1 million or more (at least to Microsoft) that had been wrongly shipped from the company's WebTV operation in Mountain View, California. It was supposed to go to an engineer at Redmond headquarters; when only its cord arrived, Microsoft called the Mountain View police. They checked UPS labels, found that a matching package had been sent to Manhattan's Upper East Side, and . . . happy Hanukkah.

Or not so happy for the Posners. "We have heard nothing from Microsoft, before or since the story broke," says Samuel Posner. "But we were shocked at how they handled this. It seems like it was just a mix-up in the mailroom. If Microsoft had made some kind of big mistake, why didn't they just call us up instead of sending the police. It was a very frightening, aggravating event, which Microsoft caused."

And which Microsoft is now trying to downplay. Spokesperson Angela Yearta says the Hanukkah box "isn't really a prototype. It contains available technology that's been tweaked by engineering, for testing or whatever. I think it has extra chips in it." She adds that the $1-million valuation, which police insist they got from Microsoft, is "overstated." And everything else is "still under investigation."

Downplay as Microsoft may, the case is becoming fodder for watchdogs and critics. "How can Microsoft command the NYPD to do their footwork in recovering the unit when no crime was involved?" asks one computer-security buff. New York's police are mum on the subject, but Mountain View's cops insist a crime does seem to be involved—though not the corporate espionage Microsoft apparently feared. They say Scott Posner, who's not talking to the press, told police he received the box from a friend at Microsoft, whom he declines to name. "It truly appears it was simple theft," says Mountain View police spokesman Jim Bennett, "done to get a WebTV, not to sell technology secrets."

In other words, an employee may have shipped what he thought was surplus testware off to a buddy, and it proved to be a valuable non-prototype of the technology that is Microsoft's great once-and-future hope for conquering the world. If so, you gotta wonder: Who's minding the storeroom?

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