Meet the Whiz Kid Who Works for Apple Computer

Teen designs software - from interactive music to video games

Tom Williams looks and sounds like any other teenager. He has his hair parted down the middle, wears loose-fitting clothes, and punctuates his sentences with phrases like ''totally killer'' and ''stoked.''

But instead of trading barbs with his high school buddies, Tom spends his days working in Apple Computer's interactive music group. ''I was Mr. Student Council in the eighth grade,'' says the Victoria, British Columbia, native. ''But I was sick of dealing with the principal and all those bureaucrats, so I went to work for Apple.''

Tom not only works for Apple, he lives there. When he dropped out of school last November, he moved to Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. His age makes him a one-of-a-kind employee there.

''We call him 'The Kid,''' says Duncan Kennedy, Tom's boss and the manager of Apple's interactive music division, which recently sponsored the New York Music Festival. ''He is the kind of guy who buys this type of music, so he becomes a valuable member of our team at these events,'' says Mr. Kennedy, alluding to the wide range of alternative music at the festival.

Even though he currently makes ''a pretty nice salary for a 16-year-old,'' Tom grew up like any other kid. It was not until he was 11 that he operated his first computer. One year later, he was starting up his own software company.

''I just sat myself in front of my computer with books and learned how to program my own games,'' says Tom, who was repeatedly called over by older colleagues to help solve one cyber-glitch after another at the interactive festival, where he helped design Apple's site on the World Wide Web, the graphic part of the Internet.

Tom began Desert Island software in 1991 so he and his friends could sell their computer game called Legal Avenue, a cross between the Canadian television show ''Street Legal'' and ''L.A. Law.'' ''My friends and I sold the game in malls for $5 - we were really psyched to make $100.''

Making $100 is one thing. But joining the ranks of the high-tech computer industry is another.

Under Canadian law, Tom cannot be financially responsible for a company until he is 18, so his mother presides over his company. ''My mom holds my stock in my name for me,'' Tom says. ''I am the chief executive officer, and she's more like a puppet.''

Last year, Tom was forced to change the name of his fledgling company to White Sands because someone had already copyrighted his original moniker. Now White Sands - still headquartered in Victoria under hired management - is designing a CD-ROM computer game called ''When Mother Nature's Missing,'' a form of ''edutainment,'' says Tom, its author.

''I wanted to make a really cool game where the gamer is so entranced with the game that he does not even realize he is learning about nature,'' Tom says. He also is currently developing an interactive music project called ''Head Tripp'' with Polydor Atlas of Los Angeles.

The software development process for such projects takes more than a year from the initial idea to the final version, and costs for a single prototype can run up to $100,000, says the young developer, who already has many fans at Apple.

''He looks a little naive, but when he sits down at a computer he gets into a zone,'' says Apple's Catherine Christofferson

Tom has some definite ideas on what he wants to do now that ''all of the things I dreamt about at 12 have already been accomplished.''

Instead of just concentrating on making Bill Gates-like bucks in the computer business, Tom says, ''I want to volunteer my time and go to all those beleaguered schools and teach kids programming.'' Of course, first he will have to get his General Educational Development diploma and begin college study.

And there are new goals. ''My dream now is to set up a place for kids to use computers outside of school, kind of like a virtual hangout.''

Of course there is a downside to being a teenager working in an adult world.

''Now if only Apple hired some 16-year-old female interns,'' says Tom, revealing he is still very much a kid at heart.

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