Disney Computer Team Leaves Under Buyout Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A team of top computer scientists headed by renowned computer designer Alan Kay left Walt Disney Co. under the company's buyout program.

Kay and a team of six programmers, who worked in Disney's vaunted Imagineering unit in Glendale, developed an education software system called Squeak, which allows children to create their own computer programs through games and graphics.

The scientists accepted voluntary severance packages as part of the company's move to cut 4,000 jobs companywide.

Six members of the team left in June; Kay will remain until September to complete his contract.

"It's a difficult decision," Kay said. "I think there was a realization that with the current upheaval the company is going through, it probably wasn't the best matchup for what we were trying to do."

Kay said he and his colleagues left voluntarily and that he plans to continue a relationship with Disney, in a capacity yet to be disclosed. The team will form a nonprofit group to continue its research and promote Squeak's use on the Internet, said a source familiar with the group's plans.

A legend in the industry, Kay played a significant role in the development of a prototype of the personal computer at the Palo Alto Research Center of Xerox Corp. during the 1970s.

Disney recruited Kay, a former research fellow at Apple Computer, to work on Squeak in 1996 when the company was moving heavily into the Internet and interactive games.

The company has since retrenched from its ambitious Internet plans, shrinking its Go portal and laying off 300 workers from its Internet group earlier this year.

Disney said the departure of Kay's team was unrelated to the contraction of its Internet business. "He [Kay] simply wanted to do his research in a different kind of environment," said Clare Thomas, spokeswoman for Walt Disney Imagineering. "We wish him all the best."

Disney had been using the technology in interactive play areas in its theme parks, such as a submarine game at the Innoventions attraction at Epcot in Florida. Disney also has been researching possible applications of the technology for hand-held computing devices used in the theme parks.

The team's departure won't affect Disney's ability to use the technology because Squeak is a so-called open source system.

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