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THE CUTTING EDGE: FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY

Pied Piper of Technology

Sun Microsystems' Bill Joy Jr. Is a Man on a Mission

December 20, 1999|JOSEPH MENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ASPEN, Colo. — When the 75-year-old retired Michigan schoolteacher couldn't get his iMac computer to print properly, he called Bill Joy Jr.

Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and one of the world's most influential computer engineers, soon learned that what the neophyte user--his father--lacked was a common vocabulary for the words and symbols on his screen.

"I spent an hour just doing a tour of the screen, giving everything a name," said Joy, who is Sun's chief scientist. "These devices are too complex."

If helping his father was frustrating for Joy, the experience reaffirmed his commitment to make computing easier for the rest of the world. In the end, he may do more to change the technology governing the way people live and work than anyone else alive today, including that man named Bill in Redmond, Wash.

Joy's mission is to make computing hardware and software that is virtually invisible to the user. And he has a rare combination of tools to get there--including freedom, breadth and depth of thought, a willingness to hammer out compromises, and the resources of a still-nimble company worth more than $100 billion.

Most people have never heard of Joy, who turned 45 last month. But his standing within the high-tech world, and Palo Alto-based Sun's position as an alternative to the Intel-Microsoft duopoly, allows Sun to rally hundreds of other companies behind its evolving technological vision of the future.

"The stuff he does has an enormous impact," said Marc Andreessen, who led the invention of the Web browser and co-founded Netscape. "Bill's the only person I know who can simultaneously design a microprocessor, write the code for a new operating system, and invent a new computer language."

Joy's biggest accomplishment is Java, the programming language he helped fashion, then championed. More than a million software developers are registered to write Java programs, and most interactive Web sites use the language.

That's because Joy and others designed it to be the first programming language capable of running, without rewriting, on any operating system. Java weakened Microsoft's Windows stranglehold and saved programmers untold years' worth of duplicated work time.

Joy also co-designed the microprocessors that allow Sun to stay independent of Intel chips.

And Jini, which Joy outlined on a place mat in an Aspen restaurant two years ago, is a technology designed to allow home electronics to communicate with one another. A digital camera, for example, will automatically upload images to a printer that would then output pictures without a single button being pressed.

The first products to incorporate Jini are expected to be announced next month. Joy, meanwhile, has already moved on to another undisclosed software project.

While raw intelligence and Sun's Fortune 500 power are important, Joy's secret weapon may be that he has not lost his capacity for outrage at computers that crash for no reason. After the iMac incident, Joy gave his father the e-mail address of Apple Computer interim Chief Executive Steve Jobs and told him to gripe away.

Joy's empathy for everyday people--for those without his multiple T-1 high-speed Internet lines--might be enhanced by his refusal to live like the stereotypical no-life Silicon Valley engineer.

Overwhelmed by the endless traffic jams in the valley and the endless meetings at Sun, Joy decided 10 years ago to move to someplace fun, where he could think in peace.

He methodically researched Western ski towns with low precipitation, small populations and good bookstores. He chose Aspen. Here he opened a two-story, unmarked office dubbed Aspen Smallworks.

"Bill can live anywhere he wants," said Sun CEO Scott McNealy.

Voracious Reader at Tender Age of 3

A tousle-haired Shakespeare fanatic who consumes as many as a dozen books on an extreme range of topics daily, Joy still browses in the local bookstore, even after becoming Amazon.com's second-largest individual customer.

His voracious reading habit began at age 3. A math prodigy as well, Joy skipped grades, graduating from high school in Farmington, Mich., at 15. He fell in love with computers at the University of Michigan, where he picked up a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering in 1975.

At UC Berkeley, Joy came to prominence as a graduate student, leading a team that rewrote Unix, an operating system for large computers developed at AT&T.

"He used to stay up all night writing code," said Eric Schmidt, a friend from graduate school who is now chief executive of Novell. "The rest of us wrote a little, but he basically wrote all of it. He wrote millions of lines."

Berkeley Unix, as Joy's version was known, became the most popular of the rapidly fragmenting family of computer languages.

It also gave Joy a reputation. In 1982, hardware engineer Andy Bechtolsheim, Stanford MBA McNealy and engineer/entrepreneur Vinod Khosla sought Joy out and made him the fourth founder of Sun.

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