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For Technology Wizard, Innovation Is Worth More Than the Cash It Generates Making It


He's called "the Edison of Silicon Valley" and "the Other Bill." In terms of innovations, he arguably trumps Microsoft's lord and master. So why do so few outside the business and tech worlds know Bill Joy's name?

For more than two decades, this co-founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems has quietly revolutionized the computer industry. Motivated not by billions of dollars or Time magazine covers, Joy has said many times that it's the journey--the innovations and challenges of his trade--that goads him on.

He first created a stir in the late 1970s when, as a UC Berkeley graduate student, he tweaked AT&T's Unix operating system so mightily that, for the first time in history, computers from different vendors could access and share files with one another.

It was a brilliant innovation--one that cost Joy countless sleepless nights and thousands of strings of computer code. It also was the forebear of the Internet.

Joy hadn't intended to become a computer science whiz. His career goals changed several times before he entered grad school.

Voted his Michigan high school's "Most Studious Student," Joy first aspired to be a mathematician.

But then he chose to major in electrical engineering while at the University of Michigan. By the time he entered UC Berkeley (after being pursued by Caltech and Stanford), he had changed his mind again: He would focus on theoretical computing.

It was Berkeley's allegedly inferior computer science facilities that pointed Joy on his future course as a technological shaman. What might have derailed other techies--or sent them scampering in protest to administrators--spurred Joy to solve more problems and fix more bugs than he'd ever have had the opportunity to do at the other two grad schools.

"I just ended up getting sucked into practical applications," Joy said. "At the time I showed up, it needed help. Sometimes things work like that."

Joy could have earned impressive bucks peddling his Berkeley Unix program to the burgeoning tech community. But generating innovation, not cash, was foremost on his mind.

He sold copies of his program for $50, about what it cost him to duplicate and ship the program, hoping that such "open sourcing"--sharing his work with other developers so they could improve upon it--would hasten the progress of computer science.

In 1982, Joy and three colleagues launched Sun Microsystems. Over the next few years, they churned out technical innovations, including their first workstation with TCP/IP (now known as an Internet protocol suite).

They developed the Network File System (NFS), which allowed computers to share files; in order to spark additional innovation, they charged NFS users no licensing fees. And then they brought network capabilities to the humble PC.

In just six years, Sun's revenue soared to $1 billion--a record for a Silicon Valley start-up that still holds.

Soon Joy made a fateful decision. He decided to sell most of his Sun stock for a reported $10 million. At the time, it seemed a kingly sum, but it paled against what Joy could have amassed.

One of Sun's co-founders, Chairman and Chief Executive Scott McNealy, who held onto his shares, is now a billionaire.

Unfazed, Joy continued his techno-wizardry. He designed circuitry for the microprocessors of Sun's workstations and servers.

He rescued a programming language called "Java" from obscurity by markedly improving on it and making it Internet-friendly. It's now the language of choice for 1.7 million developers.

He continued to advocate "open network computing" (the utilization of nonproprietary industry standards) and cross-platform technologies so that the computing experience would be improved for the masses, not just for Sun's clients.

By the early 1990s, Silicon Valley had grown as congested and noisy as the innards of an early workstation. Increasingly, Joy was bogged down with managerial minutiae. All this wasn't conducive to creating thinking, Joy concluded, so he packed up and moved 750 miles away to a mountainside overlooking Aspen, Colo.

It was a gamble, one that few other top officers of Fortune 500 companies would take. Could Joy maintain his position at Sun so far away from the action? The answer, nearly a decade later, has been yes.

Today, Joy is at a sort of crossroads. This man who has spurred technological progress for nearly 25 years, who has magnanimously shared innovations, now finds himself urging that technical developments be slowed, monitored and restricted.

Joy has peered into the future and finds it dangerous. He has studied technologies such as robotics, genetic engineering and nanotechnology (the development of microscopic particles with supercomputer-like intelligence) and believes that if they are misused, they will cause catastrophe on a scale hitherto unknown to humankind.

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