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Bill Joy on Reinventing Silicon Valley -- Again

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Bill Joy is a fix-it kind of guy. He improved UNIX to make it more stable because, as an admin, he got tired of driving to the computer lab to reboot the machines. He helped James Gosling perfect Java. Now, he wants to fix the Silicon Valley economy by pushing it toward renewable energy.

In an onstage discussion with journalist Brent Schlender, Joy outlined his vision of how the talent pool and manufacturing infrastructure that brought the world the PC and the Internet can help solve the world's energy problems -- problems the tech industry has contributed to with dirty manufacturing and energy-slurping data centers. The Wednesday night event was sponsored by the Churchill Club, a business and technology forum.

Cynics might say there's a sense of staleness in the Valley, with every Internet company using the same boring business model of delivering pay-per-click ads, but Joy says the local semiconductor industry has a vital role to play in renewable energy.

"There are direct applications to the green revolution of what we've learned to do in Silicon Valley," he said. Moreover, the skills its entrepreneurs and programmers have could be easily translated.

Early in his career, Joy was one of the main authors of the Berkeley version of the Unix (BSD) operating system, which was a key component behind the creation of the backbone of the Internet and led to other open source operating systems.

"In the 1980s, the tech literature said that TCP/IP wouldn't work, that Ethernet wouldn't work -- they weren't the right technical underpinnings for the Internet," Joy said. "What was wrong weren't the protocols, but the implementation of the software."

Suddenly the Internet had protocols that really worked. Joy calls this the "It works" option. But it takes at least 10 times as much effort to get software to really work than it does to get it to sort of work, Joy said.

Sun and the green revolution

Co-founding Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ: JAVA) in 1983, he played a key role in the design of Solaris, SPARC and Java, as well as revamping chip architectures to make them more efficient. He left Sun in 2003, but two years later, he missed the Valley's high-powered culture. In 2005, Joy became a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and began looking into technology that could solve energy and resource problems.

Asked what role Sun should play in the green revolution, Joy said he no longer followed the company, but it should continue its work on more efficient microprocessors. "Sun had some good research on building data centers that are much more energy-efficient, and some things I was working on still haven't shipped," he said. "I hope they take advantage of some of that technology to reduce the energy usage of some of these cloud computing centers."

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