Bill Joy Returns to ‘Sea Level’

The Sun executive who helped create BSD , co-founded Sun Microsystems and spearheaded Java has a new job: partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB).

KPCB announced Tuesday that Bill Joy has been named a partner. Hebegan working at the venture firm, located on Menlo Park’s fabled Sand Hill Road, about two weeks ago.

Before co-founding Sun in 1983, Joy designed and wrote the Berkeley version of the Unix (BSD) operating system, which became the backbone of the Internet and led to other open source operating systems.

As chief scientist for Sun, he led the company’s technical strategy and was a key designer of Solaris, SPARC, chip architectures and pipelines, as well as Java, the device-agnostic executable software.

He maintained his job as chief thinker for Sun, while moving to Aspen, Colorado, in 1991. In Aspen, he maintained a Sun “skunk works” that was responsible for the creation of Java, as well as building what was likely the first public Wi-Fi network in the mountain town. After participating in programs at the Aspen Institute, a non-partisan public policy think tank, he joined its board of trustees in 2004.

Joy officially left Sun in September, 2003, with Greg Papadopoulos taking over as CTO.

“Bill Joy returns to sea level,” said Mark Stahlman, senior vice president of investment bank Caris & Company, and who has covered Sun for years. “It was inevitable that Bill would do this. His distancing himself from Silicon Valley in the 1990s and then further distancing himself from technology as we got into the crash was his reaction against the insanity of the bubble.”

Founded in 1972, KPCB was one of the most prominent venture firms in the dot-com era, backing Netscape, AOL, Compaq, Sun , Google and VeriSign .

Joy has worked with KPCB for years, bringing them investment opportunities, and he invested his own money as a limited partner in approximately two thirds of KPCB’s funds. The firm’s most recent fund, the $400 Million KPCB XI Fund, closed in February 2004. Vinod Khosla, another Sun co-founder, joined the firm in 1986.

At KPCB, Joy plans to help entrepreneurs working on iterations of the Web, including the Internet, wireless communications and super computing, while taking an interest in discoveries and inventions that solve energy and resource problems.

He said he sees six parallel Webs: the familiar one accessed on a PC; the one wirelessly accessed via mobile devices; one to deliver interactive entertainment content; a version accessed by voice commands; the e-commerce infrastructure; and the “Device Web” that enables machine-to-machine communications.

Joy talked to on the phone about his new job description.

Q: Are you ambivalent about leaving the mountains and getting back into the race?

I’m incredibly excited about this place. The entrepreneurs and the quality of ideas I’ve seen in my first two weeks are incredible, far in excess of what I would have expected.

Q: Why did you leave the Bay Area in the first place?

I had worked for almost a decade at Sun. You get very short-term, focused on products that were successful in the short term. I wanted to look at longer-term things. Java came out of that. Putting up a wireless network in Aspen in the mid 1990s, that net led us to thinking about putting Java in phones. For example, the [RIM] BlackBerry is a Java device. The notion of creating a next-generation platform was key to Sun’s business strategy, and came out of the skunk works, as did the next generation of hardware they’re working on now.

Q: Sun is developing new hardware?

I can’t talk about it. But it’s a more mainstream, meat-and-potatoes product for them.

Q: Sun is a company full of smart people who always seem to be full of interesting ideas. Why hasn’t it done better as a company?

Microsoft preyed on them. It’s hard when somebody has an infinite amount of money and is breaking the law and decides to attack you. That it got settled for a huge amount of money, that wasn’t by accident.

The story is not completely written on that company. Apple went through some tough times, too. Sun is trailing behind Apple in reinventing themselves. Where they might be in two or three years? The future is not knowable, but they’re doing some smart things.

Q: You’ve been portrayed in the media as something of a technology nay-sayer, thanks to your comments in the Wired article, “The Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Is this image wrong?

I was pointing out that things like epidemics are dangerous. Technologies that can replicate themselves have to be managed carefully. More specifically, biotechnology, but also diseases. Viruses go back and forth and spit out new deadly strains. It’s a natural thing, but something you have to be concerned about. The climate in 2000 was that people weren’t paying specific attention to the problem. I had to actually define ‘weapons of mass destruction.’

After 9-11, people started paying attention. All the things I wrote about are true. Now, thousands of people have reported the story.

Q: Kleiner Perkins is accused of contributing to all the hype during the dot-com era. Are you afraid you’ll be part of a new round of inflated expectations?

People can always go loopy. I ran a large company for 20 years with Scott McNealy, and before that with Vinod. We’ve seen the up cycle and down cycle several times. Writing the check is the easy part. The hard part is you have to build the team, help the team through a long process, more like climbing a mountain, to create a durable enterprise out of an idea. Kleiner Perkins and the partners bring a lot of perspective to this. They’re on the eleventh fund right now, and it invested in Sun a long time ago.

I’m close to John Doerr [a KPCB managing partner], and he understands it. Look at the companies he’s built: Lotus, Compaq, Sun, Netscape. These are all great companies and real businesses.

Q: It sounds like you plan to work on a huge variety of different technologies at Kleiner Perkins.

Energy is a new thing. Almost all the other things I’ve done in my career over the last 25 years — operating systems and chips and networking — all those things I’ve already done. And the other partners also know a lot about these things. I’m more of a generalist.

I’m not going to specialize in, say, wireless networking investments or something. At Sun we did the whole thing — manufacturing, public speaking, sales. When you start from nothing and only have four people, you do what you need to do.

Q: Can you mention any companies you’ll be working with?

No. There’s one I’ve started working with, but it’s in stealth mode. Other than that, I’m not assigned to any companies yet; I’m still getting up to speed. I moved into my office a couple weeks ago, now I’m learning the calendaring system they use. And I still haven’t learned how to make coffee.

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