Talking tech with Bill Joy

Famed technologist-turned-venture-capitalist says tech industry innovation is moving beyond Moore's Law.

Dawn Kawamoto Former Staff writer, CNET News
Dawn Kawamoto covered enterprise security and financial news relating to technology for CNET News.
Dawn Kawamoto
7 min read
When Bill Joy joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers as a partner earlier this year, it sounded at first blush like an odd coupling.

Here you had Kleiner Perkins, perhaps Silicon Valley's premier venture capital firm, accepting into its midst a guy painted in some corners as the fifth horseman of the apocalypse.

But that would be a misreading of the famed developer, as well as of his provocative essay published five years ago in Wired magazine.

Joy caused a stir when he questioned the ethical aspects of pursuing research in emerging fields, like genetic engineering, where biology

I think sobriety has returned, and it's a good thing.
intersects with technology. But he approached the issue from the perspective of a veteran technologist--one with a long list of accomplishments.

As a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Joy created what became a popular variant of the Unix operating system. He later co-founded Sun Microsystems, where he led the development of the company's Solaris operating system as well as its UltraSparc processor.

Technically speaking, this isn't Joy's first go-around with venture capitalism. After leaving Sun in 2003, he formed a VC partnership with fellow Sun alumni Andreas Bechtolsheim (who has since rejoined Sun) and Roy Sardina to found HighBar Ventures. That company's one great claim to fame was e-mail security company BrightMail, which got sold last year to Symantec for $475 million.

CNET News.com recently spoke to Joy about the use of technology in industrial societies and about venture capital prospects in the tech business.

Q: Since your Wired piece in 2000, have you come to any firm conclusion about whether technology is going to wind up as a force for good or evil in the 21st century?
Joy: It certainly seemed to have heightened an awareness of terrorism and also heightened the awareness of the possibility of the abuse of technology. Technology can also be a force for incredible good. We face a lot of problems that we'd like to address with technology, such as the threat of the flu endemic.

What is your biggest concern about the way technology is being used by industrial societies?
Joy: I think there has to be a balance between the profit motive, which drives a lot of creativity and ethical behavior, and the responsibility to manage things, which can be abused. That balance is usually through the laws and regulations in the scientific societies, and it's important to emphasize that that balance needs to be maintained.

Since the terrorist attacks four years ago, people have become more aware of these dangers, and so there has been progress in the way people are thinking about these things.

Do you think Silicon Valley should factor more considerations into the equation before they come up with new technologies?
Joy: It's not the case that any one person can deal with the consequences of what they're doing necessarily when they're doing it. It has to come from a collective responsibility. For example, in biology, where a lot of new powerful techniques are being created, it's very important that everybody pays attention to the work in their field and comment on different things in their field--not just their own work.

Do you think there should be limitations on what technology gets sold? Some nations, like China and Saudi Arabia, have made use of advanced routing technologies to limit what their people can see on the Internet.
Joy: In general, technology is a very powerful force for openness and change. Any such rearguard attempts to limit what people can read will ultimately fail.

Where is the industry in terms of the technology creation cycle?
Joy: There's a lot of creativity out there right now. There were a number of years where PCs were the thing, and then networking was the thing, and then the Web was the thing, and so on. But now there are really many different themes...there's a raft of different innovation going on in different areas. You can't pin it down like you could in the latter part of the '90s.

What do you think accounts for the change?
Joy: It's just a change because of where the scientific and technical progress is right now. It's moved past just being about Moore's Law.

But there are so many different places it could be. Science and technology are advancing in ways in which surprises are going to occur. You know, when they cloned the sheep Dolly, everyone was surprised. Everyone knew about cloning as a possibility, but no one thought it would actually happen.

There are a lot of things which sound like "Star Trek" or science fiction, and some of them will actually happen. That's the stuff that's really surprising--not that someone could think of it, but that someone

could actually do it. I think we're going to see a number of those in the next few years, because we're just at that point in the cycle. Just as radio or electricity or cars were all surprising, so these will be surprises of an equal size.

And what do you think it will take to make those kinds of things a reality rather than a general theory or concept?
Joy: Well, I don't know. Just think of a "Star Trek" DVD at the store, and you'll see all sorts of stuff on there that we don't have. Which of those will occur? That's not really possible to say.

I'm not saying we are going to have time travel (I am not sure it is that useful anyway), but I think, especially in the area of medicine, we will see some spectacular cures for diseases we didn't think would ever get cured.

You recognized the browser would be a hot area back in the early 1990s. Do you find your talent is in picking hot investment categories, but that you have more trouble identifying a specific company worth investing in from that category?
Joy: I think I have an idea of certain things that are likely to happen, but you can't say when they will happen. For example, the idea of a Web had been implemented in different systems 20 years before Tim

There are a lot of things which sound like "Star Trek" or science fiction, and some of them will actually happen.
Berners-Lee did the Web as we know it. So you knew something was likely to happen, but you didn't know when or exactly what the details would be.

What allowed it to happen was an environmental change. All of a sudden, a lot of computers were interconnected at a decent speed in an ecosystem that had been created by the existence of those networks. Then this idea, which had been around for a long time but had never been fully flushed out, certainly became possible.

In the same way, our ability in science to design new materials into biology--and simulate that inside of computers and understand what's going on at the atomic scale--allows us to engineer new materials and create new drugs, and do all sorts of things that we couldn't do before. So that tells you that certain things which have been roughly science fiction are now going to be possible.

Exactly when they're possible--well, there's a kind of a frontier. So if you have a general perspective on where we are, you can make some predictions about what kinds of things you should be expecting.

Why did you decide to go into venture capital?
Joy: At Sun, I enjoyed working with entrepreneurs and people with a passion for doing something new. As a partner at Kleiner, I get to see the best entrepreneurs come through the door and help them to realize their dreams.

Are there certain investment areas you're going to be focusing on?
Joy: I'm interested in energy...It's great that it's so socially relevant, but it's also an area of huge opportunity to create new more efficient forms of energy and apply that to the economy. There are a lot of factors coming together which likely will make this a very big area for change in the economy in the next 10 to 20 years.

Are you better at identifying technology trends or picking the winners among those trends?
Joy: In reality, what happens is there's some large number of opportunities that come by every year. Some are unsolicited, others are because of relationships that you have?Each of us has a different way of looking at these things. I probably have a more technical approach to looking at them than most.

In terms of your strengths, are you better at seeing something in terms of when it might start to happen, or are you better at recognizing a technology because it holds broader promise?
Joy: It's a balance. But that's why we have a team approach at KPCB. Sometimes, something may come to me, and I may be lukewarm on it. But I can send an e-mail off to a couple of the partners.

One really important thing is to be very organized and manage your time well, because it's really about relationships between people and companies, and helping people put things together. Fundamentally, it's about getting the teams to work well and building them. That's the hard part, but that's key.

At Sun, what was the most frequent way in which you come across companies that you might want to invest in?
Joy: Most of them came from just e-mail referrals from friends.

Looking back a few years, have you drawn any lessons? Did you think VCs were putting money in places that didn't make any sense?
Joy: Yeah, I thought it was overheated. I think sobriety has returned, and it's a good thing. The problem is when there's money being thrown around, and high valuations are paid, and the good ideas are competing with really bad ideas, and things are over-invested, nobody can make any money. That's not a healthy situation. It's healthy to eat a normal amount per day, but having twice as much doesn't make you healthier.

Do you think people are in danger of forgetting that history?
Joy: I'm not really worried about it. I mean, if it goes crazy, then you have to adjust your behavior. But at the moment, there seem to be an enormous number of interesting ventures to look at, and a lot of great and new companies are going to come out of this next class.