Sun at 25: Where are the founders now?

InfoWorld catches up with some key figures from the first 25 years of Sun Microsystems

Sun Microsystems is still around. But what about the four men who gave it life? InfoWorld went on the hunt for Sun's founding fathers: Andy Bechtolsheim, Vinod Khosla, Bill Joy, and Scott McNealy. Here's what we found.

[See also a Slideshow: "25 years of Sun" | PDF: "Timeline of Sun's achievements"]

Andy Bechtolsheim: An eye for innovation, and the bottom line
Working at Xerox Park in Palo Alto as a summer student, Andy Bechtolsheim saw something in Xerox's Alto network workstation that Xerox itself couldn't: the possibilities of what such a machine could do with a high resolution display, a mouse, and a GUI.

"The strange thing was [Xerox] never really productized it," Bechtolsheim says of the Alto, which inspired the creation of Apple's Lisa personal compute, as well as a machine that Bechtolsheim would build and dub the Stanford University Network -- or SUN -- workstation.

Besides the convenience of a graphical interface, just not having to wait in a time share system for a few cycles was a "beautiful thing," Bechtolsheim recalls of the Alto and the later SUN workstation, which he envisioned as a tool primarily for CAD/CAM users.

After Bechtolsheim's SUN workstation gave birth to Sun Microsystems, Bechtolsheim says he took a great deal of pride in the fact that his Sparc Workstation 1 and 2 drove half the revenue of the company for almost its first 10 years.

As it turned out, spotting technology that has the potential to generate lots of revenue is something Bechtolsheim has a talent for. After leaving Sun in 1995, disappointed over the company's refusal to jump on the x86 bandwagon, Bechtolsheim found success with Granite Systems, a gigabit Ethernet switching company that Cisco acquired after a year. His next company, Kealia, was acquired by Sun in 2004, returning Bechtolsheim to the fold. Somewhere in between, Bechtolsheim also wrote a now legendary $100,000 check in 1998 to two more young Stanford grads -- Sergey Brin and Larry Page -- for what seemed like a promising idea: a search technology they called PageRank. 

What did he see in Google that few others did? "It was a complete no-brainer," Bechtolsheim answers. Using the Internet to find things, he was frustrated that he couldn’t find anything anymore, especially as companies started to game the system, as he calls it, by using key words to get a better placement.

When Bechtolsheim heard about Google's ability to do page ranking, he knew that would solve the problem. It is said his $100,000 investment is now worth half a billion.

Back at Sun after a long hiatus, Bechtolsheim says he's determined to put the company back on the track to the innovation and big profits that characterized its first 18 years. Whether or not he continues to have the Midas touch remains to be seen.

-- Ephraim Schwartz

Vinod Khosla: Scaling green tech
Next to outsize personalities such as Scott McNealy, Andy Bechtelsheim, and Bill Joy, Vinod Khosla might seem like the silent partner from Sun's early days. But he's anything but, and the years since he left Sun have thrust him ever more into the spotlight.

Khosla's stint with Sun was the shortest of the original founders. After helping establish the company with fellow grad students McNealy and Bechtolsheim in 1982, Khosla served briefly as CEO and then left the company in 1985 to join venture firm Kleiner Perkins. As a general partner at Kleiner Perkins and through his own Khosla Ventures, Khosla has thrown his chips into more than one Silicon Valley pot. He's scored big with companies such as Cerent and Juniper Networks, and fallen short with the likes of Excite@home.

In an e-mail exchange with InfoWorld, Khosla recalled the heart-stopping excitement of the early years at Sun as it struggled with financing obstacles, technical problems, and the threat of losing marquis customers likes such as CAD/CAM giant Computervision.

These days, Khosla tries to spend half his time on "traditional venture" and the other half on his new passion: green technology. Khosla was a strong backer of California's recent Proposition 87, which would have funded clean energy initiatives in the state. He's also a backer of research on ethanol to replace the United States' dependence on foreign oil. "My goal is to make green technologies cheaper than their fossil alternatives so they can scale beyond toys to actually making a big dent in fossil energy," Khosla wrote.

Beyond clean energy, Khosla and his venture capital firm fund a nonprofit trust that backs work in areas such as microfinance, education, health, and affordable housing.

As for the company he helped found 25 years ago? "Sun has plenty of strategies through which it could emerge as a powerhouse again," Khosla said.

-- Paul Roberts

Bill Joy: Thinking big about the future
Bill Joy had earned his spot in the computer hall of fame even before he helped found Sun in 1982. While working as a graduate student at UC Berkeley in the late 1970s, Joy is credited with creating and disseminating the first Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) of the Unix operating system, and adding the TCP/IP stack to Unix, an act which earned him the sobriquet "father of the Internet."

After helping to found Sun Microsystems in 1982, Bill Joy remained with the company until 2003, during which time he is credited with contributing to the creation of Java, Jini (aka Java Workspaces), and  Sun's network file system (NFS). Joy even played a key role in designing the architecture for Sun's Sparc processors and the Solaris operating system.

Since leaving Sun in 2003, Joy has focused his energies on the venture capital space, forming HighBar Ventures before joining Kleiner Perkins in 2005.

While most of Joy's creativity has been focused on creating a better infrastructure for computing systems, he has also of late broadened those interests. In 2006 Joy helped start a multi-million dollar fund to design a more holistic approach to defend against biological viruses. 

And for a man who it is said never even owned a rowboat, Joy is now building, according to Money Magazine, a $50 million high tech "green" yacht. The 190-foot wind-powered ship, the Ethereal, will be as green as Joy and his design team can make it, using among other things light-emitting diodes instead of incandescent light bulbs, a lithium-ion battery system to control fluctuations in electrical current, and propellers powered by diesel and electric motors in case the wind is out of the sails.

-- Ephraim Schwartz

Scott McNealy: Opening sourcing education
For 25 years, the words coming out of Scott McNealy's mouth have been the best compass for ascertaining the direction in which Sun Microsystems was headed at any given moment. From pronouncements such as 1999's "software will all go free" to his screeds against Microsoft, McNealy has seldom hesitated to provide color commentary on the tech industry and on Sun's ever-evolving strategy. And, in many ways, the company's tenacity and predilection toward reinvention has been a reflection of McNealy's own personality as much as anything else.

McNealy helped found Sun in 1982 as vice president of operations and later became CEO, completing a transformation from UAW shop foreman to Silicon Valley entrepreneur that was set in motion as a student at Harvard. It was a job he would stay in for 22 years before handing company reins to Jonathan Schwartz in April of 2006.

These days, McNealy stays busy as Sun's Chairman and chief booster. He's also pouring his energies into Curriki, a nonprofit he spun off from Sun in January that provides free, Web-based curricula and resources to teachers, students, and parents.

-- Jason Snyder

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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