Tcl's inventor leaves Sun to form startup

John Ousterhout hopes to sell corporate America on scripting

By Cameron Laird and Kathryn Soraiz

February  1998
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San Francisco (February 6, 1998) -- John Ousterhout, creator of the Tcl language, has left Sun Microsystems to spin off a new privately-funded company called Scriptics Corporation. The Palo Alto, CA-based company will sell Tcl-based products and services to the corporate community, beginning with a Tcl development environment called TclPro.

Ousterhout, had worked as a distinguished engineer on Sun's SunScript project since being hired away from his position as a professor at the University of California at Berkeley in 1994.

While Ousterhout expects "a long transition period" of sorting out who does what with Tcl, it appears that Sun will continue to support development of Tcl as a technology, while Scriptics Corp. applies it for particular clients. We expect the development of the core Tcl technology to move to Scriptics over the next year; Sun will keep using Tcl, but more for applications than for core work.

Ousterhout invented Tcl (tool command language) in the 1980s. From an outsider's perspective, he had it all: he was funded; he had a great team assembled; and he set the tone and direction of Tcl as he wished with Sun's blessing. So why did he leave?

According to Ousterhout, his departure from Sun is not money motivated. Though investors certainly expect a return, it's apparent the business plan has an extended horizon -- Ousterhout's passion has more to do with hearts and minds than dollars. Scriptics is, according to Ousterhout, "the first company devoted exclusively to scripting tools, applications, and services." Ousterhout's aim is to demonstrate to corporate America how his "gluing provides five to 10 times greater productivity" than traditional system languages.

At the time Ousterhout was hired by Sun, Tcl was only one of several Internet-related initiatives within the company. Of those, one succeeded astronomically: Java. Now all of Sun's corporate attention goes to Java, pure and simple. The other groups are either appendages to Java or are narrow research-oriented projects. Ousterhout evidently wants more for his creation. He wants to show what Tcl can do in the real world.


First moves
Scriptics's only other employee to date is Vice President of Marketing and Sales Sarah Daniels -- a cofounder of Sunnyvale, CA's Penergy Inc. Others are expected to be signed on in the next few days. "Full fighting strength," as Ousterhout first targets it, will be five developers in a staff of ten. He should achieve that level during the next month or so.

The company's TclPro development environment, which is expected to become available around the end of 1998, will include a debugger, code checker, packaging tools, as well as various extensions.

Ousterhout has made his first task to work out relations with other actors in the Tcl world, including the Tcl Consortium, Sun's SunScript group, and other Tcl consultancies and extension writers.

Ousterhout says he has no immediate intention to own the resources, such as extensions, which are strategic for Scriptics. Instead, he says he'll find ways to work with developers.

Scriptics will depend on Tcl extensions written and maintained by others. For instance, a particular client's application might best be built with a particular extension (a graphical one, like BLT, or such administrative tools as Expect and Scotty) written by an outsider.

"One of the great things," Ousterhout says, "is the enormous and creative community" of Tcl developers and users spread throughout the world. His plan, therefore, is to leverage a lot of those resources.

Sound a bit unusual? Perhaps for traditional boardrooms. We're talking about a company founded on and devoted to a freeware product and its ideals. Everyone helps each other in this realm. So, as long as developers continue to maintain their existing extensions and write more in the future, Ousterhout's dream can become a reality.

Ousterhout says he left Sun on good terms: "The people at Sun Labs are wonderful," he says.

And Sun seems to have no ill will toward Ousterhout. Last night, the SunScript Web site had already posted a complimentary write-up on Scriptics's formation.

The mission of Scriptics overlaps with that of the Tcl Consortium in that both promotes the use of Tcl in the traditional corporate environment, and both, for example, have plans for a CD-ROM -- Ousterhout expects to "let the [Tcl] community decide" where the responsibility best lies. He is determined to minimize conflict within the community. The major difference between the Consortium and Scriptics is, of course, that the former is a non-profit company.

So while the mission of Scriptics and the Tcl Consortium overlap superficially, Ousterhout thinks there's room for both entities. The Consortium is likely to put out a low- or no-charge CD-ROM. Scriptics also contemplates a CD-ROM, but as part of a high-value package including other services and support. In any case, says Tcl's creator, "we expect to work closely with the Tcl Consortium to maximize the value to the community. We'll rely on the community for advice about how to divide responsibilities [between Scriptics and the Consortium]."

Web presence
Along with cooperative corporate relations, a second "keystone" of Scriptics's strategy is its Web presence. Scriptics already had an easily navigable site at in its first day of existence. Ousterhout plans to grow this into a "monster site" that collects and indexes the entire universe of information about Tcl. The position of Webmaster at Scriptics will, therefore, be a crucial one.

Questions and consequences
So what does this mean to everyone else who depends on Tcl? Ousterhout knows the concerns even before they're voiced: Will Tcl still be free? "Surely you can guess the answer to this one." (Tt is yes.) Does Sun have a financial stake in Scriptics? Sun has zero direct interest in his spin-off. Is he in competition with Sun? Not at all -- he's selling and servicing to specific accounts, and Sun is developing cutting-edge technology. What happens to the relation between Tcl and Java? "Everything we do will preserve Tcl's connections to Java...scripting with Tcl is great for Java projects." The anticipated product release of Jacl at JavaOne should continue on schedule.

The bottom line? Is Tcl's destiny brighter or dimmer than at the start of business yesterday morning? The one man who knows Tcl best is betting his career on its health and growth.


About the author
Cameron Laird and Kathryn Soraiz manage their own software consultancy, Network Engineered Solutions, from just outside Houston, Texas. They invite you to e-mail them for notice of upcoming articles. Reach Kathryn at Reach Cameron at

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