Eric Johnson

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EA Founder Trip Hawkins Teases New Education Startup, Predicts Intense Disruption in Living Room

hawkinsElectronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins first announced his new educational-games startup in January, but last night at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., he laid out some new details, and said he expects the company’s first game to launch before the end of November.

Hawkins took part in a Q&A at the museum as part of its “Game Changers” series. His interviewer, John Markoff of the New York Times, devoted most of the event to the entrepreneur’s personal history at Apple, which he left in 1982 to found EA, and then his successive ventures in console and mobile gaming at 3DO and Digital Chocolate.

Eventually, though, Markoff got Hawkins talking about the new company, If (or, If You Can, which is its official name, due to California trademark law), which will develop educational games for mobile devices. That sounds a bit familiar, but maybe there’s a good reason. While educational games have been around for decades (remember Mavis Beacon?), “the technology is [now] right and the customers are interested,” Hawkins said.

if you canEarlier attempts at edugaming flopped for a variety of reasons, he explained: The hardware wasn’t sophisticated enough to produce things like natural-sounding character voices; games weren’t aligned with school curricula; and schools weren’t shopping, but women were. Those women, he said, bought only educational items that they thought were of practical use, and “let the guys deal with” TVs and computers, which were purportedly best for goofing off.

He credited Apple with changing attitudes toward computers by getting those same women shoppers hooked on the iPod, and then the iPhone and iPad. If You Can will launch initially on the iPad only, and will expand to other devices sometime next year. Its games will be marketed to the home-education market rather than to schools, at least at first.

“If your first move is to try and sell something at scale to schools, you will fail,” Hawkins said.

The notion behind the startup is that didactic teaching “just doesn’t work anymore when everyone has a mobile device and mobile connection.” Hawkins believes he can leverage the attention-grabbing and user-immersing tricks of game design to get 6-to-12-year-olds hooked on apps that deliver curriculum-matching lessons in more personal ways.

A few other quotes and highlights from the Q&A:

  • On breaking into the industry via Apple: “I didn’t think of myself as a creative person until Steve Jobs told me I was creative.” He characterized himself as a “rival” to the Apple co-founder. After one disagreement between the two men, Jobs asked, “Hey, Trip, have you ever taken LSD?” Hawkins replied, “No,” and Jobs said, “I thought so.”
  • Digital Chocolate, which Hawkins founded in 2003 and exited last year, clashed with telecom companies that purportedly didn’t understand the idea of apps or using mobile phones as Internet-connected social tools. “I actually pitched them on a social farming app in 2004,” he said of the big mobile operators. “They laughed us out of the room.”
  • “The most popular game in the world is figuring out how not to spend money,” Hawkins quipped, after Markoff expressed frustration with in-app purchases in mobile games.
  • Expecting a “really interesting battle” for the living room within the next 10 years, he predicted that “the open Internet is going to win … Apple is going to continue to be the best in the world with design for usability,” but they don’t have the upper hand, and are not even one of the Top 5 contenders to take over the living room, he said.
  • On the topic of the transition for companies like EA away from retail and consoles and toward digital stores and mobile devices, Hawkins intimated that traditional gaming consoles may one day be purely niche devices. “Some people want to learn how to fly an airplane,” he said. “The rest of us just want to be passengers.”

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus