Eric Johnson

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Q&A: Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell on Innovation, the “Next Steve Jobs” and Why Mobile Games Are “Over”

FTNSJ_Cover_v31_130#1330ED1If you live in Silicon Valley or any other tech-savvy area, there is one question you may have heard a lot in the past year and a half: Who is the “next Steve Jobs?”

Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, who once employed Jobs shortly before he and Steve Wozniak started Apple, doesn’t have any specific names to answer that question. But what he does have is a new book, out today, to aid in the search: “Finding the Next Steve Jobs — How to Find, Hire, Keep and Nurture Creative Talent.”

And Bushnell should know about the importance of recognizing that talent — during Atari’s heyday, he turned down the opportunity to own one-third of Jobs’s and Wozniak’s nascent company. By 1980, he writes in the book, “I was beginning to think it might turn out to be a mistake.”

“Finding the Next Steve Jobs” is being released by Net Minds, a print/e-book hybrid publishing startup led by former Yahoo exec Tim Sanders. Bushnell said it uses Jobs as a metaphor for the creative iconoclasts who clash with corporate culture and can’t get hired. He sat down with AllThingsD to explain further.

AllThingsD: Just how close were you to Steve after his brief involvement with Atari?

Nolan Bushnell: We’d talk on the phone infrequently, but he’d come up to [my house in] Woodside about once a month, usually on a Saturday or Sunday morning, and we’d go up on the hill and talk. Occasionally, I’d go down to his place, but a lot of the time it was him coming up to my place.

Why are we even looking for the “next Steve Jobs?”

Steve took a failing computer company — and they probably would have never brought him back if they weren’t at the end of their rope — and turned it into the highest-market-cap company in the world. People were always aware that innovative solutions are good for your company. I think this just underscored it in a really powerful way. It wasn’t just through cutting costs or innovative marketing. Though Steve was a pretty good marketer.

But that was when he returned to Apple in 1997. Most of the time when people talk about the “next Steve Jobs,” they’re using that phrase to refer to entrepreneurs who are still early on in their careers. So, are those people really that hard up for work?

I believe there are Steve Jobses all around us. Really, what is happening is that they’re being edited out of importance. Right now, Google is doing some great things, but Hewlett-Packard is trying to commit suicide. Every company needs to have a skunkworks, to try things that have a high probability of failing. You try to minimize failure, but at the same time, if you’re not willing to try things that are inherently risky, you’re not going to make progress.

Nolan JPG 1 High ResSpeaking of progress, what’s the most exciting thing for you in videogames?

I think the next big game opportunity is Google Glasses [sic]. If I told you all my ideas for it, I’d have to kill you. And the Oculus Rift. The game business reinvents itself every five years. The last five years have been the days of mobile gaming and shortform gaming, exemplified by Rovio with Angry Birds and Zynga with FarmVille. And that is over.

(Nolan’s daughter and PR agent, Alissa Bushnell, quickly jumped in at this point, asking him to clarify what he meant by “over.”)

Most games, by their nature, have a half-life of two years or less. It’s the outlier that has a half-life that’s longer than that. But that doesn’t mean that the marketplace is synchronized. So you have the early adopters coming into something, and they soon encourage the more timid to come in. It broadens the group. But players’ engagement is not lengthened.

But smartphones and tablets continue to be hugely popular, so how are their games “over”?

All the money’s out. Do I really want to do a mobile game that’s one of 300,000, where discoverability is everything? You really have to have a little more sizzle on the steak. I would rather be one of 100 apps for Google Glass than one of 300,000 for iOS and Android.

Does the potential for a new, game-changing entrepreneur exist independently of how these different companies or industries are changing?

I really believe that the future is happening whether we want it or not. The companies that force the future to happen faster will succeed in the next 20 years, and the ones that are stuck in today will lose market share. People say, “I want to be around in 20 years.” I say, “I have no idea. But if you’re not doing 10 different things, if you don’t have four skunkworks, then you’re not going to find the next thing.”

(Clarification: an earlier version of this story said Bushnell employed both Jobs and Wozniak. Although Wozniak was involved with and paid for his work on Atari’s game “Breakout,” he was paid by Jobs rather than Bushnell’s company).

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle