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Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell on the future of software (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: The man who also created Pong and Chuck E. Cheese is now a tech philosopher. He talks with CNET about his return to Atari and his vision for 10 great areas of software development.

Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell has rejoined the struggling video game company's board, and has been speaking about his vision of the future of software.
Courtesy of Nolan Bushnell

Whether you know him by name, you almost certainly have firsthand experience with some of Nolan Bushnell's work. He's known by many as the father of video games, since he created Pong and co-founded Atari. And he may have played a role in one of your birthdays because he started the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain.

Without question, Bushnell left an indelible mark on the 1970s and 1980s.

But in later years he wasn't finished as an entrepreneur, though his more recent accomplishments haven't risen to the level of his earlier career. In 2005, he launched a new restaurant venture, known as uWink Media Bistro, which aimed to lure adults with good food and tabletop video gaming.

That enterprise is still limping along, though its future isn't so bright. And he's no longer involved in some of his other recent ventures, such as casual game advertising business NeoEdge.

But Bushnell is hardly finished. He recently rejoined the board of directors of Atari, which has gone through years of deep struggles, and likely exists today only because of its valuable brand name. Bushnell said he thinks that the company's existing intellectual property, as well as new, experienced, management has put it on a path to new success.

And this week, he spoke at the Oredev conference in Malmo, Sweden, sharing his vision of the future of software and focusing on 10 areas that he thinks will shape the world of technology and culture in general: auto-cars, personal robots, health, bio implants, identity, government, swarm computing, augmented education, augmented reality, and power net.

Yesterday, Bushnell sat down for a 45 Minutes on IM interview with CNET, sharing his view of that software future, as well as commenting on watching what he termed the "drug addiction and jail" years that the punch-drunk Atari has gone through.

Q: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. I understand that you've recently rejoined the Atari board of directors.
Bushnell: I have been on the board for about 4 months

Why did you want to get involved with them again?
Bushnell: There will always be a soft spot in my heart for my old company and I think that though it has been terribly abused in the last 20-plus years it still has a lot of great intellectual property, and I think it has a potential to become a significant player again.

I'm sure you're hopeful that you can help turn things around there. But what's it been like to watch Atari struggle through so many twists and turns over the years? It seems like it might be like watching a successful child go on to have a very tough life.
Bushnell: Drug addiction and jail are the metaphors that come to mind. But, today, the company has a great management team that is quite new and which is doing many of the right things in my opinion. Jeff Lapin as CEO is excellent and Jim Wilson as president bring great knowledge of the markets, and Thom Kosik running online makes it a killer team. They would create magic even without the deep library of historical and good IP.

It's interesting you mentioned drug addiction and jail. I was going to ask if this latest iteration was like rehab, but decided it might be too off-color. I guess not.
Bushnell: I will usually push a topic too far. The test is, are the games fun? I have seen some updates of games like Asteroids and Lunar Lander that are terrific.

What's it going to take for Atari to once again be a major and respected brand name?
Bushnell: The most important thing in the games industry is innovation. We are pushing the envelope in several games that will be out next year but at the same time we have this great legacy of great games that we want to update and satisfy our fans with.

I definitely want to talk about your speech in Sweden, but I want to cover a couple other things first. Foremost in my mind is, I'd love to know what it was like to help run an amusement park, which I understand you did when you were 19. That sounds like a lot of fun.
Bushnell: It was actually a real nightmare. But fun also. When things were going well, it was summer nights in Utah and cute girls and youth. The business was like many, very rough and tumble. It was my MBA in some ways because we had in summer a $3 million business.

I also wanted to ask about the game of Go. I understand you're a tournament-level player. How did you become expert at Go, and what does the game mean to you?
Bushnell: I learned Go in college from a chess-playing buddy from Korea, and continued playing at the Go club in San Francisco throughout the 1970s. Go was actually responsible for getting me on the Internet in the 1980s when I had a bootleg account from Stanford. That was before the browser, when you were on bare Unix.

And what do you get out of the game? What does it mean to you? Or is that trying to attribute too much meaning to it?
Bushnell: It is a game of patience and influence. I think as a strategy game it is the best. Its strategy helps a player that is weaker take out a much stronger opponent, which Atari had to do with a big manufacturer in Chicago in the early coin-op arcade business.

The biggest thing for the near future is auto-cars, which will change everything...The costs are there right now. The Google car actually was cost-effective. Think of no traffic congestion, highways that can hold 30 times as much traffic. Half the energy costs. It just goes on and on. The only issue is how powerful will be the Luddites.

You're the second person I've interviewed in this series who's been a high-level Go player. So I have to ask you the same question I asked him: You remind me of the main character in Trevanian's novel "Shibumi." So, you haven't also lived in the Basque region of Spain and been a world-class adventurer and assassin, have you?
Bushnell: Not yet.

Let's talk about your Sweden speech. First, how did you decide to give a talk on your vision for the future of software?
Bushnell: I have been speaking on the future for about 20 years and have gotten pretty good at it. The thing about trends is that if you watch them and matrix it with the economics it is possible to be pretty accurate. For example I was the only one of the game guys in the U.S. to predict the success of the Nintendo Wii.

What led you to focus on the 10 specific areas of software?
Bushnell: The 10 was an arbitrary number. My original list was 16 but there were some that could be folded. Some things that I am passionate about will take more time and are as much a chemistry and manufacturing problem as software. But the biggest thing for the near future is auto-cars, which will change everything.

Tell me about that. Why do you think they'll change everything, and how so?
Bushnell: It'll be within five years, somewhere. The costs are there right now. The Google car actually was cost-effective. Think of no traffic congestion, highways that can hold 30 times as much traffic. Half the energy costs. It just goes on and on. The only issue is how powerful will be the Luddites.

What do you imagine would be the chief objection of the Luddites?
Bushnell: The Schumpeterian creative destruction of entrenched interests. For example. every Teamster, cab driver, UPS driver, all these drivers will need to be retrained. Insurance will drop to a fraction of what it costs now. People don't understand how horrible the average driver is. The number of body shops will be 20 percent of today. It'll be disruptive, and they will not go away without a fight. Of course, bars will do a great business because drunk driving will be OK.

Do you expect to play a role in the development of the auto-cars industry?
Bushnell: It is not my field, though I can see it. I have too many projects and I actually like my life as a pundit. But when cars start to resemble a drawing room I will create some games for them.

How do you mean, "resemble a drawing room?"
Bushnell: The first phase will be to keep the seat belts and seats facing forward. After a while the passenger compartment will become a more communal experience, with a table, a desk, a video screen, etc. Think about being dropped off at a restaurant and the car parking itself a mile away for $3. In San Francisco, as I remember, it's currently over $20 for parking.

That sounds pretty good.
Bushnell: It will be.

After auto-cars, what do you think is the second-most likely area of your 10 to change society?
Bushnell: The next three will happen at the same time. One is the elimination of credentials. People are not their credit cards or passports and those are subject to fraud that is costing us billions of dollars. The physical metrics are better and cheaper and will be deployed. You will walk into a restaurant and pay by looking into a camera or by using your thumbprint. No identity thief will be able to do that. You can access all your accounts and board a plane naked.

Another will be the cloud containing all our medical information with layers of security. This will help solve the genome problem by sharing your DNA and medical condition but with identity stripped off.

Another is personal robotics. It's a passion of mine and is now doable. All the obstacles I faced in the 1980s have been solved. It will be huge.

Lastly, government downsizing will be a big software opportunity. As more states hit the wall, their only hope will be to build in new efficiencies. California, for instance, is on the far side of the tax elasticity curve. Higher taxes lead to more jobs leaving the state, and less revenue. About half the states are going to decrease workers and still provide services.

We're almost out of time, so just a couple more questions. First, how would you summarize the message of your speech about the future of software?
Bushnell: The future is really terrific and software is a big part of it. I just wish our schools would produce more quality coders so that it could happen faster. I am very optimistic we are really at a tipping point of some great stuff.

Last question. IM is a great way to do an interview, because it allows everyone to be a little more thoughtful, and a little more articulate, than they might be in a regular interview. But it also allows multitasking. So tell me, what else were you doing while we were chatting?
Bushnell: I was listening to a really great Pink Floyd album, "The Dark Side of the Moon." I know it is very retro now but I really love it.

I love that album, too. Well, thank you so much for taking the time for this. I really appreciate it.