Even if you follow the doings of Apple, Amazon, and Google, you’ve probably never heard of General Magic. But it just might be one of the most important tech companies in the history of Silicon Valley. Why? General Magic was trying to create a smart handheld device that looks just like a modern smartphone, 15 years before the release of the iPhone.
A new eponymous documentary follows the founders and staff of General Magic, starting in 1990 when it was spun-off from Apple with a daring vision to completely remake telephones, and, in doing so, create the ultimate personal computer. The film is packed with footage of General Magic’s employees talking with shocking prescience about their technology. “We’re trying to make something people love,” says Megan Smith. “We need it to be like your watch, your glasses, your wallet.”
But by 1994, when the company finally managed to ship its smartphone, almost no one bought it. It was too early: The internet hadn’t even gone mainstream, and the company flopped. But its employees have gone on to become some of the most powerful and influential players in tech: co-inventor of the iPod and Nest founder Tony Fadell, Android founder Andy Rubin, Apple head of AI John Giannandrea, former CTO of the United States Megan Smith, and Joanna Hoffman, Steve Jobs’s right-hand woman.
The film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in February, and this week the production company Spellbound released its official trailer. It will have its Silicon Valley premiere later this month, with more than 150 former General Magic employees planning to attend.