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“General Magic” captures the legendary Apple offshoot that foresaw the mobile revolution

A new documentary about the small company that was decades ahead of its time holds lessons for every entrepreneur.

“General Magic” captures the legendary Apple offshoot that foresaw the mobile revolution

The story of General Magic, a mobile computing company that grew out of Apple in 1990, is buried deep in Silicon Valley lore. At least it was, until some smart documentarians–Matt Maude, Sarah Kerruish, and Michael Sternunearthed it in a new documentary called General Magic.

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General Magic, the company, is remarkable, and worth remembering because back in the last decade of the 20th century its people were envisioning the major components of the mobile computing experience that we all know today.

Sony Magic Link [Photo: Blake Patterson/Wikimedia Commons]
The company’s founders–Marc Porat, Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson–foresaw not only the device (a sort of precursor to the PDA with an emphasis on communications) that would evolve into the smartphone, but also envisioned the services that would run through it and the user interface concepts and qualities (rich graphics, motion, iconography) that would be so important to the experience. Watch the documentary, then watch Steve Jobs 15 years later introducing the first iPhone—the parallels in language and ideas are impossible to miss.

The company’s product was an operating system called Magic Cap, which used a design motif in which the user navigated to different “rooms” to complete different tasks. The devices that would run that OS would be made by partners like Sony and Motorola, while other partners would provide the networks that connected the devices. The company was super-secretive (like Apple is now) and media and industry hype swirled around it. It held a big IPO before it even had a product on the market. It was the next big thing.

And it failed. People didn’t buy the devices. By 1997 the company’s original idea was, practically, dead (it officially shut down in 2002). The people involved at the time were devastated, but, as they say, sometimes failures yield more valuable lessons than successes. Entrepreneurs big and small–indeed, anybody who is making something–can learn something from General Magic.

So very Apple

So much of Apple’s current DNA shows up in General Magic–the company and the movie. The focus on the user, obsession with design, insistence on simplicity, and love of big ideas is already there, almost visibly buzzing in the people in the movie working feverishly away in the movie. They talked about products the way Apple people talk today. Check out this email from General Magic co-founder Marc Porat to then- Apple CEO John Sculley in 1990:

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“A tiny computer, a phone, a very personal object . . . It must be beautiful. It must offer the kind of personal satisfaction that a fine piece of jewelry brings. It will have a perceived value even when it’s not being used. It will offer the comfort of a touchstone, the tactile satisfaction of a seashell, the enchantment of a crystal. Once you use it you won’t be able to live without it.”

It’s not too hard to imagine those words coming out of the mouth of Jony Ive in 2018.

What makes Apple interesting as a company–if you boil it down–is the Vision Thing. It’s the ability to look into the future lives of human beings and understand where and how technology can fit into the picture. It’s money. It’s what tech dreams are made of. Jobs had it, and we love to argue about whether Apple still has it today (it does). It was a particularly clear early vision of mobile computing that brought General Magic into existence in 1990.

But, important as it is, vision isn’t everything. Contextual and spacial awareness are equally important—they’re necessary to frame and focus that vision. And that’s one of the loudest messages I heard in the movie: The people of General Magic were so focused on The Vision Thing that they failed to recognize what was happening in the world around them.

Mobile computing wasn’t a thing yet

The world wasn’t ready for General Magic in the early 1990s. (If I have one criticism of the movie, it’s that the producers should have spent a bit more time describing the state of cellular technology when GM was creating its product.) The concept of mobile phoning, much less mobile computing, was still very new to most of the world. The idea of being away from home or office and still being able to do things like email, calendaring, and mapping just wasn’t something people thought about much in 1994.

The first mobile phones (brick phones) were prototyped in the 1970s and came into use mainly in the business world during the 1980s. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the batteries and other components inside handsets became small enough and power-efficient enough to fit into smaller, cooler-looking, and more pocketable devices. By the mid-1990s, companies like Nokia and Motorola were designing cell phones that looked more like consumer products. It was in this timeframe that cell phones began showing signs of eventually becoming mass-market products.

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In General Mobile, networks were very limited too. It wasn’t until 1991 that the first 2G networks–that is, networks that could transmit media like SMS messages and, later, ringtones–were built. In other words, cellular networks were mainly communications networks, and slow ones. The idea of using them for rich media like images was still a glimmer in the eye of marketing people at Motorola.

So when it came time for General Magic to release its mobile communicator products to the world in the form of the partner-branded Sony Magic Link (and later the Motorola Envoy) in 1994, the world wasn’t ready. The idea of a mobile communicator device was, to most people, still foreign. It didn’t sound immediately useful or cool or fun, and with its $800 price tag, it was too expensive to buy for novelty value. This was baffling to the General Magic people, who had been living and breathing their product vision for years.

The internet boom

Those pioneers’ extreme focus on the core General Magic vision also closed them off somewhat to the arrival of another major tectonic shift in tech and communications–the web.

In 1992, General Magic made the fateful early decision to accept AT&T as an investor, and to commit to using AT&T to connect the devices. For this, AT&T developed a proprietary network called PersonaLink. (There’s a wonderful scene in the movie showing the AT&T suits arriving at the General Magic offices in a limo so huge it couldn’t fit in the parking lot.) But the PersonaLink network was closed–that is, it could connect General Magic devices to a finite number of network assets but it didn’t connect to the ever-expanding global internet. The “web,” as it was called, would indeed begin to capture the popular imagination in the latter half of the 1990s, and then change everything.

In the movie, General Magic engineer Kevin Lynch, who would later head up the Apple Watch team, recalls a moment when he realized his company might be missing the boat on the web.

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“We were so focused on the future we were missing what was going on around us,” Lynch says. “An intern came in and was telling us, ‘You guys are totally missing it–the web is where it’s at.’ This was in late ’94 or early ’95,” he said.

“General Magic had the cute graphics and the experience, but the web had worldwide reach,” Lynch says.

Some of the General Magic people realized this, but were afraid to burn AT&T, which had invested $6 million in the company and built out a network to connect the devices. AT&T shut down PersonaLink in 1996.

Too much vision?

General Magic suggests that “vision,” by itself, isn’t always an absolute good.

The astonishing (and magical) thing about General Magic is just how much of its vision of mobile computing came all at once. At the start of the film, Marc Porat is shown leafing through the book in which he poured all the product ideas that would go into General Magic, from the sexy device to the cute emoji to the services that would run through it.

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In some ways, Porat, Atkinson, and Hertzfeld saw way back in 1990 what Apple’s business would become well into the 21st century after the iPhone transformed the company. It may have seen too much at once.

Again, Lynch in the film: “Usually you have a bunch of existing things and you make a couple of new things on top,” he says. “You kind of stand on the shoulders of giants.” But everything in the General Magic product was new, Lynch says.

Magic Cap [Image: Wikipedia]
That did two things. It put the responsibility on General Magic to introduce the public to a lot of new tech ideas all at once, and ask them to buy it. Same goes for the partner companies GM needed to make it all work–from infrastructure partners like AT&T to device makers like Sony to distribution outlets like Fry’s Electronics. It also created a monumental challenge from a developmental standpoint–all the details had to worked out, all the blanks filled in. Almost nothing had been done already. That’s part of the reason the General Magic people had to work ridiculous hours in the months leading up to the launch in 1994. They didn’t go home. They built bunkbeds to sleep on in the office.

At the end of the film, an aging Joanna Hoffman (VP of marketing) is shown wistfully paging through the General Magic idea book. “We thought we were going to do all this?” she says. “We thought we would push the industry and make them do it.”

If only General Magic could have just slowed down a little, shut out some of the hype, and dialed development schedules back from superhuman speed to merely human speed.

“It was completely possible to achieve the majority of our vision, but in a staged fashion,” says founder Andy Hertzfeld toward the end of the film.

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But they were human beings. In the heat and excitement of the moment, it must have been very hard to look around and analyze what was happening in the world outside the walls of the General Magic offices–to understand things like the mindsets of regular people, and the state of consumer tech in 1994. Those things must have seemed colossally boring to the General Magic people, who were hurrying to the office each day (or waking up at the office) to work on, well, magic.

The producers of General Magic did a wonderful job of capturing all this. One of the things that makes the documentary special is that there was a documentarian present with a camera rolling at the time all the craziness was going on. That footage, along with the current interviews with people like Porat, Fadell, and Hoffman, is what make the documentary sing.

And, yes, the General Magic people went on to do some pretty wonderful things. Engineer Tony Fadell built the iPod at Apple, then helped build that technology into a phone (the iPhone). Andy Rubin invented Android, the brains inside most of the world’s phone’s today. Porat started several successful green tech companies. Pierre Omidyar created eBay, and on and on. No other group of people can be said to be more responsible for shaping the mobile revolution.

We’ll be seeing many of them tonight at the Silicon Valley premiere of General Magic in San Jose.

(I’ve already seen the movie–I watched it on my iPhone of course.)

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