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General Magic’s forgotten second act was the Siri of its era

General Magic’s forgotten second act was the Siri of its era
[Photo: courtesy of Spellbound Productions]

The new documentary General Magic is an excellent look at the startup of the same name, which spun out of Apple in 1990 to build software and hardware for mobile computing, did some wildly innovative stuff—and then failed. (My colleagues Mark Sullivan and Katharine Schwab have already reported on different aspects of the company’s story, prompted by the film.)

As good as General Magic is, the film basically ends with the departure of cofounder/CEO Marc Porat in 1996. The company stayed in business until 2002. And during its last six years, it pivoted into focusing on a new product: Portico.

Codenamed “Serengeti,” Portico was a virtual-assistant technology that users accessed over a 1990s-era cell phone by dialing a special 800 number. You could talk to it and have it perform tasks, such as managing voicemail and creating calendar appointments. Here’s a demo from Upside magazine’s Internet Showcase conference in January 1998 (please ignore the Monica Lewinsky humor toward the end).

In 2018, it’s easy to fixate on this demo’s rudimentary speech synthesis and the plodding nature of the interface. In 1998, however, this was impressive stuff. General Magic offered a version under the name MagicTalk, helped to create GM’s OnStar service, and worked on projects such as a voice-enabled version of the Ask Jeeves search engine that you’d use over a phone.

Just as the company’s Magic Cap operating system presaged iOS and Android, Portico was a rough draft of modern voice interfaces as offered by Siri, Alexa, and the Google Assistant. It, too, had ambitions that raced ahead of what was technically feasible at the time, and didn’t become a sustainable business. But like everything General Magic did, it deserves to be remembered.

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