'General Magic' tells story of Apple vets who created a smartphone, 15 years too early

Posted:
in iPhone edited May 11
Andy Hertzfeld, Joanna Hoffman, Bill Atkinson and Tony Fadell are among the once-and-future Apple luminaries who were part of General Magic, the subject of a compelling new documentary.

General Magic's vision of the smartphone, circa 1989


General Magic started as an Apple project from the John Sculley era in the late 1980s that was eventually spun off into its own company in 1990. Cofounded by Apple veterans Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld, along with visionary Marc Porat, General Magic also employed the likes of Tony Fadell, Susan Kare, and other names familiar to Apple history buffs.

The company's project was a "personal communicator," resembling a very early version of the smartphone, which would bring the personal computer into people's pockets. And while the company ultimately failed, the ideas it had would ultimately change the world, albeit many years later.

General Magic's story is told in a new documentary, also called "General Magic," which had its world premiere earlier this month at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film stands at 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, based on the first five reviews.

And the ratings aren't surprising -- the film, directed by Matt Maude and Sarah Kerruish, doesn't just feature "talking head" interviews with the key players, it also has a great deal of vintage footage of the General Magic team at work. It's a fascinating look at what it means to fail, and whether a failure that changed the world is really a failure at all.

"Please turn your phone off"

"General Magic" begins with a familiar warning to moviegoers: "Please turn your phone off or switch it to airplane mode," an onscreen title says. But then it continues in an unconventional way saying that "the film you're about to watch is the story of how your smartphone was first switched on, and how a handful of people changed the lives of billions."





The entire saga is much like the writer's room of "The Dana Carvey Show", or the coaching staff of the 1995 Cleveland Browns -- a project that wasn't especially successful on its own, but was full of people who went on to huge things. These included the Apple veterans, future Google executive and White House Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, low-level developer-turned-eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and one man who would go on to play a key role in the development of the actual iPhone, Tony Fadell.

Former Apple CEO John Sculley, interviewed in the film, describes General Magic as "the most important company to come out of Silicon Valley that nobody's ever heard of." And, it all started in a red notebook in 1988.

The General Magic Story

General Magic visionary Marc Parot


The film's story begins in the late 1980s, shortly after Steve Jobs' departure from Apple. Marc Parot creates a prototype on paper -- "a phone, with a lot of intelligence in it" -- that looks remarkably similar to the smartphones of today. Along with Atkinson, Hertzfeld, Hoffman and others, the group put together a special project within Apple, which was later spun off into its own separate company, in 1990.

The film takes us through the process of creating the product which ended up much less smartphone-like than Parot's original drawings. It also delves into the company's roadshow and initial public offerings, which includes footage of a Goldman Sachs banker literally giving the General Magic team the shirt off his back for a piece of the IPO.

General Magic partnered with a variety of top consumer electronics firms, including Sony, Motorola and Toshiba, to create hardware products based on General Magic's Magic Cap platform. The first products, including the Sony Magic Link and the Motorola Envoy, arrived in 1994.

Too early

Poster for General Magic, the 2018 movie


The General Magic project was, of course, a failure, for a few reasons. For the Magic Link, the $800 price point was too high, there wasn't enough demand for it, and the rollout was botched. The General Magic had failed to foresee a major disruption from widespread consumer availability of the Internet, right around the time of its later development.

In short, it had arrived too early. In fact, the Magic Link product sold fewer than 3,000 units, with the majority of them going to family and friends.

The other problem was that Apple, the company General Magic had spun off from, rolled out the Newton product in 1993, stepping on General Magic's work, something that clearly still makes the team angry to this day. The Newton, of course, was scuttled by CEO and founder Steve Jobs upon his return to Apple.

Nevertheless, many of the designs and ideas embraced by the General Magic team ended up in the pockets of the majority of the world.

"Even Intelligent Watches"

No one can say the vision wasn't there.

"There will be smart phones, smart pagers, and maybe even things like intelligent watches, for all we know," Porat is seen stating in around 1994, predicting both the iPhone and Apple Watch decades ahead of time. Then a reporter asks him if it's possible that anyone will ever figure out a way make any money from such products.

Some of the General Magic personnel returned to Apple, with Fadell playing a key role in the iPod and iPhone before founding Nest Labs.

Others went on to other things. None of them got rich off of their General Magic work, but they can all take pride in knowing they created something that was far ahead of its time.

It's unclear when "General Magic" will get an official release. Once it does, it's certainly worth the attention of any Apple enthusiast, especially those interested in the history of innovation.
cornchip
«1

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 28
    Eric_WVGGEric_WVGG Posts: 438member
    I got to play with a Magic Link at a… Best Buy? Circuit City? … back in the day. Was immediately turned off by the dorky Microsoft Bob style "here's your desk" UI. Still surprised at how poorly they sold.

    Looks like a fun movie, though, in the vein of Helvetica and Objectified.
    StrangeDayscornchip
  • Reply 2 of 28
    SpamSandwichSpamSandwich Posts: 29,865member
    I remember this company well.
  • Reply 3 of 28
    leptonlepton Posts: 108member
    I don't remember this era too clearly, but wasn't Apple's eWorld also a similar concept? A "town" whose buildings had functions such as post office and library?
  • Reply 4 of 28
    HyperealityHypereality Posts: 31unconfirmed, member
    I remember it well.

    Today we have Magic Leap and I suspect it’s destiny will be similar.
  • Reply 5 of 28
    SpamSandwichSpamSandwich Posts: 29,865member
    I remember it well.

    Today we have Magic Leap and I suspect it’s destiny will be similar.
    Magic Leap and the Moller Skycar will go down in tech history as two of the great vaporware companies.
  • Reply 6 of 28
    The General Magic project was, of course, a failure, for a few reasons

    I've talked to people that worked on Magic Cap, and to a person they say the same thing - it didn't work. At all.

    One went into intricate detail of why it didn't work, and made it sound like it simply never would.

    So there's that, which is apparently not mentioned in this article, or one assumes, the movie.
    watto_cobraSpamSandwich
  • Reply 7 of 28
    lmasantilmasanti Posts: 57member
    Maybe they failed because they were not making the hardware and the software.
    The same is happening with Android… 

    Hardware/software integration is what makes Apple what it is.
    magman1979watto_cobraanton zuykov
  • Reply 8 of 28
    entropysentropys Posts: 1,240member
    I remember at the time wondering why Apple would spin off an idea with some of your best workers, sort of kicking your prize stallions and mares out of the stable if you will, and then build a competitor in the Newton. I just figured it was some moronic corporate weenie turf war, and one lot came off second best.

    Sort of like what happened to Forstall in more modern times.
  • Reply 9 of 28
    IontruO2IontruO2 Posts: 1unconfirmed, member
    This is a great story. As an enthusiast from the earliest days, I look forward to viewing it. That said I would love to here more in the timeline of where frankly the real template developed which was in the life line of PALM. IPhone still is really just an evolution of that original OS principal they initiated and grew to quite a maturity. 
    edited May 11
  • Reply 10 of 28
    calfotocalfoto Posts: 58member
    Not only do I remember General Magic, I've got the T-shirt  B)
    cornchipSpamSandwich
  • Reply 11 of 28
    I WANT TO SEE THIS MOVIE, PLEASE BRING IT TO NETFLIX IF NOT A THEATER RELEASE
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 28
    big kcbig kc Posts: 102member
    Check out this NYT article from 1992 about this amazing new device that was being imagined. It's a fascinating read today. Intel thought it was an impossible pipe dream - and probably not coincidentally, has basically missed out on the entire mobile revolution. "How rich is this lode? At one end of the spectrum is John Sculley, the chief executive of Apple Computer Inc., who says these personal communicators could be "the mother of all markets." At the other end is Andrew Grove, the chairman of the Intel Corporation, the huge chip maker based in Santa Clara, Calif. He says the idea of a wireless personal communicator in every pocket is "a pipe dream driven by greed." Wow. How prescient. https://goo.gl/38uobo
    magman1979tokyojimuwatto_cobraSpamSandwich
  • Reply 13 of 28
    blastdoorblastdoor Posts: 1,874member
    Designing products disconnected from real world engineering constraints is just science fiction. Not that there's anything wrong with science fiction. But building a company based on science fiction is problematic. 

    I think that was one of Sculley's big weaknesses -- he couldn't separate the science fiction from the cutting edge (but realistic) product. Steve Jobs seemed to be able to find the border between the real world and the world of magic. 
    radarthekatmagman1979watto_cobraSpamSandwich
  • Reply 14 of 28
    fahlmanfahlman Posts: 690member
    blastdoor said:
    Designing products disconnected from real world engineering constraints is just science fiction.
    It is "science fiction" that forces technology to progress. You create something beyond current technology and then solve all the problems that make it impossible until it is possible.
    magman1979watto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 28
    kestralkestral Posts: 200member
    As a kid in the mid-late 90s, I bought GMGC stock and lost what was then a fuckton of money for me. I bought about $6000 worth of it and sold it for a 50% loss. The worst part was it slowly dripped down, all the while people were talking about how bright the future was and all the potential blah blah blah. False hope and slow drip down was literally like being emotionally waterboarded slowly and painfully. General Magic stock did so badly that at one point people started calling it General Tragic. This stock caused me a long time of heartache and wasted my time and emotional energy. Fuck this stock and fuck this company. The only bright side is that I took that $3000 I had left and bought AMZN in 1997.
    edited May 11 arlomediapropodSpamSandwich
  • Reply 16 of 28
    magman1979magman1979 Posts: 1,039member
    kestral said:
    As a kid, I bought GMGC stock and lost what was then a fuckton of money for me. I bought about $6000 worth of it and sold it for a 50% loss. The worst part was it slowly dripped down, all the while people were talking about how bright the future was and all potential blah blah blah. It was literally like being waterboarded slowly. General Magic stock did so badly that at one point people started calling it General Tragic. This stock caused me a long time of heartache. Fuck this stock and fuck this company. The only bright side is that I took that $3000 I had left and bought AMZN.
    Talk about an amazingly short-sighted, self-centred view of what was a historically very important company!

    ”I lost some dollar bills so fuck those losers”, just WOW, deplorable view.
    cornchipfastasleepwatto_cobradocno42
  • Reply 17 of 28
    kestralkestral Posts: 200member
    kestral said:
    As a kid, I bought GMGC stock and lost what was then a fuckton of money for me. I bought about $6000 worth of it and sold it for a 50% loss. The worst part was it slowly dripped down, all the while people were talking about how bright the future was and all potential blah blah blah. It was literally like being waterboarded slowly. General Magic stock did so badly that at one point people started calling it General Tragic. This stock caused me a long time of heartache. Fuck this stock and fuck this company. The only bright side is that I took that $3000 I had left and bought AMZN.
    Talk about an amazingly short-sighted, self-centred view of what was a historically very important company!

    ”I lost some dollar bills so fuck those losers”, just WOW, deplorable view.
    If you think that's such a great deal, give me $3000 and I'll sell you a pipe dream.
    propodSpamSandwich
  • Reply 18 of 28
    It’s interesting how far back this idea actually goes. I read an article from the 1920s that basically said that someday these devices would work.

    The source was quite interesting, the Golden Age magazine (now know as the Awake) published by Jehovah’s Witnesses (back then known as International Bible Students Association).

    Basically the ideas are quite old but in all cases it’s limited by the technology of the day. What intrigues me is that we are so behind where we should be because of people who only see the dollar value of a product. Visionless investors and CEOs have been killing amazing ideas for decades.

    We need another Queen Victoria to get us out of this technological rut.
    tokyojimucornchipwatto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 28
    foggyhillfoggyhill Posts: 4,751member
    It’s interesting how far back this idea actually goes. I read an article from the 1920s that basically said that someday these devices would work.

    The source was quite interesting, the Golden Age magazine (now know as the Awake) published by Jehovah’s Witnesses (back then known as International Bible Students Association).

    Basically the ideas are quite old but in all cases it’s limited by the technology of the day. What intrigues me is that we are so behind where we should be because of people who only see the dollar value of a product. Visionless investors and CEOs have been killing amazing ideas for decades.

    We need another Queen Victoria to get us out of this technological rut.
    Vision without profits means the vision dies.
    The dollar value of product is what value the client gives it.
    Few visions get fully formed on the first iteration, that's why it is often not the first to introduce a product that actually makes the most money off it.

  • Reply 20 of 28
    foggyhill said:
    It’s interesting how far back this idea actually goes. I read an article from the 1920s that basically said that someday these devices would work.

    The source was quite interesting, the Golden Age magazine (now know as the Awake) published by Jehovah’s Witnesses (back then known as International Bible Students Association).

    Basically the ideas are quite old but in all cases it’s limited by the technology of the day. What intrigues me is that we are so behind where we should be because of people who only see the dollar value of a product. Visionless investors and CEOs have been killing amazing ideas for decades.

    We need another Queen Victoria to get us out of this technological rut.
    Vision without profits means the vision dies.
    The dollar value of product is what value the client gives it.
    Few visions get fully formed on the first iteration, that's why it is often not the first to introduce a product that actually makes the most money off it.

    So Intel has a tonne of vision do they? I mean they're well funded but there's been no significant development in processor technology since the Core and Core2 series of processors used in the original Intel Macs... who were the first to use these processors incidentally. They're just cruising on speed bumps because no-one is forcing them to change. Meanwhile Apple introduced a 64bit processor without anyone's knowledge until it was too late. Intel could be under real threat but it's not in a position to do anything about it under the current regime.

    The Commodore Amiga was far ahead of even today's Macs and yet visionless CEOs and investors saw this machine killed off. It's only hanging on by fans who don't want to see it die.

    Apple was almost dead because of a sugar water CEO who didn't even know how to turn on a computer. Subsequent CEOs might have had some vision but let's face it investors were pulling out left right and centre because all they were looking at were returns of investment which these ideas were not bringing in.

    The ONLY reason Apple survived was because of a CEO with vision. He did it at a time where Apple's investments were growing less and less. That vision was carried on with Cook but if you look at the idiots calling for his head you really get the feeling that these "investors" just want to coast on someone else's dime and any threat to that needs to be dealt with immediately when the true threat is not Apple's direction under Cook but Wall Street itself.

    Apple is now in a position where investors don't matter at all. If everyone pulled out of Apple's stocks Apple would still innovate and make a tonne of money which literally means the only reason people are investing in Apple is not to advance technology but to make money off someone else's effort with no real effort to themselves.
    watto_cobra
Sign In or Register to comment.