The story of General Magic, which is chronicled in a new documentary named after this early ’90s Silicon Valley company, has become both a legendary and cautionary tale. Back at a 1989 Aspen Institute event, future founder and CEO Marc Porat essentially unveiled an idea for a smartphone prototype. He called it the Pocket Crystal, but the device eventually came to market as the Sony MagicLink Personal Intelligent Communicator. The concept excited onlookers to the point that Apple helped seed the company, Porat attracted high-profile former Cupertino employees, and outlets like The New York Times soon took notice.
“This was the beginning of the most important company in the history of Silicon Valley that no one ever heard of,” former Apple CEO John Sculley says in the film.
“Since the Mac, we were all looking for the next thing,” adds Joanna Hoffman, Apple’s former marketing lead. “[The Mac] really jaded us to anything else. Other projects fizzled kind of quickly because [they] didn’t have the same grandness of vision, grandness of potential impact. Now what?”
Spoiler-alert: the Next Big Thing wasn’t General Magic. The company held on until the early 2000s, but its decade-or-so run contained unlimited potential and limited success. Though the concept of a smartphone has clearly proven viable, General Magic the documentary exists because many newer tech-industry watchers don’t even recognize the name. Instead, things like Apple’s original iPhone represent the first fully-realized modern smartphone for many.
General Magic largely delivers an optimistic message—things like “failure isn’t the end, it’s the beginning” or “technology has the potential to change the world”—despite the central organization’s grim outcome. But given how much time has elapsed since General Magic’s heyday, this new documentary also contains a refreshing amount of casual, blunt honesty that you won’t find in many profiles of present-day companies. And although these may be the realities of just one slice of Silicon Valley culture circa 1990, it feels entirely plausible similar characteristics still loom in today’s tech landscape.
What had happened…
On a business front, General Magic was doomed at least partially due to conflicting corporate interests. The company’s leadership accepted funding from Apple to get going and employed a ton of former Apple personnel. But then Apple evidently saw a business opportunity and surprised the General Magic offices by pushing out the competing Newton device first.
“I thought they could coexist,” Sculley says in the film. “I wasn’t concerned that it’d hurt General Magic.”
That soundbite is promptly followed by the general General Magic sentiment at the time: “You want to know about the Newton? I’ll tell you about the Newton… fuck the Newton,” one former employee says. Later, General Magic had so many additional partners—AT&T, Motorola, Phillips, Sony—that conflict inevitably came up again and again when deadlines slipped or one backer had different demands from another.
General Magic also appeared to be a pioneer of another unfortunate tech-company trope: the vanishing work-life balance. Before the company initially demoed its product for AT&T execs, for instance, General Magic co-founder Bill Atkinson hadn’t showered for a few days and showed up in a Hawaiian shirt. Former General Magic legal counsel Michael Stern recalls AT&T execs “curling their toes” at the general stench of the place (which only emphasizes how strong the demo must’ve been in retrospect). And ahead of actual product launch, as people built bunk beds and slept in-house, staff mostly forgot to care for the various pets (mostly rabbits and parrots) that had been welcomed into the offices to keep them magical.
The overall Silicon Valley bravado within General Magic will likely feel familiar to current viewers, too. The company did work on plenty of stuff that would later become commonplace: emoticons, voice recognition, automated search. And General Magic employees talked about things like wristwatch computers and mobile touch-operating systems. But the doc shows even an idea as remarkable as the smartphone, if not executed precisely or quickly enough, will falter. And with Peter Jennings and The New York Times singing its praises pre-launch, “We started to believe we were going to conquer the world, but we hadn’t finished,” as Fadell puts it.
Ultimately, multiple factors led to General Magic’s demise. The star product couldn’t get to market ahead of Apple and the Newton. AT&T’s connectivity didn’t stay consistent for the MagicLink upon rollout. The marketing contained no shortage of hype as well as some disastrous brick-and-mortar preparation at places like Fry’s. And, in 1994, the product launched at a retail price of $900—”I remember our user being Joe Sixpack,” one employee says. “And I remember thinking, ‘You know, I don’t even know if Joe Sixpack has email.'”
The company sold fewer than 3,000 units, and Stern says he recognized most of the names of the buyers. Two years later, CEO Porat stepped down amid massive layoffs. That reality seems easy to snicker at now, but just this week a futuristic-feeling consumer product launched for $2,300 (viability there remains TBD).
The film does well to show that the talent assembled at General Magic seems truly staggering in retrospect. Atkinson had written a lot of the original Mac code and invented MacPaint. Fadell went on to help invent the iPod and founded Nest. Megan Smith became a VP at Google, which feels ho-hum compared to the fact she became the first Chief Technology Office for the United States under President Barack Obama. Kevin Lynch created Adobe Dreamweaver and later served as lead engineer on the Apple Watch, Andy Hertzfeld started Google Circles (which lead to, lol, Google+); Andy Rubin invented Android. All of them worked for General Magic during this early ’90s period. Even low-level employees like Pierre Omidyar would eventually become “eBay founder Pierre Omidyar” years later.
As such, the documentary ends by presenting what’s ultimately the great paradox of something like General Magic: such an effort may eventually succeed in spirit or impact, but the practical experience will ruin a few things along the way. Despite being universally portrayed as brilliant and also a successful leader, for instance, founder Porat proves to be one of the few former General Magic-ers without a massively successful public second act (and sadly his personal life suffers, too).
Yet to a person, all the General Magic employees asked about Steve Jobs’ first unveiling of the iPhone some 15 years later see it as this realization of General Magic’s mission. “It was like I was still at General Magic in a way—it’s what we talked about, just 15 years later,” Fadell says. “We were able to realize the idea we had with Steve Jobs talking about it on stage.”
General Magic debuted at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival with a cast Q&A still available on YouTube. The film has been playing at select festivals since and is currently seeking distribution. Its Facebook page remains the best place to learn about upcoming screenings.
Listing image by GeneralMagicTheMovie.com