General Magic

7 minutes estimated reading time

General Magic has a reputation of being the technology equivalent of the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls, but it ended up going nowhere. I never got to see the device in person, it was only available in Japan and the US. It’s as famous much for its alumni, as it is for its commercial failure.

Apple "Paradigm" project/General Magic/Sony "Magic Link" PDA

This is captured in a documentary of the same name. For students of Silicon Valley history and Apple fan boys – the team at General Magic sounds like a who’s who of the great and the good in software development and engineering.

General Magic started within Apple with a brief that sounds eerily like what I would have expected for the iPhone decades later.

“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… Once you use it you won’t be able to live without it.”

Sullivan M. (July 26, 2018) “General Magic” captures the legendary Apple offshoot that foresaw the mobile revolution. (United States) Fast Company magazine

The opening sequence tells you what the documentary is going to lay out. Over carefully curate images of Silicon Valley campuses, Segway riders and the cute bug like Google autonomous vehicle a voice talks about success and failure. That failure is part of the process of development. That General Magic has a legendary status due to its status as precursor to our always-on modern world and while the company failed, the ideas didn’t.

Autonomous cars aren't nearly as clever as you think, says Toyota exec - Computerworld

The genesis of the spirit of General Magic goes back to the development and launch of the Macintosh with its vision of making computers accessible. The team looked around the next thing that would have a similar vision and impact of a product. The Mac had got some of these developers on the front cover of Rolling Stone – they were literally rockstars.

You get a tale of dedication and excitement that revolved around a pied piper type project lead Marc Porat, who managed to come to the table with a pretty complete vision and concept of where General Magic (and the world) would be heading. The archive of footage of the offices with its cool early to mid 1990s Apple Office products still amazes now. The look of the people in the archive footage, make my Yahoo! colleagues a decade later seem corporate and uptight by comparison.

Veteran journalist Kara Swisher said that she started following the company because it was ‘the start of mobile computing, this is where it leads’.

What sets the documentary apart is that it tapped into footage shot by film maker David Hoffman who was hired to capture the product development process. The protagonists then provide a voice over of their younger selves. Their idealism reaches back to the spirit of the 1960s. You can see how touch screen screens and the skeuomorphic metaphors were created and even animate emoticons.

I’ve never known a development process with so much documentary footage. Having been in this process on the inside, the General Magic documentary portrays a process and dynamics that haven’t changed that much.

The ecosystem that the startup assembled including AT&T, Apple, Motorola and Sony made sense given the ecosystem and power that Microsoft had behind it. It’s hard to explain how dominant and aggressive Microsoft was in the technology space. Newton came out as a complete betrayal and John Sculley, who is interviewed in the documentary comes across worse than he would have liked.

The documentary also has access to the 1994 promotional film where General Magic publicly discussed the concept of ‘The Cloud’ i.e. the modern web infrastructure – but the documentary doesn’t dwell on this provable claim.

Goldman Sachs was a key enabler, the idea of the concept IPO set the precedent for Netscape, Uber, WeWork and the 2020s SPAC fever.

In a time when there is barely one thing changing the technology environment, General Magic were pursuing their walled garden of their private cloud and missed the web for a while. Part of this is down to their relationship with AT&T.

The documentary covers how project management dogged the project. Part of the problem was perfectionism was winning over the art of the possible and not focusing on the critical items that needed to be done. The panic of having to ship.

It’s about getting the balance between ‘move fast and break things’ versus crafting a jewel of a product.

But shipping wasn’t enough, the execution of shopper marketing and sales training was a disaster. The defeat was hard given the grand vision. But the ultimate lesson is that YOU are not representative of the mainstream market.

The documentary post-mortem featuring thinkers like Kara Swisher and Paul Saffo points out the lack of supporting infrastructure, that would take years to catch up to where General Magic’s Magic Link had gone. Paul Saffo uses a surfing analogy that I had previously read in Bob Cringely’s Accidental Empires about catching the right wave at the right time.

John Sculley over at Apple made similar mistakes to the General Magic team which resulted in him being fired from Apple. Sculley makes the very human admission that being fired from Apple took him about 15 years to recover from personally.

IBM Simon

The documentary gives a lot of the credit (maybe too much of it) to General Magic as the progenitor of what we now think of as smartphones. The reality as with other inventions is that innovation has its time and several possible ‘inventors’; or what author Kevin Kelly would call ‘the technium’. This is the idea that technological progression is inevitable and that it stands on the layers of what has gone before, like fossils found inside rocks several foot deep. For instance, IBM created a device called Simon which was ‘smartphone’ which sold about 50,000 units to BellSouth customers in the six months it was on the market. Motorola – who were a General Magic partner also launched a smartphone version of the Apple Newton called the Motorola Marco in January 1995 and there are more devices around the same time.

Reality is messy and certainly not like the clean direct line that the General Magic documentary portrays, even the Newton was only part of the story.

The Wonder Years

I was thinking about what I liked so much about the General Magic documentary. I immediately thought about it reminding me of my falling in love with the nascent internet and technology, which then bought me to the start of my agency career working with Palm (the company that eventually helped kill off General Magic’s product ambitions) and the Franklin REX which came out of sychronisation pioneers Starfish Software.

But it was deeper than that. The Silicon Valley portrayed in the General Magic documentary wasn’t the dystopian hellscape of platform firms, generation rent, toxic tech bro culture and ‘churn and burn’ HR culture. Instead the General Magic documentary story represented a halcyon past of Silicon Valley portrayed in books like Where Wizards Stay Up Late, Fire In The Valley and Insanely Great. Where talented people motivated by a fantastic vision thing, with a user centred mission worked miracles. The darkness of fatigue and god knows what else is largely hidden by a Wonder Years TV show feel good nostalgia. Maybe it gives us hope again in the tech sector, despite Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook and Elon Musk? Maybe that hope might inspire something great again?

Marc Porat’s personal tragedy and Tony Fadell’s business failure brings a hint of the real world through the door. The documentary uses Fadell’s link with the iPod and iPhone as a point of redemption, resilience, perseverance and vindication for General Magic.

There’s also a cautionary tale full of lessons learned for new entrepreneurs, who often get the vision thing but forget about the details. More on General Magic here.

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