General Magic: the forgotten tech company that almost invented the smartphone

New documentary, 'General Magic', offers a cautionary tale to new start-ups

A closer look at General Magic’s early vision for a portable communications device. Courtesy Spellbound Productions II
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“Please turn your phone off or switch it to airplane mode. This film you’re about to watch is the story of how your phone first switched on.”

Those are the first words to appear on the screen in the new documentary, General Magic.

It’s a bold claim, and perhaps that’s the point.

The main thesis of this movie is that a company which spun off from Apple in 1989, General Magic, helped to create the ideas, software and hardware that are now at the core of the modern smartphone.

“It was this notion of anytime, anywhere communication,” said former General Magic legal counsel Michael Stern. "The notion that it wasn’t just going to be a phone…you could do all of these other things on it.”

What was General Magic?

Indeed, with smartphones so prolific and ubiquitous right now, it's easy to forget just how different this idea was throughout the nineties.

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley reminds us the chutzpah required to execute such a vision.

“In 1990, there was no digital telecommunications industry. It did not exist anywhere in the world. We were in the analogue era, there were no digital cell phones. There was no World Wide Web.”

Marc Porat, founder of General Magic, shares his “blueprint” for the smartphone, while being interviewed for the feature film “General Magic”.
Marc Porat, founder of General Magic, shares his “blueprint” for the smartphone, while being interviewed for the feature film “General Magic”.

Seamlessly placed throughout the film is the General Magic founder, Marc Porat, who shows a huge notebook filled with his sketches and ideas of the small communication device he kept dreaming about while attending conferences at the Aspen Institute.

We’re also introduced to several of General Magic’s employees, many of whom helped to create the original Macintosh personal computer such as Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson and Susan Kare.

We also meet other indefatigable employees like Tony Fadell and Megan Smith, who help to bring the documentary full circle toward the end by speaking about the importance of their post-General Magic careers.

Fadell would go on to help create the iPod and the high-tech Nest thermostat. Smith would later become a vice president at Google, and eventually serve as the US chief technology officer in the Obama administration.

As for General Magic, the documentary creates substantial energy and anticipation as the former employees recall their dedication, sleepless nights and concerns leading up to the shipment of an actual product.

Did General Magic invent the emoji?

In some ways, General Magic thought they would be Microsoft of mobile communication devices, and their software would be like Windows.

Despite the time crunch, the product’s designers manage to come up with small touches that give the device personality.

The earlier prototypes of the General Magic technology proved to be more cumbersome than the early renderings.
The earlier prototypes of the General Magic technology proved to be more cumbersome than the early renderings.

One such feature offered a way for users to share emotions while communicating by sharing small pictures depicting moods. These small pictures were called “emoticons” by the General Magic staff, and many insist they were the precursor to what we all now know as emojis.

There is hope and worry tugging in opposite directions throughout the communications platform's anxious and self-conscious development, when suddenly, like a snowball coming in from orbit, the company’s visions, and the mood of documentary, melt away.

After much anticipation, General Magic did ship a product, only to watch it it tank. The company entered bankruptcy protection. Its patents were sold. The revolution would belong to someone else.

Why did the company fail?

The reasons for the company’s demise are obvious in hindsight and discussed at length in the documentary, but it’s still fascinating to watch how those reasons are presented.

It’s also acknowledged in the film that ultimately, it took 18 years for General Magic’s vision to be realised with the prevalence of iPhone and Android devices.

What the movie benefits from the most, however, is also something that can easily be taken for granted — the behind-the-scenes video from the company’s early days.

"That footage certainly had a second life," General Magic director and producer Matt Maude tells The National. "We couldn't have done the movie without it."

Maude went on to explain the reason the footage exists in the first place, oddly enough, is that Apple chief executive Sculley angered General Magic back in the 90s, when he announced Apple's plans to make its own small communications device, the Newton MessagePad.

Keep in mind both Sculley and Apple had been a major supporter of General Magic in the early days.

“Nobody at General Magic knew that Newton was being announced, and when it was there was this huge feeling of shock and betrayal,” Maude added.

“To counter this, they needed to have their own launch where they announced themselves to the world, so they needed some filmmakers to come into the building and film them showing prototypes and inventions so people would get excited about what General Magic was doing.”

The film offers a cautionary tale to start-ups around the world

Both Apple and General Magic’s efforts at creating a new portable communication standard failed miserably, but there is still some lingering tension apparent during the interviews conducted for the documentary.

Sculley, who is already known as the guy who convinced the Apple board to oust Steve Jobs in 1985, initially comes off looking equally bad in this film for other reasons, only to later smooth things over with his admissions of his own failures at Apple.

"He is legendary for his infamy," Maude says. "He is known as the bad guy of Silicon Valley and we were told by almost everybody that we shouldn't interview him."

Despite those warnings, Maude did interview Sculley and quickly noted how the former Apple chief executive owned his mistakes and took responsibility during the interview, giving him an aura of redemption.

"It was really cathartic to spend time with someone in that kind of space," Maude says of  Sculley.

The General Magic documentary was first announced in 2018, and spent much of 2019 playing in select theatres across the US.

Most recently it has been made available for download in the Apple iTunes store and is also available in some areas through Amazon Prime.

Despite the many years of hard work depicted in the movie ultimately coming to harvest in the form of the company's failure, the documentary somehow manages to end on a very optimistic note.

"It's no secret, General Magic completely bombed," Maude says, alluding to the lessons that can be learned from the film. "The people who worked there though, they learned from those messes and mistakes and persevered to create successes."

Maude also thinks there’s a great message in the documentary for those in the UAE, Middle East and North Africa, where many may hope to launch startups with similar ambitions to positively change the world.

“It’s amazing if you have a vision, but what’s your first step?” He said, noting that General Magic ultimately had a grand vision, but it couldn’t keep hubris in check.

“Take all of that energy you have, the idea that you can punch a hole in the universe…but keep the product relevant and have people around you that aren’t just cheerleaders.”

General Magic is now available on iTunes and Amazon