Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | General Magic—how tech superfriends assembled, dreamt up smartphones, and failed

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica |

Did it run Crysis? Did Crysis exist yet? —

New film chronicles an overlooked tech company with a landmark idea and lessons to share.


The trailer for General Magic

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.

  • Original concept sketches of the Pocket Crystal.

  • Behold, the Sony MagicLink Personal Intelligent Communicator.

  • As this new documentary highlights, the employees of General Magic went on to do many notable things in Silicon Valley.

  • Ahead of product launch, employees seemed to genuinely live at General Magic.

  • Center in red, that’s Tony Fadell working. And at right over his shoulder, that’s Megan Smith.

  • Megan Smith (left) in 2015, celebrating Pi Day at the White House.

  • Tony Fadell in 2015, speaking during a Nest Labs event in San Francisco.


    David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

  • Apple computer designers Bill Atkinson (R) and Andy Hertzfeld (L) with communications technology specialist Marc Porat (C) as they prepare to unveil their new company General Magic in January 1990.


    John Harding/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

  • (L-R) Megan Smith, Andy Hertzfeld, Marc Porat and Tony Fadell attend the Silicon Valley Premiere Screening of General Magic this summer.


    Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | 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

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