What are you reading this on? An iPhone? An Android? If you aren’t holding one right now, chances are it’s nearby. And they might have an Apple or a Google logo on the back, but the truth is, your phone wouldn’t exist if not for a company you’ve probably never heard of: General Magic. It’s the subject of a new documentary that provides an inside look at the rise and fall of the most influential failure in silicon valley history.
In 1990, fresh off the success of the Macintosh, a group of Apple developers spun off a new company with a bold vision of the future: a handheld personal computer. Today, you and I would call this a smartphone. But nearly 30 years ago, it was simply an idea and a sketch on a piece of paper. The idea was the brainchild of Marc Porat, who founded General Magic, and attracted some of the tech world’s most influential talents, including Andy Hertzfeld, Megan Smith, Kevin Lynch, and the young Tony Fadell – names you probably don’t know who are responsible for products that you definitely do.
The first two acts of General Magic play out like a Greek tragedy. A group of dewy-eyed engineers and designers set out to change the world, but the future they saw was simply too far away. This was a company that was trying to build smartphones at a time when the original Nintendo Gameboy was a technological marvel. In archival footage and interviews, it’s easy to see General Magic as a machine coming apart at the seams. No one thought they needed a manager, everyone wanted to work on the next cool thing, and no one was driving the ship. Everyone was just too blinded by their own ambition to see it. When General Magic finally did release a product, it was too big, complicated, and expensive to catch on. The tech darling declared bankruptcy just over a decade after its founding, becoming a Silicon Valley legend of tech hubris gone wrong.
But directors Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude don’t see their film as a cautionary tale of ambition gone wrong or a celebration of corporate defeat. General Magic is a film about progress, and about reframing what it means to fail. It calls to mind the classic Mary Pickford quote – ‘failure is not the falling down, but the staying down’. General Magic may have gone bankrupt, but if you think they failed, just look at the world today.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
General Magic is a fascinating film about the unknown story that created the technological landscape of today. It’s filled with footage that, from today’s vantage point, has an almost poetic quality to it. Watching the engineers and inventors at General Magic work, we’re seeing the seeds of the 21st century be sewed. The iPod, iPhone, Android, eBay, LinkedIn, Nest…all General Magic alumni. Thirty years ago, these dreamers saw the future with such a startling degree of accuracy, it’s as though they were looking at a window to today. Tech nerds everywhere should rejoice at General Magic. The film premiers at the Tribeca Film Festival.