GENERAL MAGIC

Early Adopters

(The 2019 Annapolis Film Festival, out of Annapolis, MD, featured 70 films in 4 days and ran March 21-24. Lead critic Chris Reed was on the ground in Austin and has his usual massive slate of reviews and interviews. Stay tuned! Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not share just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

A fascinating, densely packed profile of one of the most important tech startups you’ve never heard of, General Magic recounts the rise and fall of the eponymous company, founded in the 1990s by a group of computer engineers determined to create a smartphone. They didn’t use that term, but the invention on which they banked their fortunes was a handheld mobile-computing device; in other words, exactly the kind of thing we all now carry around. Unfortunately for the folks at General Magic, the technology of the time was not quite up to the challenge of their vision, and so the company failed. But failure sometimes leads to success, and many of our present-day gadgets, including iPhones and Android phones, were subsequently designed by members of the General Magic team. Out of their original debacle rose the phoenix of today’s techverse. It’s a history worth telling, then, and directors Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude do a fine job presenting the detailed facts of the case.

Fortunately for Kerruish and Maude, there is quite a lot of archival material from that time. True, the events portrayed only happened 25 years or so ago, so the news footage of the company’s launch and attendant interviews with CEO Marc Porat are no surprise; what especially delights, however, is all the behind-the-scenes video shot at General Magic’s Silicon Valley headquarters at that time. We cut back and forth between then and now, meeting younger versions of the subjects who then age in the blink of an eye to their older selves, reflecting on the meaning of those manically creative years. For manic it was, as the company burst on the scene with a flashy “Concept IPO” (i.e., no product in hand, but just an idea) that promised great things, only to see its engineers struggle to deliver the first prototype by the due date. Brilliant minds do not always fare well with deadlines, though eventually General Magic’s device, the Sony Magic Link, was ready for market. Unfortunately, priced too high, and without access to the internet we all now take for granted, it tanked.

Flash forward, and people like Tony Fadell (co-inventor of the iPod and iPhone) and Andy Rubin (co-inventor, Android) are doing quite well, their lessons from the past firmly embedded in the technology of today. Fadell makes for a deeply introspective interview subject, as does Porat, once a visionary but now relegated to the role of elder statesman. Journalist Kara Swisher makes a solid additional guide, as do others like former Apple CEO John Sculley (General Magic was originally spun off from Apple) and White House CTO Megan Smith (like Fadell and Porat, a member of the General Magic team). The documentary is a paean to the glories of innovation and the values of teamwork, as well as a cautionary tale for the pioneers too far ahead of their time to succeed in the moment. The film may falter in its final moments with one ending too many, but still remains engrossing, throughout. The magic lives on.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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