‘General Magic’ tells the captivating true story of a revolution before its time

The documentary follows a team that tried their best to build a smartphone in the 90s

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Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude’s documentary “General Magic” was shown at the Virginia Film Festival this Saturday.

Courtesy Virginia Film Festival

Smartphones — and the online infrastructure they run on — are seen today as inevitable, ubiquitous and perhaps even oppressive in their pervasiveness. Critics bemoan their invasion of everyday life, but the tech industry was seen as a well of optimism and dreams not long ago. Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude’s documentary “General Magic” is a look back before Facebook and Apple made headlines for privacy scandals or concerns over tech oligopolies. 

Set in the 1990s, the film follows the titular tech startup as it spun out from Apple Computer to attempt and build a personal computer for the pocket. The company General Magic was composed of relentless idealists and brilliant minds who would go on to fulfill the promise of their revolution at Apple, Google and other pioneering companies. But before they did that, they had to fail first.

“This was a time before mock turtlenecks were invented,” said David Touve, senior director of the Batten Institute at the Darden School of Business, when introducing the film at the Violet Crown on Oct. 26. Touve has worked on local incubator programs, including iLab and Catalyst Accelerator, so the prospect of world-changing startups is as relevant to him as anyone.

“Will God let us do this? … Does anyone want this?” he asked the audience rhetorically, outlining the tribulations that ambitious startups have to go through. To set the tone of the 90s, he pulled out a Gameboy, a Sony Watchman, a mini disc player and even a pager. The audience chuckled at the dated props, and the theater went dark as the film began with a voiceover from Marc Porat, General Magic’s founder and CEO.

What followed was a bittersweet, painful and inspiring story about a group of extremely passionate and smart people working ahead of their time. In addition to the charismatic visionary Porat at the helm, General Magic attracted top Silicon Valley talent in the early 90s like Andy Hertzfeld — the legendary Apple engineer who had worked on the Macintosh. The company also worked in partnership with Apple CEO John Sculley, following the then-recent firing of Steve Jobs from the company. Spirits started high as the team came up with wild ideas about creating a beautiful, portable touchscreen computer that would use online networks to connect everyone in the world. Their vision was what modern audiences would recognize as a smartphone, nearly two decades before the original iPhone was ever unveiled.

Through a combination of interviews with bright engineers like Megan Smith and Herzfeld, as well as through archived footage from the company itself, Kerruish and Maude tell the story of General Magic’s Icarian ambition and subsequent fall into the sea. A recent big name, Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPod within Apple and founder of smart home company Nest, opened up about working as bright-eyed young mind at General Magic. The unbridled enthusiasm these minds still have about their work is infectious and miraculous given the titanic struggles General Magic had getting its ideas to actually work. Working with underpowered Motorola processors, early touchscreens and demanding hardware partners like Sony, the company was fighting a monumental battle to build all of their own hardware and software infrastructure from the ground up.

What makes watching the documentary bittersweet is the knowledge that General Magic will not succeed, despite the bright minds they assembled eventually scattering into all the right places to form the tech revolution we all benefit from today. It is remarkable to witness original footage from moments like a young Megan Smith holding a hardware prototype, describing how the bulky device is something she one day hopes to see in the form of a wrist watch. Another member of the original General Magic squad, Kevin Lynch, would eventually work at Apple as the lead of the Apple Watch team. The sheer density of influential and industry-changing talent at the startup is stunning.

While “General Magic” effectively captures the naivety and optimism of its brilliant, ambitious subjects, it fails to fully explain their failures. The suggestion is that their ideas were too far ahead of the existing technology at the time, but more detail would have gone a long way towards explaining how products like the World Wide Web threw off the focus of General Magic’s product would have been appreciated. Interviews with tech industry journalists and critics like Recode Decode’s Kara Swisher go a long way towards contextualizing the hype around General Magic with the reality of what they were building. “It’s like inventing the television in the 1880s,” Swisher explains. “What are you going to watch on it? There’s no shows.”

“General Magic” may not be as powerful a criticism or objective look at the tech industry as today’s current times might call for, but that is fine. It succeeds as an inspirational and optimistic accounting of a revolution in the making, albeit a few years early. To know that so many smart minds went on to have influential careers after General Magic is a testament to Silicon Valley’s oft-mocked but shockingly true sentiment that failure is the best teacher. Technology may have elements of a pandora’s box and bring about disastrous consequences, but “General Magic” reminds us it is also humanity’s best hope of solving problems on any scale.

Technology is at its best with a vision and execution. “General Magic” is a story of pure, unfiltered vision, one that could not be fully executed until years later when Tony Fadell would work with Steve Jobs upon his return to Apple on products like the iPod and iPhone that redefined mobile computing for the mainstream. The film makes the appropriate analogy of a supernova exploding, with the stellar material left behind in the wake of General Magic’s failure re-assembling into the building blocks of new solar systems — or in this case, technological revolutions. 

Carl Sagan once described humans as being made of “star stuff” in reference to the way universal materials are eventually all recycled. “General Magic” makes a compelling case that our ever-present smartphones are also the stuff of stars. These stars still shine brightly today at some of the world’s most important companies. Let us just hope that they win out over the more cynical forces at play in technology.

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