General Magic Movie: Tales from the Silicon Valley Vault

AnthroPunk, Ph.D.
Mar 1, 2019 · 11 min read
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Sony PIC-1000 “Cedar” Production Unit Photo via Josh Carter

In July of 2018, I attended the West Coast premiere of the General Magic movie, a documentary of General Magic, an early 1990’s Silicon Valley start-up comprised of members from the original Apple Macintosh team.

General Magic Movie Trailer ©General Magic

On a personal note, I almost went to work at General Magic. I signed the offer, showed up to an all-hands meeting, was introduced, and something didn’t feel quite right. I retreated and went back to Apple before leaving shortly after for a startup.

I don’t regret that I didn’t join them, but I didn’t know what I’d missed until I saw this film. Many Silicon Valley luminaries got their start at General Magic. Walking into the venue, I saw Megan Smith (former USCTO and General Magic employee); Michael Tscho, VP of Marketing for Apple (formerly on the Newton team) was in the hallway talking with former Newton colleagues, and I sat next to the man who worked for Apple for 17 year, who worked on the iWatch and iPhone. Many former Magicians (General Magic employees) were there, too: Tony Fadell of Nest, Kevin Lynch (VP of Engineering at Apple), Joanna Hoffman, Andy Hertzfeld, Andy Hertz, Bill Atkinson, Marc Porat— and friends, family, and fans. I had dug out and was wearing my “Magic Cap” button that Dan Winker (HyperTalk inventor) had given me, and others were wearing their General Magic t-shirts. It was a fun evening for people watching.

The movie was an enormous labor of love, no doubt about that. It was well crafted, and it told a good and important story, but it was a depressing story.

Silicon Valley history draws from an oral tradition. Not much was written down in the early days. People took photos and some made films, but as a whole, most of what made Silicon Valley is transmitted through the stories that are told by the people who were there — like this one.

General Magic was a kind of ‘Skunkworks’ outside of Apple, composed of a small group of people who had worked to ship the Macintosh, and others, who came together to work on Magic Link, a next level communications device that was, from all early drawings, the iPhone — or what it came to be.

The film cycles through General Magic forming, focusing on Dr. Marc Porat’s concept from his time at the Aspen Institute. His early sketchbook shows drawings of something that looks very much like the original iPhone: a small, elongated rectangle, with a glass screen and icons for different applications.

This device, called ‘Magic Link,’ was described in the film as a single unit that could essentially solve the clutter of analog desktops. Rolodex files, stacks of paper, and photographs were all considered to be fodder that could be moved to the Magic Link. The ‘desktop’ and the ‘real world’ metaphors blended in Magic Link in a way, unsurprisingly reminiscent of the original Macintosh. However, instead of seeing folders, the user looked at a desk with objects on it that were clickable and could run various ‘apps.’ Thus, the original Macintosh team modeled the digital world as a desktop, and General Magic continued that metaphor — only smaller and with a broader focus on communications capabilities and a real desk.

The private Internet communications system internal to Apple and trusted 3rd parties, AppleLink, was used as a private Internet for messaging for Apple. AppleLink’s structure seemed to be a metaphor for communication for Magic Link’s back-end communication infrastructure as well. In retrospect, to me, Magic Link seems now to have been a mashup of the MacIntosh desktop, the “look” from HyperCard and AppleLink, all on a ‘portable’ (or what was considered to be that at the time) device.

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Apple Link Icons ©Apple Link Users Guide 1988

The film shows the team working hard to realize this vision with early 1990’s code and hardware components. We see the Magicians build something that is not at all like Dr. Porat’s sketch. As Megan Smith (hardware engineer) told the film crew at the time, they were building a working prototype using off the shelf parts that were available. Dr. Porat’s vision for General Magic was well beyond the technological capabilities of the time — or even the near future from that time — yet it was used as the vision for what to build. Amazingly, all of General Magic (and its investors) bought into that vision. We root for them, because we are them. This is how the Valley runs.

The Magicians who had worked under Steve Jobs and had shipped the Macintosh personal computer were working on Magic Link, but there were differences between the teams and their management. Jobs was known as a persistent, detail-oriented, stickler for design and perfection, and for pushing teams to do the seemingly impossible. The Magicians from the Mac team had worked within Apple for Jobs, and leveraged the broader infrastructure of Apple, relying on other systems to manage the details surrounding their creative work. This enabled the Apple team to create within a context where Jobs supplied ‘creative management.’ General Magic lacked that type of management, and the creative spirals that were innovative and interesting (such as Hertzfeld’s detailed animations of ordinary objects), were described in the film as disconnected pieces that did not progress the project towards more critical efforts.

The film portrays Dr. Porat as someone who foresaw a future in information distributed by portable technology for communication, who successfully courted investors, brokering his vision to the business community in order to secure strategic partnerships. But he was not Steve Jobs, and as such, he was not shown to lead General Magic in the same way. Good or bad, the broader infrastructure, details and micromanagement that enabled Jobs to challenge people to move in the direction he wanted, seemed to be missing at General Magic. Jobs pushed engineers to develop an “almost there” technology that would enable success. General Magic aimed for the entire vision and failed.

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General Magic Logo ©General Magic

The General Magic logo was comprised of a line drawing of a rabbit coming out of a hat. Throughout the film, I imagined Marc Porat as the main Magician, creating continued illusions for investors to buy time, and General Magic employees as the rabbits wanting to come out of the hat, but getting distracted in their creative vulnerabilities, which kept them indefinitely working and waiting because they didn’t feel they were “ready” to ship.

(Spoiler alert: they weren’t.)

Apple was involved in General Magic via John Sculley (Apple’s CEO during this period). Fundraising was described in the film, describing that General Magic participated in the first “Concept IPO” with Goldman Sachs, and big partners such as AT&T, Sony, and Philips. We see the road shows, sales pitches, and workers attempting to realize Dr. Porat’s vision into a shipped device, and we see it fail in the market — nearly immediately — and fail to connect to customers and vendors.

The film describes General Magic being betrayed by Apple. John Sculley was described as having taken their trusted ideas and turned them into the Apple Newton. I was still at Apple then, and was assigned to the Newton team shortly before I left. We didn’t know that General Magic’s ideas were where Newton came from. My group was told that Steve Capps had an idea for infinite paper, like an endless digital Post-It note. (We weren’t told that the idea for Newton came from General Magic, as the film implies.)

Though the Newton lasted a bit longer, both devices failed for some shared reasons. Both the Apple Newton team and General Magic did not appear to hire researchers familiar with social structure and social systems to help them understand how to get their devices to connect to people. As a result, the same release problems that happened with Magic Link happened with the Newton. Both Newton and MagicLink had partial functionality and both companies struggled to find a market for their product.

At the time, people weren’t ready to purchase an expensive communications service when they already had a landline telephone and pagers. Newton offered some capabilities that people wanted, but that wasn’t enough to get a large number of people to buy them. Both companies had internal and external communications problems with how to translate their visions to customers; both sold through vendors who didn’t understand their products; and both grossly underestimated the power of the Internet and the ways that people would want to connect to each other — or not. At the time, people didn’t need to connect constantly, businesses weren’t online, and there was a slower pace to working and living.

The people in charge in both companies didn’t seem to have an understanding about what people other than they themselves wanted to do with their devices, and how those devices could be used. This was buried in the fact that even though both Newton and Magic Link were billed as Communications devices, they were both painstakingly slow, which made using them frustratingly hard. Part of this was due to reliance on a private networks, and lack of embracing the Web, but also, there were no models of who would be using this or why, or how these things would fit into someone’s communications “ecosystem.” Eventually, as people gained access to the Web, new usage models emerged that hadn’t been accounted for, researched, or addressed by either Apple or General Magic.

The film described the Magicians as people who expect to be able to solve problems, social or otherwise with technology, and who early in their careers were greatly rewarded for doing so (e.g. the success of the Macintosh). Many Magicians went on to found big companies and projects such as eBay, Android, Nest, WebTV, Radius, and others. These are smart and interesting people, who share a blind spot, that still persists in various forms: they didn’t understand how to connect what they made to people; they placed high value on using technical approaches to solving human problems; and, with the exception of eBay, they were inspired by an idea that required technical capabilities that could not be invented in the timeframe they had allotted for development.

One lesson learned from watching the General Magic movie is that while technology can help us solve some problems some of the time, it cannot solve all of the problems all of the time. The film shows people who tried to apply technical solutions to a complex social problem (communications and maintaining relationships and ties) and failed. Today, many technology companies are failing to understand their limitations, and offer poorly automated solutions that require frequent human labor to function well [1].

Timing, component sizes, the Internet, and mobile technology not being ready, as well as Apple “taking” Dr. Porat’s idea, were all listed in the film as reasons for General Magic’s failure. Additionally, General Magic and Apple’s Newton also failed because their teams didn’t understand that fundamentally, communication is about people. If a development team values a certain type of technology and thinks that it can apply it to wholly solve a host of human problems, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work. Furthermore, the habits of the development team may or may not be useful as a behavioral model for others. Both devices were slow, both companies didn’t take the Internet seriously, overestimated what people would spend on devices, and underestimated what people needed or wanted to do with the capabilities their devices provided.

Even today, some ex-Magicians continue to talk about the power and appropriateness of using and applying technology to solve all human problems, doubling down on their original positions, envisioning automated seamless ubiquitous technologically controlled futures. In doing so, they continue to perpetuate their old mindset. It isn’t working: Nest has had problems with its technology because it didn’t anticipate certain usage models [2]. Megan Smith’s company, shift7, is adding technology as an initiative to solve social problems through technology described as “Radical collaboration via tech-forward innovation for faster, scaled impact” [3]. These approaches can only go so far when automation and algorithmic biases or constraints limit what is possible, right or fair. Technology needs to learn about people and their environments and adapt accordingly [1].

A continuing theme in the film was the juxtaposition of the General Magic offices with nature, with the the Talking Head’s “Slippery People” as the background soundtrack. There are gorgeous overhead shots of the Northern California coast, the ocean, and natural scenes, contrasted with dark, grainy 1980’s office footage showing people working around the clock (even sleeping in shifts) to ship something when they were finally told that they had to ship — or else.

The movie implies that the market success of the iPhone was realized when Tony Fadell, and some of the original team from General Magic returned to Apple years later and under Steve Jobs’ firm leadership, were challenged to produce what essentially Dr. Porat had envisioned, first as the iPod, and then over time, the iPhone. Android came to market when Andy Rubin joined Google with his phone prototypes and Google’s infrastructure enabled his creations to become refined, further developed, and ready for the market.

There is one other alumnus from General Magic who was tangentially mentioned in the film and who at the time was described as a “tech support guy” with a “crazy idea” for “some online garage sale thing.” He asked some of the Magicians to join him in his startup, which they declined to do. This was Pierre Omidyar who founded eBay, a company whose business model required human relationships and sociability to function, and one that created a global community and an economy. Omidyar showed an early understanding of the power of the Internet, and just as importantly, a sense of what people wanted to do with technology — and how it could help them. The fact that we can sell things across the world easily to people from our garages is a bit of magic (generally speaking). Realizing a vision in software is much easier than General Magic’s task of realizing hardware from a futuristic sketch where things didn’t have to work, but were envisioned to work.

Speculative narratives fuel Silicon Valley [4], and for all intents and purposes, at the time and place he drew that sketch, Dr. Porat’s vision was Science Fiction. It could not have been realized in the time frame it was imagined. Yet, General Magic employees, serious investors, large-scale electronics mega corporations and their boards, bought into this vision. There didn’t seem to be anyone at General Magic, who checked the reality of what could be made against what was described, until it was too late.

As I noted in an earlier piece on Silicon Valley [4], this is a continuing problem in the technology industry, where technological solutions are prized, and people want desperately to build the visions and the futuristic solutions they imagine. Whatever gets made from these visions has to use what technology is available or near to being available, and those productions must fit in with the time, place, and context they reside in. This includes the capabilities, or at least very near term capabilities, that are available for any given set of tools. Additionally, these productions have to be interpreted for the people within that time frame and context as well [4]. That is what was mainly missing with General Magic and Newton. Pierre Omidyar was able to achieve success with eBay in part because he focused on software and developing capabilities alongside what technically was becoming possible, and thus, was able to build something that people could adapt to, adopt, and use in our present time.

References

[1] S. Applin and M. Fischer, “New technologies and mixed-use convergence: How humans and algorithms are adapting to each other”, 2015 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS), 2015.

[2] N. Bilton, “Nest Thermostat Glitch Leaves Users in the Cold”, The New York Times, 2016 [Online]. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/14/fashion/nest-thermostat-glitch-battery-dies-software-freeze.html. [Accessed: 02- Oct- 2018]

[3] “Home”, shift7, 2018. [Online]. Available: https://shift7.com/. [Accessed: 02- Oct- 2018]

[4] S. Applin, “Science Fiction Is Not Social Reality”, Motherboard, 2018 [Online]. Available: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/43pxjd/science-fiction-is-not-social-reality. [Accessed: 02- Oct- 2018]

ITP Alumni

AnthroPunk, Ph.D.

Written by

(S.A. Applin, Ph.D.) AnthroPunk looks at how people promote, manage, resist and endure change; how people hack their lives (and others) http://www.posr.org

ITP Alumni

Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University

AnthroPunk, Ph.D.

Written by

(S.A. Applin, Ph.D.) AnthroPunk looks at how people promote, manage, resist and endure change; how people hack their lives (and others) http://www.posr.org

ITP Alumni

Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University

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