General magic is a film about the ‘90s startup that imagined the smartphone – the verge

Silicon Valley is stereotypically full of arrogant geniuses single-handedly forging the future, including Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and many more. But the ‘90s startup General Magic, as portrayed in a new eponymous documentary, was a team of gentle visionaries in the right place at the wrong time.

General Magic is sometimes credited with trying to invent the iPhone in the 1990s. The startup spun off from Apple with the intent of designing a smartphone-like device known as the Pocket Crystal, but it collapsed as its incredibly ambitious project ran up against technical limitations and poor planning. General Magic, directed by Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude, offers a detailed, affectionate look at the company’s brief rise and sudden fall.


What’s the genre?

Glossy, nostalgic narrative documentary. General Magic features lots of original 1990s footage from inside General Magic’s offices because its founders actually hired a filmmaker to document their development process. It also rounds up a broad range of former employees and associates, including former Apple CEO John Sculley and iPhone co-creator Tony Fadell, to appear as talking heads. (Disclosure: Kara Swisher, co-founder of The Verge’s sister site Recode, consulted on and appears in the film.) What’s it about?

In 1990, a handful of superstar Apple employees founded a startup called General Magic to build a groundbreaking pocket-sized computer. This vision was so convincing that General Magic launched on the stock market before even showing a finished device. It was set to be one of the most exciting companies of the decade, thanks to the work of its charismatic CEO, Marc Porat, and several members of the Macintosh computer’s development team, including software geniuses Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld.

Instead, General Magic became one of Silicon Valley’s most dramatic failures, after shipping a single generation of hardware to abysmal sales numbers. It was blindsided by the newly popular World Wide Web, unable to juggle a complicated set of corporate partnerships, and undercut by its own parent company, Apple, which beat it to market with the similar-looking Newton PDA. But General Magic’s former employees ended up defining the modern tech landscape — including virtually the entire smartphone market. As one of the film’s interview subjects puts it, General Magic is “the most important company to come out of Silicon Valley that no one’s ever heard of.” What’s it really about?

Silicon Valley idealism, in its brightest and purest form. General Magic is like a nonfiction version of Halt and Catch Fire where nobody fights, and almost everyone ends up incredibly successful. The film credibly argues that General Magic tried to build something very much like a contemporary smartphone, and this plan was doomed to fail in the early 1990s. While the company clearly suffered from management problems and a heavy dose of hubris, the film focuses on missteps that are almost endearing. In one interview, Andy Hertzfeld laments blowing off deadlines to design a virtual coin-flip in a gaming app.

For a film about failure, General Magic is often aggressively optimistic. The company went under, its story goes, but it still incubated an entire generation of Silicon Valley talent. Its employee roster included future White House chief technology officer Megan Smith, future Android co-creator Andy Rubin, future eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and future iPod and iPhone co-designer Tony Fadell, among others. General Magic’s interviews with Fadell bring its story full-circle: he began as one of General Magic’s youngest employees and ended up bringing its dream to fruition through the iPhone.

But there’s an undertone of melancholy fatalism as well. In General Magic, ideas like the smartphone are destined to exist, and would-be creators can only hope they were born at the right time to get their names on the patent. For all the success that General Magic’s younger team members saw, senior figures like Porat and Hoffman seem to have never emotionally recovered from their failure. They can claim credit for laying the foundations of the iPhone, but it’s a bittersweet triumph — because, after all, somebody else would have done it eventually. Is it good?

General Magic features a lot of successful tech icons reminiscing about their younger days, a format that’s ripe for blandly self-congratulatory mythmaking. But the film’s subjects are self-aware, candid about their failings, and often infectiously enthusiastic. It’s easy to root for their younger selves, especially when you know just how thoroughly they’ll end up being crushed. The company was genuinely building something exciting, and General Magic captures that sense of excitement well.

General Magic’s unfocused hyper-ambitiousness was financially disastrous, but it created a wealth of quirky hardware and software footage for the film to explore. Some inventions seem genuinely prescient, like a collection of animated proto-emoji stickers. Some are impractical but fascinating, like a “town” computing interface with buildings for apps. Some just drive home how far computing has come, like the final design of Porat’s iPhone-sized concept, which ended up looking like a high-tech Etch A Sketch. Image: Wikipedia

If there’s a dark side to the film’s idealism, it’s General Magic’s lionization of punishing development crunch times. Some employees are clear-eyed about how much they sacrificed, particularly Porat, whose relationship with his wife and children broke down. And the film’s references to people falling asleep under desks and assembling bunk beds in the office are exciting narrative beats. But today, these stories help other companies convince employees to practically work themselves to death, which makes them seem less innocently romantic than they might have in the 1990s.