Concerning a little-known offshoot of Apple Computer, the new documentary General Magic chronicles the rise and fall of the same named company which, in the late-1980s and early-1990s, was on the cutting edge of new technologies which are now commonplace 30 years onward.
Co-directed by Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude, General Magic explores the personalities and machinations in the Silicon Valley company General Magic which, for all intents and purposes, developed what we now know as smartphones and tablets. Leading the way, General Magic’s CEO and co-founder, Marc Porat, envisioned a world where people of all walks would be interconnected by portable devices.
“He really did see the future and imagine all of the products that we use today,” said Kerruish, who compared Porat’s notes and designs in a red-covered notebook to those of Leonardo Da Vinci. “It’s all there in the books: icons in incredible detail. That’s what makes him stand apart as a visionary. Those convergences are extremely rare in terms of that brilliant vision. That crystal clear view of the future—no one could have predicted the internet.”
Maude added that, while Steve Jobs at Apple would not delegate responsibility to others, Porat assembled a dream team of staffers at General Magic and maximized their talents.
“Mark was much more of a visionary and relied on the technical expertise of [technology wizards) Andy Herzfeld and Bill Atkinson,” said Maude. “Mark predicted in 1989 [not only] what a smartphone would look like, but the entire functionality of what we have today. Engineers at General Magic were trying to create so much using a megabyte’s worth processor. You do need people like that who moved the goalposts so far in the future.”
Of note, Kerruish was part of the original film crew at General Magic documenting the work being done at the company in the 1990s. “They were trying to build the future,” she articulated. “They were super-bright and slightly weird. Andy Herzfeld [was] the conscience and the creator—the ultimate magician. Take these basic elements and create magic; he was the true embodiment.”
In structuring the documentary, when Maude first started working on the film, Kerruish conveyed that it was imperative to approach it as one would a fiction film. “You are looking for these characters who tell the hero’s journey,” Maude related, specifying that they approached Tony Fadell from Michigan, an eager General Magic fan at the company’s outset, who worked his way into becoming one of their key technologists.
“We need to have a character who we can follow that journey through. We were fortunate when Tony sat down on a stool for an interview—the hope is that the audience relates to him because of his coming into this world. It was the second day of the shoot, with him telling us the story that we thought had happened.”
At one point, when the Magic Link, a precursor to the smartphone, is ready to be shipped to retailers, AT&T provided the phone network that the devices would run on. However, few in 1994 knew what the Magic Link could do, much less how they would use the device themselves. “There was so much good will and so much commitment to making it happen,” Kerruish stated. “This was the future. But they weren’t the ones to build it.”
Indeed, the Magic Link failed as a consumer product, despite a partnership with Sony to build the physical components of the device. “They tried to build a spaceship before they could build a car,” Maude said of General Magic’s approach to the Magic Link.
In a bold move, Kerruish and Maude were able to interview John Sculley for their project, a notorious figure in Silicon Valley for being Steve Jobs’ handpicked CEO for Apple in 1983 only to have Sculley turn on him, leading to Jobs’ ouster two years later. Moreover, Sculley had Apple develop a personal digital assistant, the Newton, simultaneous to General Magic creating the Magic Link.
“I think he was really at the will of the board,” Kerruish said in defense of Sculley. “He wasn’t actually malevolent and trying to damage General Magic. Greatness comes from people who are able to look at their failures and own them.”
Ultimately, the General Magic filmmakers point to a conflagration of hindrances as to why the company failed. Internally, despite Porat’s urgent need to ship the Magic Link only five years after he first conceived of it, several General Magic staffers knew that the consumer base was not ready for the product.
Additionally, the Magic Link was released to the public without the advent of the World Wide Web, which ironically became available in the United States and Europe only two years later. Lastly, though the General Magic team members were unqualified geniuses at technology, they were perhaps underserved in the areas of marketing and media relations.
In making the film, Kerruish struggled with her own particular view of failure insofar as it related to General Magic. Significantly, whereas Steve Jobs came into his own after he had been fired by Apple’s board, Porat fell off the grid and never came back after General Magic’s final demise in 2002. “A man’s grasp exceeds his reach,” she revealed.
“There’s something wonderfully romantic about the human capacity for imagining the future and trying to build it—many of them are doomed to fail. The story of the people who try to do this is so compelling and meaningful.”
With three years of collaboration, Kerruish and Maude finally premiered General Magic at the TriBeca Film Festival in New York City in 2018. After a summer 2019 run on the Showtime cable network, the film will be available digitally worldwide this October. Finally, General Magic will be released in theaters in the United Kingdom, the filmmakers’ home base, on October 16.