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Tony Fadell, Megan Smith, General Magic, Tribeca Film Festival
Rare photo of working magicians with Tony Fadell (center), Megan Smith (right) in 'General Magic,' Tribeca Film Festival (courtesy of the film)

Tribeca Film Festival Documentary World Premiere ‘General Magic’

An exceptional documentary which chronicles the history of ground breaking social and cultural movement involves technology. In its World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, General Magic revisits a vital a part of our technological history. Significantly, it contributes to our broader understanding of trends. For example, from emojis to mobile computing, from downloadable apps to Instagram, we have General Magic to thank. Lastly, filmmakers highlight themes that relate to our lives and will continue to do so.

In General Magic directors Matt Maude and Sarah Kerruish assemble archived footage of interviews from the past. Then they weave these and contrast them with interviews of the same individuals in the present. With these cinematic weapons the filmmakers examine the phenomenon in Silicon Valley that was the company General Magic. If hindsight is an exact science, the individuals who spearheaded the company and saw the tragedy of its demise tell us through gained wisdom how/why this happened.

General Magic, Tribeca Film Festival
The 1990 prototype of what inspired the smart phone today. ‘General Magic,’ Tribeca Film Festival (photo courtesy of the film)

The chronicle speaks to the rush of enthusiasm and creativity experienced by innovators in the first blush of tech revelation. Initially, only they understood the impact of their mind-boggling invention. Then the film unfolds their journey up an emotional Everest and down into the Mariana Trench. Filmmakers reveal in painstaking and fascinating detail the blood, sweat, and tears of the company’s birth and death from the perspectives of its founders, engineers, and critics. Above all this excellent historical tech retrospective illuminates the dangers of hyper tech innovation. One may create the “next revolutionary thing” in technology, then bring it to market before its time. If users cannot understand the greatness of a device’s innovation, they will not buy it.

Those present on the ground in 1989-1990 when General Magic spawned like Diana from the head of Zeus, speak in awe about its Zeus-like founders. At the top of their game, Marc Porat, Andy Hertzfeld, and Bill Atkinson worked at Apple. When in 1990 General Magic spun off from Apple, the Valley’s rumors about the great secret happening over at the new company swarmed. To their credit filmmakers include a bit of the history of Apple, and clips of Steve Jobs around the time of his firing, Apple’s Newton and more. For those in the industry old enough to know and remember these startling events, the siren song whispers throughout. However, the magicians at General Magic believed in the success of their ideas. Failure was not an option for their wireless personal communicator.

As the business model and social trends required for success floated beyond their kin, the engineers conceptualized. Their creation, a handheld wireless personal communicator that could do everything except make breakfast seemed doable.  They had brought the best and brightest on board (Megan Smith, Joanna Hoffman, Kevin Lynch, Tony Fadell). And these industrious creators helped with the engineering and launch of their great innovation.

Andy Hertzfeld, General Magic, Tribeca Film Festival
A young Andy Hertzfeld, ‘General Magic,’ Tribeca Film Festival (courtesy of the film)

As they worked in trial and error, all envisioned that this device would be the sine quo none of people’s lives. Users would be addicted to its pleasurability. They would have the device to communicate and enjoy as their personal entertainment hub round the clock. As a result, the user’s life functionality would be perceived as meaningful. Indeed, the joy quotient would be off the charts along with device sales. Company profitability seemed a sure thing.

The only problem remained that the Internet didn’t exist. Nor did the infrastructure of websites and web citizens blossom to power the grid of community the founders foresaw. In fact no blossoming occurred. For in the early 1990s few individuals had e-mail. The enticing gaming, photo and entertainment platforms had yet to be envisioned by other engineers and developers.

By comparison to how far we have come, Micro-chip design was in the dark ages. Applications as self-contained tiny worlds of integrated joy? What? For those born long after General Magic entered the halls of tech history, being without an iPhone or Samsung at one’s side seems inconceivable. Indeed, our phones, tablets, and digital watches integrate our lives as Porat, Atkinson, and Hertzfeld envisioned. Even great grannies have a profound emotional attachment to their smart-phones.

Marc Porat, General Magic, Tribeca Film Festival
Marc Porat, Co-founder of ‘General Magic,’ Tribeca Film Festival (courtesy of the film)

Sadly, these visionaries and mavericks could only appreciate the prescience of their efforts and contributions to the evolution of the iPhone and Android over a decade afterward. Nevertheless, it was their creative teamwork and genius that assembled the first handheld wireless personal device. When it launched in 1994, no one thought that its meager sales would never allow the company to fly. Nevertheless, investors pulled out. General Magic went bankrupt.

The filmmakers follow the arc of the engineers’ progress with joie de vivre and the exuberance of the tech artists themselves as they look back at the unlikeliness of this adventure.  In Maude’s and Kerruish’s intriguing chronicle of this company which may be one of the greatest failures of Silicon Valley, they include salient themes. They reveal the villains and heroes, the stresses and pressures. And they cover the 15 corporations who salivated to get in on the “next big thing.” Lastly, they reveal John Sculley’s (at Apple), somewhat nefarious role in the journey of General Magic. In short the film is a fascinating tell all from those who experienced it, learned and moved on to greatness in other endeavors.

Tribeca Film Festival, iPhone, smart phones, General Magic, Mar Porat
Marc Porat demonstrates the 1990 prototype and the iPhone at the time of the film, ‘General Magic,’ Tribeca Film Festival (courtesy of the film)

The rare archival footage has a home movies fun feel. This adds to the enjoyment of this film. Indeed, we note individuals’ euphoria when they straightened glitches in their wireless personal communicator. And we stay mesmerized at their extreme panic when they pull out all the stops (embracing the grunge of no showers), to meet their launch date. We get to witness the first sensory screen worked on by Megan Smith and others. And we see the rudimentary design of the amusing figures that populated the device. All of their work provided the foundation for our smart phones today. If only!

Ironically, the unbounded youthfulness and wide-eyed joy become the harbinger of inevitable failure. Too many heads flew in the clouds. Not enough practical magic sustained the flights of fancy. These themes become paramount in the film. A key feature of the documentary occurs when filmmakers contrast the vintage clips with present founders’/engineers’ astute commentaries. Thus, we appreciate the dichotomy of youth and age in individuals’ appearances and perspectives. For example there was a time when Tony Fadell’s pate did not gleam. And a time when he foresaw the company was in trouble. Also, we empathize with magicians’ ebullience before the crash and burn. And we appreciate the insight and wisdom of experiential learning the founders and engineers offer in the present day.

Heartening is the theme that all colossal failures lead to progress and innovation. Indeed, we joy over this prototype “handheld wireless personal communicator’s” creation. For it was  the precursor of the glory of the smart phones that are in our pockets and purses that inspired downloadable Social Media apps.  Most heartening is that all of the players went on to achieve greatness. And Steve Jobs, learning from their innovations and failures, and his own, went on to greater stardom than even he imagined.

A particularly humorous anecdote relates how the quietest of their group had fashioned an auction site that all the engineers at the time thought was a dismal, silly idea. Of course eBay is a billion dollar company today. It is funny to watch each magician acknowledge that they screwed the pouch on that one. Never underestimate opportunity and the vision of innovative genius.

The film becomes a remarkable witness to history. “Magically” it reveals the complexity of the journey to the how of our modern lives. Well-structured and crafted in seamlessly contrasting the contemporary with the past, General Magic is a winner.

 

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