Jan 18, 2020
General Magic Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us to innovate (and sometimes cope with) the future! Today’s episode is on a little-known company called General Magic who certainly had a substantial impact on the modern, mobile age of computing. Imagine if you had some of the best and brightest people in the world. And imagine if they were inspired by a revolutionary idea. The Mac changed the way people thought about computers when it was released in 1984. And very quickly thereafter they had left Apple. What happened to them? They got depressed and many moved on. The Personal Computer Revolution was upon us. And people who have changed the world can be hard to inspire. Especially at A big company like what Apple was becoming, where they can easily lose the ability to innovate. Mark Pratt had an idea. The mobile device was going to be the next big thing. The next wave. I mean, Steve Jobs has talked about mobile computing all the way back in 83. And it had been researched at PARC before that and philosophically the computer science research community had actually conceptualized ubiquitous computing. But Pratt knew they couldn’t build something at Apple. So in 1990 John Sculley, then CEO at Apple, worked with Pratt and they got The Apple board of directors to invest in the idea, which they built a company for, called General Magic. He kept his ideas in a book called Pocket Crystal. Two of the most important members of the original Mac team, Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld were inspired by the vision and joined on as well. Now legends, everyone wanted to work with them. It was an immediate draw for the best and brightest in the world. Megan Smith, Dan Winkler, amy Lindbergh, Joanna Hoffman, Scott Canaster, Darin Adler, Kevin Lynch, big names in software. They were ready to change the world. Again. They would build a small computer into a phone. A computer... in your pocket. It would be described as a telephone, a fax, and a computer. They went to Fry’s. A lot. USB didn’t exist yet. So they made it. ARPANET was a known quantity but The Internet hadn’t been born yet. Still, a pocket computer with the notes from your refrigerator, files from your computer, contacts , schedules, calculators. They had a vision. They wanted expressive icons, so they invented emoticons. And animated them. There was no data network to connect computers on phones with. So they reached out to AT&T and Go figure, they signed on. Sony, Phillips, Motorola, Mitsubishi gave them 6 million each. And they created an alliance of partners. Frank Canova built a device he showed off as “Angler” at COMDEX in 1992. Mobile devices were on the way. By 1993, the Apple Board of Directors was pressuring Sculley for the next Mac-type of visionary idea. So the Newton was announced in 1994, with the General Magic team feeling betrayed by Sculley. And General Magic got shoved out of the nest of stealth mode. After a great announcement they got a lot of press. They went public without having a product. The devices were trying to do a lot. Maybe too much. The devices were slow. Some aspects of the devices worked, for other aspects, They faked demos. The web showed up and They didn’t embrace it. In fact, Dean Omijar with Auctionweb was on the team. He thought the web was way cooler than the mobile device but the name needed work so it became eBay. The team didn’t embrace management or working together. They weren’t finishing projects. They were scope creeping the projects. The delays started. Some of the team had missed delays for the Mac and that worked. But other devices shipped. After 4 years, they shipped the Sony Magic Link in 1994. The devices were $800. People weren’t ready to be connected all the time. The network was buggy. They sold less than 3k. The stock tumbled and by 95 the Internet miss was huge. They were right. The future was in mobile computing. They needed the markets to be patient. They weren’t. They had inspired a revolution in computing and it slipped through their fingers. AT&T killed the devices, Marc was ousted as CEO, and after massive losses, they laid off nearly a quarter of the team and ultimately filed chapter 11. They weren’t the only ones. Sculley has invested so much into the Newton that he got sacked from Apple. But the vision and the press. They inspired a wave of technology. Rising like a Phoenix from the postPC, ubiquitous ashes CDMA would slowly come down in cost over the next decade and evolve connectivity through 3g and the upcoming 5g revolution. And out of their innovations came the Simon Personal Communicator by BellSouth and manufactured as the IBM Simon by Mitsubishi. The Palm, Symbian, and Pocket PC, or Windows CE would come out shortly thereafter and rise in popularity over the next few years. Tony Farrell repeated the excersize when helping invent the iPod as well and Steve Jobs even mentioned he had considered some of the tech from Magic Hat. He would later found Nest. And Andy Rubin, one of the creators of Android, also come from General Magic. Next time you read about the fact that Samsung and Apple combined control 98% of the mobile market or that Android overtook Windows for market share by double digits you can thank General Magic for at least part of the education that shaped those. The alumni include the head of speech recognition from Google, VPs from Google, Samsung, Apple, Blacberry, ebay, the CTOs of Twitter, LinkedIn, Adobe, and the United States. Alumni also include the lead engineers of the Safari browser and AI at Apple, cofounders of webtv, leaders from Pinterest, creator of dreamweaver. And now there’s a documentary about their journey called appropriately, General Magic. Their work and vision inspired the mobility industry. They touch nearly every aspect of mobile devices today and we owe them for bringing us forward into one of the most transparent and connected eras of humanity. Next time you see a racist slur recorded from a cell phone, next time a political gaffe goes viral, next time the black community finally shows proof of the police shootings they’ve complained about for decades, next time political dissenters show proof of mass killings, next time abuse at the hands of sports coaches is caught and next time all the other horrible injustices of humanity are forced upon us, thank them. Just as I owe you my thanks. I am sooooo lucky you chose to listen to this episode of the history of computing podcast. Thank you so much for joining me. Have a great day!