Film Review: ‘General Magic’

Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude’s bittersweet documentary details the groundbreaking Silicon Valley work that led to today’s smartphones.

General Magic

The story of a failure that was, in fact, a triumph, “General Magic” recounts the short but brilliant life of an early 1990s technology company that saw the future too soon. Populated by some of the field’s brightest young minds, General Magic was driven by charismatic founder Marc Porat’s groundbreaking vision for a personal handheld smartphone, which flamed out not for lack of ingenuity but, rather, on account of poor timing. Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude’s documentary pays tribute to his and others’ pioneering work, along the way providing a window into the revolutionary, competitive, and precarious world of Silicon Valley. As a literal origin story about how we live today, it’s a captivating history lesson with global appeal.

As Porat tells it in hindsight, the idea for his device — with phone, messaging, note-taking, and game functions — came to him in 1989, and “General Magic” bolsters his claim to innovative fame by presenting his initial sketchbook drawings for a rudimentary smartphone. In a tech environment always on the hunt for the Next Big Thing, Porat’s invention was such a forward-thinking eye-opener — putting computing power in the hands of billions — that it immediately attracted the support of Apple, which spun him off into a separate company dubbed General Magic. There, he quickly enlisted heavyweights like Macintosh co-creators Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson, as well as Apple marketing executive Joanna Hoffman, who in turn helped attract scores of eager up-and-coming geniuses.

Operating in secret, General Magic was a hotbed of creativity, and “General Magic” is bolstered by abundant archival footage (courtesy of David Hoffman) of the team hatching prophetic concepts (including animated emojis!) and then trying to put them into practice. Hoffman’s material reinforces the film’s claims that the seeds of the iPhone (and its Android competitors) were first sown in General Magic’s offices, cultivated by the likes of future Obama administration Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, current Apple VP of Technology Kevin Lynch, and iPod and iPhone co-creator (and Nest founder) Tony Fadell. They, and many others, speak candidly and compellingly about their excited initial experiences joining the company, their round-the-clock efforts to bring the product to life, and — with palpable wistfulness — the crushing disappointment born from the device’s ultimate failure.

After forming a consortium with Sony, AT&T, and other industry giants, General Magic struggled to get their Sony Magic Link (run by their Magic Cap OS) to retail, due in part to developers’ failure to place practical deadline responsibilities ahead of flights of designer fancy. Apple’s stylus-enabled Newton — launched behind General Magic’s back by supporter John Sculley — also stole some of their thunder. Still, press coverage and market anticipation were high when the Magic Link debuted in 1994. Unfortunately, sales were virtually non-existent. The reason, as “General Magic” reveals, was simply that it was a good decade too early. Slow to pivot from an AT&T closed network to the Internet — which itself was only in its nascent stages, and hardly a ubiquitous force in people’s lives — the imaginative but clunky handheld was made for an interconnected information age that had yet to arrive.

That makes “General Magic” an alternately sad and stirring tale of reaching tomorrow first, and discovering that no one else is quite ready to join you there. Kerruish and Maude’s editorial assembly (aided by Anna Meller) is spry and comprehensive, giving voice to the many trailblazers whose efforts at General Magic wouldn’t pay dividends until they’d moved onto other ventures — which, as a coda elucidates, would be almost uniformly impressive, replete with Fadell and Andy Rubin’s work helping to account for 98% of today’s smartphone market. Only in their excessive fondness for drone shots do the directors make a significant misstep, thereby underlining the potential negative effects of the tech revolution they’re documenting.

Film Review: ‘General Magic’

Reviewed online, Stamford, Conn., May 9, 2019. (In Tribeca Film Festival.) Running time: <strong>93 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) A Gravitas Ventures release of a Spellbound Productions production, in association with Renoir Pictures, Left Eye Blind. Producers: Sarah Kerruish, Matt Maude. Executive producers: Michael Stern, Reynolds D’Silva, John Giannadrea. Co-producers: Dee Gardetti, Ceridwen Tallett, Claire Ferguson.
  • Crew: Directors: Sarah Kerruish, Matt Maude. Writers: Sarah Kerruish, Jonathan Key, Matt Maude. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Matt Maude, Jay Maude. Editor: Anna Meller. Music: Benji Merrison.
  • With: Marc Porat, Andy Hertzfeld, Joanna Hoffman, Tony Fadell, Megan Smith, John Sculley, Kevin Lynch.