General Magic

General Magic opens with a voiceover talking how everyone knows the success stories that have come out of Silicon Valley, but almost no one knows the failures that are far more prevalent. The film then proceeds to tell the tale of the biggest failure of all. Well-known members of the original Macintosh team started a tech company called General Magic. They designed and created the very first smartphone, with virtually all the features we know and rely on today -- in 1994. And then, through a series of events, they blew it, allowing Apple to seize on their ideas for the revolutionary iPhone.

Directors Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude interview many of the people who were there, including founder Marc Porat, whose charismatic personality attracted top talent and got investors interested. General Magic's group had one basic goal, which was to deliver the future to the American public. What they came up with was a phone you could carry everywhere -- one that had a touch screen, email, and apps that could be used to access or transmit information easily.

There were hitches. The touch screen they made wasn't as responsive as they'd hoped. Designers got so absorbed with what could be done that they lost sight of the need to get the product finished on time. The most fatal hitch, however, was the arrival of the internet, which most of the players failed to recognize the potential of. After that, everything tumbled downhill quickly and catastrophically.

In addition to copious interviews, General Magic benefits from the fact that the company hired a camera crew to record what they were doing. Seeing footage from the time, when everyone involved had the barely-contained excitement of thinking they were about to change the world, helps to convey just what a crushing disappointment it was when the floor collapsed. You feel as though you're right there among the team as their fortunes rise and fall.

This is a fascinating story that hooks you, whether you're tech-obsessed or tech-illiterate. It's a look at how dreaming at a grand level leads to one of two outcomes – winning big or losing big. General Magic does a smart thing, which is to make you think about what our culture would have been like had smartphones arrived so much earlier than they did. The sense of loss is greater when you consider the missed opportunities.

Although it goes fairly deep, the documentary could have gone a little further. There's significant ground to cover. Interviewees recount what happened, but it would have been welcome to hear more about how the fate of the company impacted them personally. Porat, for example, implies toward the end that he agreed to appear in the film because he feels guilt and wants to atone to his former employees. That would be a fantastic idea to dig into, yet the documentary glides past it.

General Magic still has enough good material to be absorbing, though. “Failure isn't the end. Failure is the beginning,” one subject points out in the final minutes. And it's true – the individuals we follow here have all gone on to accomplish remarkable things. The company may not have been able to seize the glory of the smartphone's success, but its workers absolutely deserve credit for the invention. General Magic belatedly gives them their due.


out of four

General Magic is unrated, but contains mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.