What Happened to General Magic?
August 1, 2018 8:02 PM   Subscribe

Chances are that you’ve never heard of General Magic, but in Silicon Valley the company is the stuff of legend. Magic spun out of Apple in 1990 with much of the original Mac team on board and a bold new product idea: a handheld gadget that they called a “personal communicator.”

Plugged into a telephone jack, it could handle e-mail, dial phone numbers, and even send SMS- like instant messages—complete with emoji and stickers. It had an app store stocked with downloadable games, music, and programs that could do things like check stock prices and track your expenses. It could take photos with an (optional) camera attachment. There was even a prototype with a touch screen that could make cellular calls and wirelessly surf the then- embryonic web. In other words, General Magic pulled the technological equivalent of a working iPhone out of its proverbial hat—a decade before Apple started working on the real thing. Shortly thereafter, General Magic itself vanished.
posted by roger ackroyd (44 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have held in my own hand a Magic Cap device! Wish I remembered the provenance. Dude that had it collected obscure prerelease and first-gen stuff and had a Mac Portable, which was, geez, it was a thing. A terrible thing.
posted by mwhybark at 8:28 PM on August 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


Must have been around 1996. Dude lived in Venice Beach in the early nineties and some of the stuff he had looked like it had been stored outside near the ocean.
posted by mwhybark at 8:32 PM on August 1, 2018


I still have a General Magic device - a Data Rover 840. It is a nifty thing to play around with. I can’t do much with it because it is impossible to get anything onto or off it as I don’t have the special cable for it.
posted by fimbulvetr at 8:36 PM on August 1, 2018 [8 favorites]


Man, I coveted the Magic Link so badly back then, but as I was fresh out of college I didn’t have the earning power to justify it. Eventually wound up with a Palm Pilot instead, which was fun but largely useless. It was an exciting time for hardware.
posted by ejs at 8:43 PM on August 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


I remember discussing cell phones with an insufferable know-it-all colleague at USC back in 1989 and made an uncharacteristically confident prediction:

“In 20 years,” I said, “you’ll probably be able to carry a mobile phone in your pocket. You’ll be able to access Usenet boards from it, check your messages, log in to the USC BBS. It’ll be awesome!”

“Nah,” said Frank. “In twenty years, there will be such a saturation of computers and regular phones everywhere that people won’t need to carry their own. Mobile phones are going to be obsolete because no one will want to pay for or carry something they can find and use anywhere for free.”

I WAS RIGHT, FRANK!!!
posted by darkstar at 9:00 PM on August 1, 2018 [52 favorites]


I loved the Magic Cap interface so much and wanted one badly. The little poof when you deleted something would get me every time (a version of that eventually made its way into Mac OS X). I'm not sure it's entirely a good UI—it certainly borrows too much from the Microsoft Bob school—, but unlike the sameness of everything now, it was a real effort at creating new forms of interaction.

It's funny that this comes up now, because I've been thinking about General Magic lately. I was at SFMOMA recently, and they had a small technology design exhibit that featured a Magic Link and a little slideshow of sample images from the UI. And I was amused to spot in one of the UI screens a sample notecard that had a little easter egg: a shoutout to one of Bill Atkinson's kids.

As the oral history points out, it was too ahead of its time, but just close enough so that the through-line from that device to modern smartphones is so apparent, much of it running through Andy Rubin: General Magic -> Danger -> Android. The iPhone was, in its own way, revolutionary, but I do think people give it too much credit for inventing smartphones: we were well on our way there already, as the sales chart shows.
posted by zachlipton at 9:27 PM on August 1, 2018 [11 favorites]


Well weapon!
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 9:32 PM on August 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


The iPhone was, in its own way, revolutionary, but I do think people give it too much credit for inventing smartphones: we were well on our way there already, as the sales chart shows.

I think we forget about the Treo, and underestimate the impact of Blackberries because of how badly RIM ended.

By the end of the Blackberry era, BES had become an Exchange extension, but still -- if RIM hadn't failed and been displaced we might have had less of the buttery emails.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:43 PM on August 1, 2018 [6 favorites]


I remember having some General Magic devices demonstrated to me while I was working on UI design for British Telecom, back in that era. At that time, there were a bunch of landline "screenphones" starting to appear that used a Bellcore developed standard called ADSI . They looked like this - nothing that was going to revolutionise the world of user interfaces (although notably more expressive than trying to send commands using obscure keypad commands which was - and still is - a thing in the world of plain old telephones). Compared to anything in that line, Magic Cap was years ahead - but the the real problem was probably getting the Telcos on board to push out a single standard - in fact co-operations from Telcos were one of the biggest challenges in getting the original iPhone out many years later, I believe. The problem was getting not just AT&T but a majority of them globally on board. This needed international standards to be formed and agreed - something which takes many years in that arena (they had only just finally agreed which letters should go on which buttons on a keypad at this stage, for example).

This was the same year that I remember getting told off by a senior manager for "all the international call charges you must be running up looking computers in Switzerland" (I was showing him a web browser pointed to CERN). The Worldwide Web came along pretty fast leaving General Magic betting on the wrong horse - and it took pretty much everybody in the area by surprise (ironically as telcos had research interests in the internet going back to the 1960s - but mainly perused by people in back rooms with socks and sandals - nobody listened to them back then).

No mention in the article of Microsoft Bob - which - looking back on it - seems like the best known descendant of the General Magic paradigm.
posted by rongorongo at 12:06 AM on August 2, 2018 [8 favorites]


I remember a nifty workaround for the lack of cellular data sometime in the late 90s: PocketMail. It was a small handheld, really just one of those Oregon Scientific personal organizers, with offline email read/compose capabilities. You could write a message, then hold the acoustic coupler on the back of it up to a payphone; it would dial an 800 number and the built-in modem would send/receive your mail for offline review.

It never really took off, since RIM figured out how to achieve something better using the paging network that appealed to corporate buyers, but I always thought the acoustic coupler trick was one missing bit that General Magic could have really used, since plugging a portable device into a phone line killed so much of the value.

Strangely, there's one still for sale on Amazon. It has a one-star review from 2015 complaining that it doesn't work because the company is long gone.
posted by zachlipton at 12:36 AM on August 2, 2018 [6 favorites]


Steve Wozniak: The Macintosh wasn’t a computer—it was a program to make things move in front of Steve’s eyes.
posted by Brocktoon at 1:42 AM on August 2, 2018 [6 favorites]


I remember us getting one in the office when they came out. We were writing web browsers and email software for Psions and then mobile phones, so had examples of all the PDAs and such for us to play with. The skeuomorphic UI for it was cute, but having to leave a room and walk down a corridor to find the next room in order to switch applications made navigating around the device painfully slow. I don't think anyone used it for more than a few minutes just to play around (whereas people would borrow other devices and use them in anger for a few days or weeks).

rongorongo: co-operations from Telcos were one of the biggest challenges in getting the original iPhone out

Yep. I remember sooo much frustration within our team in trying to get any of our features related to integrating the Web anywhere else in the phone than in a browser app through into production. I mean, I had push notifications delivering the BBC news headlines live to update a customisable HTML homescreen on my development featurephone in 2000, but the phone OEMs wouldn't let our code anywhere near their UI. Each of the phone manufacturers (understandably) believed they knew best about the phone UX, and each of the telcos thought that they knew best... One of the big achievements with the iPhone was for Apple to be big enough a company, and determined enough, to say "this is how it works, take it or leave it".
posted by amcewen at 3:35 AM on August 2, 2018 [7 favorites]


I loved the Magic Cap interface so much and wanted one badly.

It's like the Mutiny Community interface in Halt and Catch Fire.
posted by snofoam at 4:17 AM on August 2, 2018 [7 favorites]


> I think we forget about the Treo, and underestimate the impact of Blackberries because of how badly RIM ended.


I feel the iPaq deserves more acknowledgement as a smartphone ancestor. Slap a wireless card in the back and you're very close in capabilities to a first-gen iPhone (more capable, in software terms).
posted by Leon at 4:19 AM on August 2, 2018 [5 favorites]


Cool. Now somebody please do an fpp on the people who developed the Jaz drive and tell me they're all burning in hell.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:47 AM on August 2, 2018 [4 favorites]


Not surprising to see Bill Atkinson was involved with this! Wild motherfucker invented Hypercard during an LSD trip.
posted by duffell at 5:05 AM on August 2, 2018 [5 favorites]


because no one will want to pay for or carry something they can find and use anywhere for free.

What is it with tech people and totally forgetting/ignoring capitalism, human greed and political hegemony, such that they're always saying some version of "when GADGET is built, UTOPIA" ?
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:36 AM on August 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


A bunch of really talented people, who all had a big blind spot when it came to seeing just how big the Internet was about to be. Which is because, of course, the Internet was Not Invented Here.

(I was in academia in the early 90s; even before NCSA Mosaic was out we could all see how essential it was to our work, and we could see the Internet’s exponential growth curves. It wasn’t that hard to see what was coming).
posted by 1970s Antihero at 6:02 AM on August 2, 2018 [4 favorites]


I feel the iPaq deserves more acknowledgement as a smartphone ancestor. Slap a wireless card in the back and you're very close in capabilities to a first-gen iPhone (more capable, in software terms).

I had (and have) one. With a Sprint PCS PCMCIA modem, and a PCMCIA Ethernet adapter. It was more of a tablet ancestor imo, and WinMob was a mess. I’ve never had another device that had so much promise but just didn’t want to be useful. I wound up using it mostly for SMB IT network troubleshooting with the Ethernet card.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:19 AM on August 2, 2018


A bunch of really talented people, who all had a big blind spot when it came to seeing just how big the Internet was about to be. Which is because, of course, the Internet was Not Invented Here.

No kidding. Employees at my university created Internet Gopher unsupported, on their own time. The relevant departments officially recognized it, then raced to monetize it. This took place between 1991 and 1994, just before Netscape came out of beta. A few years later, the local baby Bell, US West, had a Minitel derived internet appliance that one could subscribe to.
posted by ZeusHumms at 6:38 AM on August 2, 2018


I have a few things to say about this, mostly critical. First, it's news to me, as someone who's used Macintoshes since the 128K, that they don't have OSes. Thanks, Woz, not really sure why you're here. (You too, Sculley.) In general, there's a lot of dumb slagging on Jobs and the Mac; Sculley may have been easier to get along with than Jobs (most of the people on the planet were easier to get along with than 80s Jobs), but he didn't convince these people to stay at Apple, and there's a lot of bitterness at him for "stealing" their ideas to use for the Newton (although they seem to be very different devices). And the OS metaphor was an extension of the Mac OS (sorry, Woz) from the desktop out into the corridor and eventually the street. (Neal Stephenson used essentially the same design for his Metaverse in Snow Crash.) Finally, I wouldn't say that "General Magic pulled the technological equivalent of a working iPhone out of its proverbial hat" if it needed to be jacked in; part of the whole point of a smartphone is that it doesn't need to be.

That having been said, I probably would have liked to have had one back in the day, if I'd even known that they existed. There seemed to be a bunch of "internet appliances" (anyone remember Audrey?) that never quite caught on. And that's quite a murderers' row of talent that got their start there: Tony Fadell, Megan Smith, Pierre Omidyar, etc.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:58 AM on August 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


Tony Fadell may be talented, but he's an asshole who likes to park his Ford GT in handicapped spots. Called the cops on him to have it towed when I worked with him.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 7:49 AM on August 2, 2018 [12 favorites]


Bonus link: Computing in Your Pocket: The Prehistory of the iPhone in Silicon Valley (John Markoff writing up the event at the Computer History Museum, March 14, 2017)

General Magic's Magic Cap, previously listed in Eight Biggest Tech Flops Ever (December 30, 2003)
posted by filthy light thief at 7:54 AM on August 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


Dish, baby, you gotta have more than that.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:55 AM on August 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


Cool. Now somebody please do an fpp on the people who developed the Jaz drive and tell me they're all burning in hell.

I would hold out for the company that made Orb disks. Those things lasted like 3 months before they started to die and/or eat disks.
posted by jmauro at 8:23 AM on August 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


I found this comment on HN, which has a pretty epic quote from Thomas Dolby's biography*:
“Marc Porat and I were eyeball-to-eyeball as he continued to fill me in about his company. Marc didn’t notice, but across the table, Bill Gates was ignoring the sycophants to his left and right, and straining to eavesdrop on Marc’s jargon-laden elevator pitch. Gates seemed to be getting more and more agitated, and was poking at his beef Wellington. As Marc explained his technology in more detail, Gates began rocking nervily back and forth in his chair.

“You’ll have these intelligent agents, as I call them,” said Marc quietly, “scouting and negotiating on your behalf, pulling in data from all over the Net. Eventually you won’t really need a PC, because all your work will be in a sort of cloud.”

Suddenly there was an explosion from across the table. “MARC, THAT’S FUCKING BULLSHIT AND YOU KNOW IT!” It was Gates.

His tie was too tight and the veins were bulging on his neck. In the wake of this high-decibel outburst, a deadly silence descended on the room. Startled faces at both tables turned our way. Even the waiters froze, silver ladles in their hands. Amid the hush that had fallen, Marc Porat visibly shriveled in his seat, looking like he wished a hole would swallow him up.”
Does it explain Microsoft Bob? Who knows. But that was mid 90's billg in a nutshell right there.

I have mixed feelings about GM**, but I can totally see the old Macintosh team trying to 'get the band back together' and make the Pocket Crystal*** project work away from Apple HQ. I was certainly rooting for them.


* I know, right??!? I totally have to read this.
** General Magic pivoted into a speech recognition company which then couldn't find a buyer. I lost badly when they went bankrupt in 2002.
*** Pocket Crystal was an internal Apple project that was spun out as General Magic. Having not seen the movie I'm not sure if they portray it this way or as a band of rebels showing Apple how to innovate again and then Scully pulling the rug out from under them...which seems to be the case in either circumstance.

posted by JoeZydeco at 8:46 AM on August 2, 2018 [4 favorites]


As to Atkinson and HyperCard, a lot of HyperCard came out of the research and writings of Ted Nelson in the early 60’s. HyperCard was the first practical and working version of these ideas. The goal was essentially programming for everyone. But it turns out very few people want to program. They just want to watch. DynaBook and Smalltalk were another instance of programming for all that went nowhere. We have the DynaBook now in the form of the iPad. But there is no programmability allowed, thanks to Apple. I don’t want jet packs or hover cars. I want my DynaBook.
posted by njohnson23 at 8:50 AM on August 2, 2018


I still have a General Magic device - a Data Rover 840.

why haven't any browsers yet called themselves "The Internet Center"? i would give it blind loyalty for that name alone.
posted by numaner at 9:11 AM on August 2, 2018


(Neal Stephenson used essentially the same design for his Metaverse in Snow Crash.)
- Nerds of a certain generation - probably those of us who have pursued this thread this far - will be nodding sagely.
posted by rongorongo at 9:16 AM on August 2, 2018 [4 favorites]


My fond spot in my heart for Magic Cap comes from their embrace of mobile agents. You'd have a little program running on your computer, then send it out over the network, the code, and have it run on someone else's computer! Just like Tron! I really liked that idea and tried to spin up a whole PhD thesis on the concept. Magic Cap was the closest to using the idea in a real commercial development.

Turns out mobile agents are a really bad idea. At least general purpose ones.
posted by Nelson at 9:53 AM on August 2, 2018 [7 favorites]


When I saw this post, at first I thought it was about General Magick, the Silicon Valley company that invented the PDA - the Personal Daemonic Assistant. That company was started by Christine Ritter, an MIT-educated witch who used to be in the Homebrew Spellbook Club with Jack Parsons.

This was the company that figured out how to miniaturize the crystal ball so that you could carry a bound and imprisoned daemon in your pocket. Did you know that the original version actually had a tiny piezo speaker inside it that spoke the prerecorded magic incantations out loud? The incantations were recorded on an analog magnetic disc, which is why the device was kinda bulky. There was a tiny enthusiast community that recorded new spells onto the disk. That got a lot harder to do when they started litho-etching runes directly onto the crystal.

People forget this company because the product was ahead of its time. Nobody knew what to do with a demon that could only cast this small, personal level of spell. At the time, everybody thought of demons as being something where you made a big sacrifice and it granted you some large-scale wish that changed the world.

But the company actually exists, sort of -- just not as a consumer products company! Their Material Components division was spun out, as Abra Design, and licensed their technology. The crystal in your current pocket demon is probably using spells that directly inherit from the original PDA!

Once, I tried to write an oral history of this company, but I couldn't get ahold of any of the principals, because I had made them all up.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 10:02 AM on August 2, 2018 [15 favorites]


Galaxor Nebulon (diggin' the 'nym), have you read Pratchett?
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:10 AM on August 2, 2018


The part about using a software modem is very prescient, but in practice they were huge CPU pigs, especially in a time when CPUs didn't really have a lot of cycles to spare - unless you had a dedicated digital signal processing chip handling the DAC/ADC stuff. Which, surprise, is 90% of a MODEM chipset or circuit.

Anyway, it would likely make any handheld, battery powered device unusable during modem use.

Not surprising to see Bill Atkinson was involved with this! Wild motherfucker invented Hypercard during an LSD trip.


I have only once witnessed what happens when an established coder/hacker takes acid for the first time, and it was actually vaguely horrifying.

Thirty minutes in and he's filling notepads with gibberish and he's trying to invent some new kind of data structure or array handling system and you can practically see space time bending around his smoking head.

It was kind of fun. I can't imagine what it'd be like with a properly wizard-tier nerd.
posted by loquacious at 12:09 PM on August 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


> [iPaq] WinMob was a mess

We threw away the interface and replaced it with our own. Big chunky buttons you could tap with your fingers, not a stylus. Extreme aversion to dropdowns. Made for great technology demos, but not many business customers. I just wish we'd thought of swipe gestures - and I was using Opera at the time! I'm an idiot. The real problem in the consumer space, I seem to recall, was software distribution. I do credit Apple massively with the app store.
posted by Leon at 12:46 PM on August 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


No mention here of the eo phone? I feel like I interviewed for a job there at some point or another.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 1:43 PM on August 2, 2018


A couple of the ex-PocketMail people were at Danger too. "It's a small valley," as they say.
posted by enf at 3:58 PM on August 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


As to Atkinson and HyperCard, a lot of HyperCard came out of the research and writings of Ted Nelson in the early 60’s.
That was Gary Kildall's narrative when HyperCard was introduced, but I'd like to read a citation (not by Ted Nelson) that Project Xanadu was actually a reference for Atkinson and Winkler. Atkinson does cite LSD as inspiration, but not Xanadu. And if you look at the actual Project Xanadu as finally demonstrated in 2014, it's nothing like HyperCard.

In contrast, if you played with tools of that era—MacPaint, MacroMind VideoWorks (the precursor to MacroMind Director), the Atari ST's Zoomracks (which also used "cards and stacks"), etc.—you can see that HyperCard is an amazing riff on what was happening at Apple and around GUI-based computing at the time.
posted by ArmandoAkimbo at 7:34 PM on August 2, 2018 [3 favorites]


Bill Atkinson is tops.
posted by parki at 7:57 PM on August 2, 2018


In contrast, if you played with tools of that era—MacPaint, MacroMind VideoWorks (the precursor to MacroMind Director), the Atari ST's Zoomracks (which also used "cards and stacks"), etc.—you can see that HyperCard is an amazing riff on what was happening at Apple and around GUI-based computing at the time.

Hypercard - and later Director and Supercard - were also used for the user interface design of many other devices at this time. The fact that the UI of this payphone looks a little like something make in Hypercard may owe quite a lot to the fact that the design - and partial specification for the manufacturers - was done as a Hypercard stack, for example. I strongly suspect that also applied to Magic Cap.

A shout out too to Marc Canter who founded MacroMind - originating company for Director. I believe it was Center's background as an opera singer which led him to come up with an idea of a grand score as a programming tool: looping actions are simply sections, we have a separate staff for each sprite, inputs and outputs happen and particular moments and we wait or react to them at an appropriate time... and so on.

General Magic, in many ways, was more revolutionary in terms of the tools it was using to build it product than it was for the product itself. Before that user interfaces had largely be built with paper based flow charts - not much fun to use when there is any degree of complexity.
posted by rongorongo at 4:00 AM on August 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


General Magic, in many ways, was more revolutionary in terms of the tools it was using to build it product than it was for the product itself.

See also, NeXT.

There were more interesting experiments in mobile UI/devices going on than the monotheists would have us remember, mirroring and foreshadowing mainstream successes, from IBM's 1994 Simon (explicitly a phone, rather than the contemporaneous Newton) to the MyOrigo from 2003, which Nokia turned down due NIH. I remember getting quite excited when I reviewed Go Corp's pen-based environment around 1990, because it was so well designed, but hitting things with sticks remains a minority sport. But I don't think any consumer electronic/digital device manufacturer in the 1980s didn't have a UI/mobile group beavering away in the corner trying to be very clever. It absolutely was where things were going, even if the precise destination - and far more critically, the when - were vastly unclear.

If you're in the UK - or can be so virtually - there's a fun documentary on BBC4 iPlayer for the next week, The Rise And Fall Of Nokia. Beaucoup mobile R&D retroporn.
posted by Devonian at 7:21 AM on August 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


I knew a guy who worked at General Magic, back in the day...the job title on his business card read "Information Sorcerer".
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 8:47 AM on August 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


Beaucoup mobile R&D retroporn

Good name for a Culture GSV.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 1:04 PM on August 3, 2018


I find it amusing that Apple is a $1T company after how badly they dealt with the early web (eworld!, almost as ham fisted as Microsoft blackbird/network), and I can only assume anyone saying the Newton was some useful precursor to an iPhone only played with one for a bit one afternoon?

I loved, loved, loved my Newtons (the 100, 110 and 2000 models) but they were, at best, a technology demonstration.
When the Palmpilot came out with a fraction of the size, 10 times the battery life and apps that could do things, that was revolutionary.
There were a lot of years between the first pilots and the first iphone. It bothers me that USRobotics, who had the best modems, when they were a thing, bought Palm when pilots were a thing, and were tantalisingly close to making online PDAs happen, before 3com bought them all and left them to rot.
I remember in a hotel room at COMDEX 97 using a palm pilot to check email with a wired modem and thinking if this just worked a little better, and was a little easier, it would be huge.

At least outside the USA, the real revolution the iphone delivered was cellular data plans that didn't charge by the kilobyte, so you could actually use the device away from wifi without having a financial heart attack. Certainly in non-US markets, the Treo and early Blackberry's were crippled by absurd usage based cell data plans.
posted by bystander at 6:00 AM on August 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


Ars Technica has an article on General Magic, focused on their movie that "has been playing at select festivals since and is currently seeking distribution." They also include a link to a cast Q&A available on YouTube.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:52 AM on August 13, 2018


« Older The Bullshit Web   |   John Egerton: Southern Foodways & Life Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments