'General Magic': Film Review | Tribeca 2018

General Magic Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of the Tribeca FIlm Festival
A fascinating cautionary business tale.

Matthew Maude and Sarah Kerruish's documentary chronicles the rise and fall of the pioneering tech company that created a product ahead of its time.

See if you can identify the following people: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Mark Porat.

If you puzzled over the last name, don't feel bad. Porat was the founder of a technology company called General Magic, which you also probably haven't heard of despite it once being described in Forbes magazine as "the most important dead company in Silicon Valley." Matthew Maude and Sarah Kerruish's documentary General Magic, receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, provides a compelling history of a company that created a groundbreaking product that was unfortunately ahead of its time.

The company, started in 1990, was a spinoff of Apple, which six years earlier had unveiled the Macintosh. The idea was to create a handheld personal computer, essentially a precursor to the modern smartphone, and its roster included some of the best and brightest talents in the technology industry including Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson, Megan Smith, Kevin Lynch and Tony Fadell. As a New York Times journalist says of the fledging enterprise, "It had Apple's fairy dust sprinkled on it."

The challenges facing the company were considerable, including having to create nearly every one of the product's components essentially from scratch. It soon had the backing of several major corporate partners including AT&T and Sony. Ironically, Apple was simultaneously developing a competing technology dubbed Newton.

When General Magic announced its plans, the company became an instant media sensation. Investment bankers begged to become involved, one literally taking the shirt off his back to demonstrate his commitment. "We were kings of the universe, and it was really fun," one of the principals recalls.

But when the resulting product, Sony's Magic Link, was unveiled in 1994, it met with a disastrous reception. There was little existing technology to support the device and it was considered too costly. There were no virtually no sales to consumers; of the 3,000 people who did buy product, virtually all were friends or associates of the company. The stock plunged, the company went into bankruptcy and Porat resigned.

"I felt a profound feeling of humiliation," Porat says in the film. Not long after the company's demise, his marriage fell apart as well.

"It was like inventing television in the 1880s," says a journalist about the company's fate. But General Magic was clearly onto something, as the technology it helped create eventually became a central aspect of such modern-day products as the iPhone, Android, iPad and Apple Watch.

Fortunately for the filmmakers, the folks at General Magic weren't camera-shy. The documentary features copious amounts of fascinating behind-the-scenes footage illustrating the youthful energy and passion fueling the enterprise. Contemporary interviews with many of the principal figures provide further insight as to what they were feeling at the time and how the years have affected their perspective. The film also includes many fascinating digressions, such as a segment devoted to a proposal by one of the developers to create a flea-market type of website. The higher-ups at General Magic thought the idea was absurd and turned it down. It eventually became eBay.

The film concludes with a segment informing us what the people behind General Magic have been up to since the company's demise. It turns out there's no need to worry; they've all done quite well, including Porat, who went on to found three cleantech companies whose products help fight climate change.

Production company: Spellbound Productions
Directors: Matt Maude, Sarah Kerruish
Screenwriters: Sarah Kerruish, Jonathan Key, Matt Maude, Michael Stern, Ceri Tallet
Producer: Matt Maude
Executive producers: Reynold D'Silva, John Giannandrea, Michael Stern
Directors of photography: Jay Maude, Matt Maude
Editors: Claire Ferguson, Anne Meller
Composer: Benji Merrison
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival

90 minutes