Review: 'General Magic' sheds light on tech flop

Silicon Valley tech company nearly created the iPhone but fell just short

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Marc Porat's 1989 blueprint for his "smartphone" in "General Magic."

There's a romantic element associated with the notion of being ahead of one's time, of seeing the future before anyone else. "General Magic" shows the flip side of that coin. 

The insightful documentary from directors Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude centers on General Magic, the most important company in Silicon Valley that no one has ever heard of, as one voice in the film frames it. 

General Magic was a tech company founded in 1990 that employed some of the brightest and best minds and software developers in the business. In the early 1990s, the company pioneered the technology that looks an awful lot like today's smartphones. They saw the future, but the future had yet to arrive, and the company wound up crumpling in failure. 

But was it a failure? Kerruish and Maude talk to the key figures at General Magic to discuss the company's idealism, vision and shortcomings. Emojis? They had 'em before anyone else. The idea that everyone would want access to the world at all times from a tiny device that fits in their hand? They were on it when "Cheers" was still on the air. An idea for an auction site that would revolutionize commerce on the web? That weirdo tech support engineer in the corner is the one who'd go on to invent eBay. 

Tony Fadell, the Grosse Pointer who came to General Magic with the hopes of changing the world, talks about the sleepless nights incurred by the team while developing Magic Link, the handheld device that didn't quite change the world and wound up sinking the company. Fadell ended up doing okay for himself; he's a co-inventor of the iPod and the iPhone. "General Magic" shows how it may have never happened had the startup's timing not been a little bit off.

'General Magic'


Not rated: nothing objectionable

Running time: 92 minutes