General Magic is a nostalgic film about the ‘90s startup that imagined the smartphone

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief reviews on festival films, VR previews and other special event launches. This criticism comes from the Tribeca Film Festival 2018.

Silicon Valley is stereotyped with arrogant geniuses who forge the future unaided, including Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and many more. But the General Magic startup of the 90s, as shown in a new homonymous documentary, was a team of gentle visionaries in the right place at the wrong time.

General Magic is sometimes credited with trying to invent the iPhone in the 1990s. The startup separated from Apple with the intention of designing a device similar to a smart phone known as Pocket Crystal, but it collapsed because his incredibly ambitious project collided with technical limitations and poor planning. General Magic, directed by Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude, offers a detailed and affectionate look at the brief rise and fall of the company.

What is the genre?

Bright and nostalgic narrative documentary. General Magic presents many original images of the 1990s from the offices of General Magic because its founders actually hired a filmmaker to document their development process. It also brings together a wide range of former employees and associates, including former Apple CEO John Sculley and iPhone co-creator Tony Fadell, to make them look like talking heads. (Revelation: Kara Swisher, co-founder of The site of The Verge Recode, consulted and appears in the film.)

What is it about?

In 1990, a handful of superstar Apple employees founded a startup called General Magic to build a first-class pocket computer. This vision was so convincing that General Magic was launched to the stock market even before showing a finished device. It established itself as one of the most exciting companies of the decade, thanks to the work of its charismatic CEO, Marc Porat, and several members of the Macintosh computer development team, including software geniuses Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld.

General Magic became one of the most dramatic failures in Silicon Valley, after sending a generation of hardware to abysmal sales numbers. The recently released World Wide Web left her blind, unable to juggle a complicated set of corporate alliances, and undermined by her own parent company, Apple, which launched her with the similarly looking PDA Newton. But former General Magic employees ended up defining the modern technological landscape, including virtually the entire smartphone market. As one of the interviewees of the film says, General Magic is "the most important company in Silicon Valley that nobody has ever heard".

What is it really about?

The idealism of Silicon Valley, in its brightest form and the purest form. General Magic is like a non-fiction version of Halt and Catch Fire where nobody fights, and almost everyone ends up being incredibly successful. The film credibly argues that General Magic tried to build something very similar to a contemporary smartphone, and this plan was doomed to failure in the early 1990s. While the company clearly suffered from management problems and a large dose of Arrogance, the film focuses on mistakes that are almost endearing. In an interview, Andy Hertzfeld complains about undermining the deadlines for designing a virtual currency exchange in a gaming application.

For a film about failure, General Magic is often aggressively optimistic. According to its history, the company sank, but it still incubated a whole generation of Silicon Valley talents. His list of employees included the future technology director of the White House, Megan Smith, the future Android co-creator Andy Rubin, the future founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, and the future co-designer of iPod and iPhone, Tony Fadell, among others. . The General Magic interviews with Fadell bring his story in a complete circle: he started as one of the younger employees of General Magic and ended up making his dream come true through the iPhone.

But there is a background of melancholy fatalism too. In General Magic ideas like the smartphone are meant to exist, and would-be creators can only hope to have been born at the right time to get their names on the patent. For all the success that the younger members of the Magic team saw, the more important figures like Porat and Hoffman seem to have never emotionally recovered from their failure. They can claim the credit for laying the foundations of the iPhone, but it's a bittersweet triumph, because, after all, someone else would have done it eventually.

Is it good?

General Magic presents a large number of successful icons of technology that recall their days of youth, a format conducive to the creation of softly self-satisfied myths. But the subjects of the film are aware of themselves, frank about their failures and often contagiously enthusiastic. It is easy to take root of your younger selves, especially when you know how well they will end up being crushed. The company was really building something exciting, and General Magic captures that feeling of emotion well.

General Magic's hyper-ambition was financially disastrous, but it created a lot of extravagant hardware and software sequences for the movie to explore. Some inventions seem genuinely prophetic, like a collection of protoemoji animated stickers. Some are impractical but fascinating, like an "urban" computer interface with buildings for applications. Some simply drive home how far computing has come, such as the final design of Porat's iPhone-sized concept, which ended up looking like a high-tech Etch A Sketch.


Image: Wikipedia

there is a dark side to the idealism of the film, it is the approval of General Magic to punish times of development crisis. Some employees are clear about how much they sacrificed, particularly Porat, whose relationship with his wife and children broke down. And the references of the film to people who fall asleep under desks and put up bunk beds in the office are exciting narrative rhythms. But today, these stories help other companies convince employees to kill themselves practically, which makes them look less innocently romantic than they could have been in the 1990s.

Still, for a particularly complicated in Silicon Valley, General Magic is a reminder of how compelling stories about technology can be.

What should be qualified?

PG or PG-13 for some bad words.

How can I see it? [19659023] General Magic is currently looking for distribution.

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