I happened to visit Seattle this summer. This was my second visit, that too with gap of more 2 decades. Last visit was very brief one, I recently went down the memory lane of that visit when I watched Top Gun. This visit was gave me ample time to explore the city. I am going to cover my experiences with the city on this blog with few articles. Today I am going to talk about my unique experience in Seattle which involved General Magic.
You must be wondering what is General Magic? For those who have been in the IT industry for a while would know that it was a name of the company in Bay Area in the USA, which was way ahead of its time. It had pioneered what we call today as smartphones. I distinctly remember my days in 1994 when I had just arrived in Bay Area, Silicon Valley. I remember coming across General Magic and also another company working on futuristic technology which interested me was DirecTV. This is still around, while General Magic got shut down.
During my stay at Seattle last month, I was put in beautiful University of Washington area, also called as University District. One day as I was loitering on University Avenue, the small structure on the corner caught my attention. It had a name on it which said The Grand Illusion. I got curious. I went near to it. I saw another board, seeming like a show listing in old style, which said General Magic. The name struct in my head. I said what is it doing here after so many years? I went inside the building. It turned out to be a movie theater. In fact, century old movie theater. I was thrilled with my discovery. I asked about General Magic. The ticket master said it is a movie, is about that company. I was even more thrilled. I bought the 10 dollar ticket right away for a show an hour later that evening. I had completely forgotten about that company, as it was a failed venture. I was told by that young lady, that General Magic’s CEO Marc Porat was also present for the show on the earlier day!
The theater The Grand Illusion was itself unique. Small box office with young high school girl sitting there. A book shelf consisting of books about art of making films, film appreciation. I saw some familiar titles there as I had gotten familiar to that field due to my course last year on film appreciation back in India. I was the only one that evening for the show, except another person turned in little later. I opened dialog with that young girl. while we waited for projectionist to arrive for the show. She was to go to Brazil for her further studies. She turned out to be interested in films, as I had guessed. I asked her about their association with University Of Washington, especially in the area of spreading art of film making, film appreciation. But to my disappointment, they were not unfortunately.
Anyways, coming back to the movie and General Magic itself. This movie is about this company which was founded in 1990. Many of the founders were from Apple. They wanted to work on revolutionary idea that was way ahead of its time, in the arena of personal communications. They devised earliest personal digital assistants(PDAs) as they were called that time, and now known as smartphones. The movie goes back in time to find out what happened, why it failed.
As the movie began with background voice saying powerful words “Failure isn’t the end, actually it is the beginning”, the documentary traces its roots in Apple Computers, where it started as a project, which later was spun off into a separate company General Magic. Many of Apple’s employees joined it including Marc Porat as his founder CEO. The passion, energy, the belief of the small team early on, including Bill Atkins, Andy Rubin(who created Android later), was quite amazing to watch in this documentary. But the idea was ahead of its time, the market probably was not ready. Making many partners including Sony, AT&T, Motorola, technologies work together was challenging. Despite the fact that announcements of plans generated lot of interests, it saw dismal sales. The film includes lot of original archival footage of drawings, photos, videos, interviews, which makes it fun to watch and relive the moments of that era, as you try to relate it. It even went IPO on this interest and hope, but never made it big.
But as it said in the documentary, the company never failed, as most of the ideas later materialized eventually in many products, smartphones we use these days. I recently read that Apple’s long time Chief Design Officer of Phone, Jony Ive has left Apple. He was instrumental in designing of earliest PDAs from Apple called Newton, which brought competition to General Magic’s products and that eventually made it die. This is, of course, was before iPhone. One more thing. Before Salesforce and Amazon made cloud computing popular and commercial, General Magic was first one in 1994 to use the term cloud to describe one of its service. As per Wiki, the use of the cloud metaphor for virtualized services dates at least to General Magic in 1994, where it was used to describe the universe of “places” that mobile agents in the Telescript environment could go.
Anyways, not sure if this movie will make it to India. But if you find it anywhere, grab it!