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In Review: General Magic

Directors: Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude

 
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Highly Recommended

Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude’s compelling documentary charts the relatively short but unquestionably momentous journey of General Magic, a tech company that was formed in 1990 by entrepreneur Marc Porat. Along with former Apple CEO John Scully, Porat gathered together a team of talented Apple employees to push the boundaries of technology. ‘What comes after the personal computer?’ they asked.

The film mostly focuses on the creative energy between ‘magicians’ Andy Hertzfeld, Megan Smith, Tony Fadell and Kevin Lynch during a period where they were holed up in their offices that had a distinct air of secrecy. At the time, it was the talk of Silicon Valley. In fact, it was so alluring for a young, long-haired, high-top wearing Fadell, that he called them in the region of 15 times a day, begging for someone to look at his résumé. ‘They were my heroes. I wanted to be like them,’ he explains. 

In 1989, Porat wrote a book that imagined the future of technology. In the film, he shows us designs for Pocket Crystal, a concept for handheld technology that looks remarkably like the devices that 3 billion humans now keep in their pockets: the smartphone. ‘We really had it. We definitely had it,’ he says, smiling. 

The footage, which Kerruish and Maude have excellently spliced together, helps convey the nature of how these highly driven technicians operated. We see them hunched together coding, joyfully building something new. Hearing the way they dare to dream is fascinating. In one instance, when considering the possibilities of touchscreen, Smith prophetically states that one day it’ll look like ‘a Dick Tracy wristwatch’.

The eventual failure of the company is perhaps not as surprising as it first seems. When the magicians finally launched their product, Hertzfeld revealed to the audience that, ‘The best part was not the invention.’ Peeling back the layers of that statement gives a slight glimpse into both the team’s pure enjoyment of the creative process but also their lack of knowing what consumers wanted. 

‘There was no questioning of, could I be wrong?’ Porat says. ‘That's what you need to break out of earth’s gravity. You need an enormous amount of momentum and that momentum comes from suppressing introspection about the possibility of failure.’ And fail they did. When they eventually took the product to market, only 3,000 units were sold - mostly to the magicians’ family and friends. 

For Kerruish, this story isn’t something she just stumbled across. She was there. In 1993, and in the midst of the team’s untameable innovation and progress, she was asked to film them at work. Along with Maude, they are now able to tell this story with the full scope and reflection it needs. The interviews from the present give the magicians a chance to reflect on the crushing disappointment they encountered. More importantly, however, it allows them to articulate the most valuable lesson they learned: failure is not the end, failure is the beginning.

It's incredible to begin crunching exactly what this group of people eventually achieved. As Porat starkly puts it, between them, Tony Fadell and Andy Rubin are responsible for ‘98% of the world’s smartphones.’ Fadell led the team that created the iPod and the iPhone. He sold a company to Google for 3.2 billion dollars. Rubin founded Android. Smith became Chief Technology Officer of the United States under Barak Obama. The list goes on. 

The brilliance of this documentary is that it shows how necessary failure is to succeed. The lessons here are not unique to the tech industry alone; they are universal. They resonate in all walks of life. When speaking to Cultural Bulletin, Kerruish stated, ‘We wanted to give this toolkit to the next generation and say look, this is what we’ve learned. Please take this and go. Go and make.’

And, as far as life lessons go, the film is full of them. There are few that make you sit up and take stock more than this nugget from John Sculley: ‘If you’re playing it safe and you’re not failing, there’s a very high probability you’re not doing anything important.’ TS