General Magic documentary sheds light on Apple spinout’s glorious failure


General Magic
General Magic wanted to build an iPhone-like device back in the 1990s.
Photo: General Magic

Are you familiar with General Magic? If you’re not, and you’re a fan of tech history, you really should be. A cutting edge startup founded by Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson and other veterans of the original Macintosh team, it was one of the most exciting tech companies of the 1990s — before it all came crashing down.

Now a new documentary is set to debut at the 17th Tribeca Film Festival, telling the story of General Magic and its efforts to build a breakthrough handheld computer.

Along with the founders, the documentary also features an interview with Tony Fadell, who got his start with the company before going on to create the iPod. According to Deadline the documentary can be described as follows:

General Magic, directed by Matthew Maude, Sarah Kerruish, written by Matt Maude, Sarah Kerruish, Jonathan Keys. Produced by Matt Maude, Sarah Kerruish. (UK, USA) – World Premiere. A Silicon Valley startup built by the best and brightest minds of the 1980s tech world, General Magic shipped the first handheld wireless personal communicator in 1994. It was decades ahead of its time—and a complete failure. With Tony Fadell, Marc Porat, Andy Hertzfeld, Megan Smith, Joanna Hoffman, Kevin Lynch.”

Unfortunately, as far as we can see there’s no trailer yet available for the documentary. However, the fact that it was selected out of a massive 8,789 submissions suggests that it’s a pretty good film. It’s also got a big link with Apple, since so many company veterans (or future superstars) worked there in some capacity. General Magic actually started as an Apple spinout company, and former Apple CEO John Sculley worked as a director for some time.

I’m a big sucker for Apple history, and have always been particularly interested in what happened during the “bad old days” of the 1990s, when Steve Jobs was in his wilderness years working at NeXT. The buzz on General Magic was enormous back in the 1990s, but it never lived up to the hype — despite creating some genuinely revolutionary technology.

Hopefully this documentary can fill a few gaps in the story. Here’s hoping for a wider release after its debut at Tribeca between April 18-29. Let us know if you have any plans to attend the festival!