LGR Tech Tales – General Magic: Creating the Cloud

In 1993, General Magic was one of the most promising tech ventures around. They had huge companies like Apple, Sony and Motorola backing them, tens of millions of dollars at their disposal, and some of the best people in the industry working for them. They had great plans for mobile touchscreen communications devices and an innovative programming language that would let all types of mobile computers talk to one another easily. But despite all this, just a few years later, most of their partners had left! Their mobile computing dream had become a nightmare, and in 2002, General Magic closed up shop. What happened? This is LGR Tech Tales, where we take a look at noteworthy stories of technological inspiration, failure, and everything in betweeen. This episode tells the tale of of one of the most forgotten, yet influential companies in mobile technology: General Magic. The story of General Magic begins in 1988 at another company known for throwing around the term “magic” quite a bit: Apple Computer. Enter one of their new employees: Mr. Marc Porat, who had founded the Private Sattelite Network, or PSN, in 1983. His company build video conferencing and data networks for Fortune 500 companies and various governments, and it was on the back of this success that Apple hired him. Porat’s job was to head up a project for Apple codenamed “Paradigm”, with the simple goal of building a handheld mobile communications device. But before long, Project Paradigm became far more ambitious: Apple veterans Andy Hertzfeld, the primary software architect for Mac OS, and Bill Atkinson, the creator of HyperCard, helped take things to the next level. This wasn’t going to be just another cell phone, like Motorola was already doing with the DynaTAC, nor was it going to be like the still in development Apple Newton, a precursor to the personal data assistant. No, the plan here was to put the full power of a personal computer into the hands of the everyday person on the go. Since this was technologically impossible using hardware at the time, they came up with the idea of using a “data cloud”. By sending software agents to go and roam servers in the cloud, and retrieve only the information needed by the user when they needed it, even a low-spec device could perform the tasks of full-sized PC. With this ambitious project going by the name “Pocket Crystal”, Mr. Porat convinced Apple CEO John Sculley that this was so awesome it was worth spinning of the project as a new company. And so, in May of 1990, they did exactly that. With $10 million in Apple funding, General Magic was formed in Mountain View, CA. They hand-picked their own dream of engineers, programmers and artists, and got to work straight away on their magical cloud computing platform. And they did this in near-complete secrecy, which quickly got industry analysts buzzing. This only increased when in 1992, it was announced that some of the biggest players in the industry had partnered with the company. Not only did they have the support of Apple, but also Sony, Phillips, Matsushita, Motorola, and AT&T were all on board the General Magic train. Then, in 1993, they sort of announced their ambiguous intentions at a press event. That is, to build a powerful software platform and a communications device that would be usable by anyone, anywhere, anytime. Of course it wasn’t actually ready for prime time yet, at all, but why should that stop the showmanship. The bold promises continued with the announcement of the General Magic Alliance. Companies around the globe, such as France Telecom, Cable & Wireless, Toshiba, Sanyo, Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, and many more, were all now partners and investors in the alliance. And by this point, the momentum seemed unstoppable. Yet, they still didn’t have anything to show for it, well, publicly at least. Internally, the cloud based agent system, now named Telescript, was coming along nicely. The beauty of Telescript was that it worked with all sorts of operating systems and hardware configurations, ensuring compatibility no matter who manufactured the device. Likewise, with Magic Cap, the operating environment designed to be used in conjunction with Telescript. It was somewhat of an evolution of Mac OS, replacing the dropdown menus with room metaphors for each aspect of computing, attempting to make the technology even easier to understand to the casual user. This was actually a popular idea for a while in the 90s, and was also infamously used in the ill-fated Microsoft Bob, but that’s another story. Anyway, the plan was to incorporate this software into a device between the size of a handheld video camera and a pager, which could connect to cloud servers for computing, as well as talk to other people on the network. And keep in mind, this was early 1993, before the idea of personal data assistance had taken off, and before internet and email really grabbed the public’s attention, so the idea was pretty radical. The first devices to use General Magic’s designs came from Sony and Motorola, named the Magic Link and the Envoy, respectively. And while they weren’t as small as General Magic had hoped, at about 8″ across and nearly weighing two pounds, they incorporated all the major features they promised. You could call and message people, manage spreadsheeds, do your taxes, update your calendar and address book, and even use fax services on certain models, all with a graphical touchscreen interface communicating with the cloud. And although the idea went over well with reviewers, consumers weren’t so accepting. For one thing, at around $1000 in 1994, these were nowhere near cheap enough to achieve widespread adoption. Making this worse was the fact that they only communicated using AT&T’s PersonaLink Network for the first two and a half years, limiting users even further, and confusing people, who thought this was supposed to be more open and accessible. Beyond this, the infrastucture for wireless digital communication just wasn’t there yet, so most Magic Cap devices relied on a 2400 Baud modem and a phone line, while others used the even slower and more expensive ARTIS cellular network. Still, the potential for the future seemed huge, and the company went public in 1995, with an IPO valuing them at $600 million. But then, something happened during this time that threw everyone for a loop: the internet! With browser software like NCSA Mosaic and Netscape Navigator, letting everyday computer users connect to the world wide web for the first time, startups and tech giants alike went into a frenzy to capitalize on this exciting new thing. But that meant that General Magic lost a lot of key people in rapid succession, including co-founder Bill Atkinson and Marc Porat, not to mention business partners who decided the internet was the safer bet. Because web browsers let you easily share information with people around the world and it was far more ubiquitous and accessible, which made proprietary networks like General Magic’s pretty unappealing. Then, in early 1996, AT&T completely abandoned PersonaLink, leaving Magic Cap devices with no communication options. And on top of that, the introduction of the Palm Pilot and Palm OS had quickly made the Magic Cap OS obsolete. So General Magic quickly decided to shift gears from their own proprietary systems to develop for the internet on other systems, and even made Telescript an open language, but it was just not enough. They had simultaneously started too early and were too late to ride the wave of the internet, and as such had burned millions upon millions of dollars, while earning back relatively little. By 1997, Magic Cap deviced ceased production, and by 1999 their performance on the stock market was unpredictable at best. Research and development at the company was halted that year as well, although there was one last hurrah before the end. It was called Portico, a voice recognition-based personal assistance service, used in products like Palm’s connected organizer and Microsoft’s Outlook. This soon spun off into another product called OnStar Virtual Advisor, developed for General Motors to add voice recognition capability to their vehicles. But after this short reprieve, there was little left going for General Magic, leading to a bankruptcy declaration in 2002. The OnStar assets were turned over to General Motors, and their other remaining patents were auctioned off in court. General Magic is a classic tale of a great idea at the wrong time. And while their own products never saw the success their investors hoped for, the ideas and the people behind them saw all kinds of success. General Magic’s system architect Tony Fadell went on to lead development for the first Apple iPod and iPhone. Engineer Andy Rubin went on to co-found Android and work for Google. Pierre Omidyar went on to start the online auction giant eBay. And pretty much everyone else is still some kind of awesome tech guru of some kind and doing cool things. And of course, General Magic’s technology laid the ground work for cloud computing and smartphones as we know them today. So, while the company may be a largely forgotten tragedy, it’s more than likely that the device you’re watching this video on owes some part of its existence to General Magic. One final thing of notice is that there is actually another modern company called General Magic around since 2015. They have a very similar logo and everything, but they are only related in name. They just happened to take that on and… do things with it that aren’t really related to the original company at all. So, it’s just the name, don’t get confused. And, if you liked this video, then perhaps you like to see some of my other Tech Tales: I’ve got a link to my Motorola one right here, as well as one for Eagle Computer. Both are pretty crazy stories, so I would recommend it if you enjoyed this one. And as always, thank you very much for watching LGR.

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. Can you please make a Tech Tales video about PACIFIC DATA IMAGES (PDI)? They existed between 1980-2015. Although they weren't an electronic or major software company, they were the computer graphics arts studio that brought us many famous ads in the 80's and 90's apparently including some video games tech ads such as the 3D Dreamcast Ads and apparently some Msn ads. They also made floating logos for various TV Networks including NBC, CBS, and ABC. Also, some of their founders went on to do other jobs in the tech industry. MOST IMPORTANTLY, they went on to create Shrek and a lot of famous Dreamworks IPs due to being acquired by them in 2000. Unfortunately, due to Dreamworks recent string of failures they had to be shut down in 2015 laying off over 500 employees.

    Do to this sad ending I think you should make this video, plus maybe it will help you get views from people interested in other areas of computing than you already mainly make videos on.

  2. I'm probably one of few people watching this on a custom built desktop computer 😛
    He says in the end that it's more than likely that the device you are watching this on owes part of it's existence to General Magic, and I assume that's referring to phones? Could be wrong though, and feel free to correct me (politely) if so 🙂

  3. how can you get a copyright infringments if there is nothing about it…oh wait guilty tilll proven innocent right ? well i can tell you about a new and simpler site named vidme.com, its really good and at the difference of youtube, copyright stuff are way better handle there than on youtube !

  4. I just wanted to say that back during my senior year of high school ( just graduated in May, actually) my generalized anxiety disorder was in full swing. So I'd pull up a video of yours during work and whether due to your calming voice or the extremely descriptive content it would make all my unbearable anxiety and panic just vanish! Just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for making my high school experience so much easier, you're awesome man!

  5. Never liked storing stuff on cloud…I like my sotrage devices as I collect weird usb sticks and love portable hard drives 😀

  6. wow this is a blast from the past I used to do email tech support for the magic link version of AOL. still have one of these

  7. I'm starting to notice a trend..once a company goes public its all downhill from there…kind of a make or break situation

  8. As an investor id be kinda pissed if i put all this money in and then everyone at the company just bailed to make more money on something else

  9. I wish I can have that Palm smartphone, with the stylus. 🙁 I'd still use it! It had me at the browser with eBay on it. XD I wonder if it still connects to the internet…I can't find any of the "Palm" phones on eBay or 'shopping' tab on Google.

  10. A roomy of mine while I lived in Eindhoven worked on this thing at Philips. She referred to it as "the rabbit". I've actually had one of these in mine hands, via a different route: a company that I worked with, that dealt with Philips.

  11. This was a trip. It's crazy, these ones where a company had a great idea but it was out of it's time. This one sounds like a supergroup of tech geniuses. But it shows how much timing matters in the tech industry.

  12. please do a LGR Tech tales or review on BOB because I loved that software as a kid and even for what it really was, I don't see why it was so hated then and why it gained such a bad rap for basically being a desk top front end???

  13. I picked up one of the Datarover units off of Ebay some time ago, it was a real pleasure to use and amazingly interesting. I would've loved to get a peak at it during the company's (and the hardware's) peak.

  14. Volkswagen licensed OnStar for the 1997 VW Golf/Rabbit and other, later models as "Volkswagen Telematikdienste". It was marketed on a CD at this time with promising features at this time. Unfortunately, the system was analogue and support was ceased so in 2006(?)…

  15. This is just such a good series. Thank you very much for your awesome work here and every other episode of Tech Tales!

  16. Hey, anybody remeber ALR? Advanced Logic Research. They introduced the first pentium machine in 1992, I think. I wonder what happened to them?

  17. Tech Tales is for sure my favorite series on YouTube. Equal parts classic tech nostalgia and history lesson. Not to mention how well they're edited and performed.

  18. Love these look backs, you do a great job highlighting the lessons learned for those of us in the Tech industry to learn by

  19. Guess most of us viewers can agree how much in awe we find ourselves to see by how much the idea of what we know as the cloud today predates the term "(data) cloud" itself. But if that was not enough, to think that it even predates the internet turns what we thought we knew about computer science upside down (at least for a layman like me). Great work Clint!

  20. I had a magic link for a couple years. I remember I had just purchased a sony camcorder rechargable battery (instead of the battery adapter) Then my magic link was stolen. I never did use that battery…

    It was a limited (looking back) but pretty cool device. I still have the berlitz translator software pcmcia card somewhere around here.

  21. That picture of "engineers" had me cracking up. How you know they're engineers is that they're senselessly wearing hardhats indoors.

  22. Consider taking a look at 1-800-Music-Now… a telephone-based service that let you "Discover" and "Sample" new music with the option to buy instantly and get a CD/Cassette mailed to you.

    They were active (briefly) around 1995… I used to call them after bed time and press random numbers to discover / sample music DECADES before Pandora and the like were a thing…

    It's how I got my first taste of Metallica, Slayer, and the like… I'd see what shirts the other kids were wearing at school and check them out on the phone while I tried to fall asleep.

  23. The technology comes from the fallen angels and demons that inhabit people,NOT people with aspergers syndrome.

  24. Just finished watching a documentary on National Geographic about General Magic when I noticed your video, Clint. Coincidence?

  25. Don’t feel bad, but I use the Tech Tales series to fall asleep a lot. The content is super interesting, but you make the videos so damn relaxing. So, I enjoy the knowledge and entertainment until I get tried, close my eyes and continue to listen, and then pass out lol.

  26. I swear that i once saw a device with the magic link logo on it being sold. It was either circuit city or radio shack, but whatever it was cost over 500

  27. Tech tales discovers the short comings of nuclear power plants and sub par computers and the way the states pick cheaper companies too "modify" the original blue prints .. making them run longer and break down faster then originally intended.. to make profit. Its weird stuff to discover, not too mention brain frying peoples brain with newer and faster wireless communications..

  28. Typical example of tech that was ahead of its time. Look at it 20 years later and we have lightweight, cheap and blazing fast laptops that rely on this very concept; Barebones OS that relies on powerful cloud servers for the vast majority of it's capabilities. Look at the Voice Typing feature in Google Docs; A function that used to require a very powerful PC to process the input in realtime, now you simply use a node and let offsite servers do all the heavy lifting.

  29. Even without the internet, the product wouldn't have necessarily succeeded. Just because you can do your spreadsheets and taxes on that small device, doesn't mean that it would have been practical to do so. So what if it had the same features of a desktop? Does that mean that it would have been more convenient to use it, rather than an actual desktop?

  30. Worth noting that a lot of General Magic's former patents have been used by patent trolls in recent years. Company called Minero Digital tried to get royalty payments for every USB hub in existence using patents they bought off of General Magic.

  31. At 7:21 in the middle of the screen it says plane crash in Quincy Illinois. Me and my wife were in Quincy having dinner when it happened. We saw the fire trucks and emergency services racing out of town and we saw the huge plume of black smoke. This was just after my daughter was born in 1996

  32. I love these vids. I found LGR through a tech tale about AOL and have been working through the LGR backlog ever since.

  33. I was a heavy use of portico. Two key features: giving you an 800 number anyone could call you on and find you ringing which would ring numbers either together or in series.

  34. Atkinson wasn't just the creator of HyperCard. He did QuickDraw and coded regions masking before square masking was cool. He was the heart of everything graphic that made both Lisa and Mac ROM, giving  an edge for so long.

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