‘General Magic’: Failure is Just a Stepping Stone for Success

General Magic, directed, produced and written by Sarah Kerruish (with Matt Maude), is a documentary about a company that worked on a device “15 years too innovative for its time”. In the mid-90’s, the predecessor to today’s smartphone, Sony’s Magic Link PDA, was invented but poorly received. A fruitful, riveting documentary starring some of today’s most famous tech innovators and their beginnings, containing an evocative message⁠— “failures aren’t the end, often times, they’re the beginning” (BV: 4.5/5.0).

Review by Junior Associate Beatrice Viri

A few years ago, the smartphone was a luxury only few owned. Now it’s a necessity, and this small, interactive device is something most people can no longer live without. It has everything⁠— from news, to weather, ebooks, games, texting, and apps for everyday management. So many factors ensure that we’re constantly glued to our screens. Would you believe that we could have had this innovation in the 90’s, and been screen-addicted since then? 

General Magic is a documentary about a company with the same name, that contrapted a device preceding the smartphone with many of the same elements. It was a startup in Silicon Valley, which hosted some of tech’s most famous minds today⁠—such as Tony Faddell (co-inventor of Iphone and iPod), Megan Smith (Obama’s CTO), Marc Porat (CEO of General Magic, visionary for smartphone), Andy Hertzfeld (Google Circles, original Apple team member), Joanna Hoffman (original Apple team member, head of Marketing for General Magic), Kevin Lynch (former CTO of Adobe, inventor of Dreamweaver, VP of Apple), and even Pierre Omidyar (founder of eBay).

The company had a very casual environment, yet was set on having its engineers be as innovative as possible, which attracted young, tech-obsessed minds like Faddell. General Magic was determined to make the next “big thing”⁠— in Porat’s words specifically, they were aiming to make “a tiny computer, a phone, a very personal object . . . [that] must be beautiful… offer the kind of personal satisfaction that a fine piece of jewelry brings… have a perceived value even when it’s not being used… once [used]…you won’t be able to live without it.”

At first, General Magic operated in near secrecy, but attracted partners like AT&T and Sony with its novel ideas. However, not long after project came out of hiding, Apple ironically released a similar product. With the competing market, General Magic crunched to finish before their deadline and came out with Sony’s Magic PDA.⁠—  Yet, another blow was made to their efforts, as the product was largely unpopular. Factors such as the rise of the internet, competition and politics contributed to its unsuccessful launch, and soon lead to the company’s downfall. 

In return, however, these pioneers conceived the foundation for the smartphone, and many of them made their impacts on the tech world with other innovations. Kerruish was the filmmaker documenting General Magic’s success when the company was at its prime, and compiles her and David Hoffman’s archival footage along with present-day interviews in a captivating journey of the backstage efforts to humanity’s beloved toy.

The only qualm I have with General Magic is that the documentary romanticizes the way these souls destroyed their health for their cause. The segment is only a few minutes long, but Fadell casually mentions that the team has 80-120 hour work weeks. People would sleep at the office, even building bunk beds so they could work to meet their deadlines⁠—there’s even footage of children visiting parents as they toiled incessantly. In American capitalistic culture, we’re constantly told that this is a good thing⁠: these people went above and beyond for their passions, and the mindset to work relentlessly is essential for success. 

But it shouldn’t be. Being sleep-deprived, doing unpaid overtime and foregoing meals for your job is damaging to your health, as obvious as that seems. Even if it is a casual anecdote, the way the documentary paints this overwork as a product of passion needs to be criticized. It’s an obvious problem in today’s work culture, but people still brag about awful habits and neglecting health for work is normalized.

Otherwise, General Magic isn’t just a documentary for tech nerds. It’s a captivating film that does an incredible job of keeping the viewer interested. The storyline flows well, the b-roll is picturesque, and ultimately the film is very well put together. The soundtrack also matches well with high-tension moments, and even features some retro top-20 hits for a blast into the past. General Magic is a great look into the history of a device we can no longer live without,⁠—  and holds an inspiring reminder that even the “brightest” minds fail.

© Beatrice Viri FF2 Media 07/18/2019

Photos: General Magic promotional poster, General Magic’s innovative heads

Photo Credits: San Luis Obispo International Film Festival

Coach Katusha’s Comments:

John Sculley (former Apple CEO) comments that this was “the most important company to come out of Silicon Valley no one has ever heard of.” Shockingly, as Sculley had suggested, I had never heard of the company ‘General Magic’. As a follower of Bloomberg Technology, this is a documentary right up my street.

I am very glad that Bea mentions the issues of how health versus productivity, and the burn-out work culture is presented in the film. The results from this mentality are starting to show in working adults today; it is definitely a topic of discussion.

Whether this was part of the directors’ aims or not, this documentary, highlights the importance of documenting the process of research and creation. Without the footage from David Hoffman and co-director Kerruish, this story would have been much harder to piece together in a convincing manner.

This film also shows how the success of a start up often boils down to luck and timing. Having recently attended RISE technology conference, I can attest to the fact that many of the founders echoed this thought too.

As a story that encapsulates the origin of the technology we all use today, this is a very appealing movie for audiences of all kinds. Although I understand it is difficult to cut out parts of a film when all the footage seems important, nevertheless, I do think that “General Magic” would have benefited if it were shorter and more succinct. (KIZJ: 4/5)

Does General Magic pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

It’s always hard to say with documentaries, but General Magic has a woman filmmaker interview other women, so technically it does.

Tags: FF2 Media

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Beatrice Viri pursued a degree in Media Studies at Hunter College, specializing in Emerging Media (digital media production). She has experience in graphic design, web development, motion graphics and film, as well as media analysis. For FF2 Media, Bea creates original content for blog publication, writing out prompted ideas that engages audience. 
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