General Magic and Magic Cap – How a Startup failed to dominate the PDA Market

This is the modified translation of an exhibit I had at the Classic Computing 2010.

556px-general-magic-logo-svg

It tells the history of the company General Magic, a startup that was founded in 1990 with the goal to to create and satisfy the demand for mobile communicators.

In 1990, there was no GSM and no Web, no tablet computer nor PDA. Fax was been introduced widely just now.

At Apple, there are two projects to create small, mobile computers: Newton, and Pocket Crystal, a smaller computer.

1990 the idea of Personal Communicators is born in Apple’s Advanced Technology Group. The software project for that idea is named Paradigm. It is based on Pocket Crystal. The project is not supported very enthusiastically by Apple’s management, but it finally agrees to spin off the project in an own company.

Marc Porat, Bill Atkinson, and Andy Hertzfeld found General Magic in May 1990. 10% of the shares belong to Apple, 10% to Sony, 10% to Motorola, the rest to the founders.

1991 Apple sues General Magic. It is not clear why (apart from the fact that Apple has some problem with General Magic), and the lawsuit somehow trickles out.

In 1992, General Magic announces Matsushita, Philips, and AT&T as additional partners.

The Vision

General Magic wants to create the “Personal Internet Communicator” (PIC), a personal mobile device that unifies all sorts of communication under a single, intuitive user interface. A PIC is not

  • a simple pen computer (as envisioned by GO from 1987 and implemented by several companies from 1989)
  • a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) that aims more towards intelligent notepads.

Handwriting Recognition is not the target.

So, even if PICs are not want to be PDAs, PDA is today the most popular label of mobile computers that are not Smartphones (that’s my explanantion of the heading :-).

The company does not want to create and sell PIC devices, but it aims at controlling the ecosystem by providing the Operating System to licensees. This Operating System is called Magic Cap.

Magic Cap

The Operating System offered a number of functions to users. These functions were:

  • Telephone with hands-free capability
  • Telefax
  • Email
  • Web Browser (Magic Cap 3.1.2)
  • PIM (Personal Information Manager)
    • Address Book
    • Calendar
    • Note Pad
  • Pocket Calculator
  • some Games
  • Pocket Quicken, Spread Sheet
  • Remote Control (Sony PIC-1000)
  • Protocols
    • TCP/IP
    • POP3
    • SMTP
    • PPP
    • IrDA
    • HTML (Magic Cap 3.1.2)

Over the years, there were several version of Magic Cap:

  • 1.0: PIC-1000, Envoy 100
  • 1.5: PIC-2000, Envoy 150
    • Instant On
  • Magic Cap for Windows
  • 3.* (Rosemary)
    • Re-implementation in C++
    • Web Browser
    • 3.1.2k: Version of the 90* DataRover
    • 3.1.2j: Last Version, available in the Internet

The Magic Cap Devices

Although General Magic does not want to sell PIC devices, it needs a hardware reference system for the companies that actually want to build the devices and for the own developers that want to test the Operating System.

This reference design was then used as the starting point for the hardware companies for their own designs. That’s the reason why some general characteristics are the same across devices from different companies of the same Magic Cap generation.

  • Manufacturer: Sony
  • Model: PIC-1000
  • Year of introdution: September 1994 (USA)
  • Introductory price: $995
  • CPU: Motorola Dragon I 68349 16MHz
  • OS version: Magic Cap 1.0
  • RAM: 1 MB DRAM
  • ROM: 4 MB
  • Weight: 580g
  • Graphics: 480×320, 4 gray shades, no backlight
  • Interfaces:
    • Magicbus port (PC conn, etc.)
    • Modem port (to RJ-11)
    • 1 Type II PCMCIA slot
    • Infrared transceiver – FSK modulated, 38.4Kbps
    • AC adapter port
  • Battery: LiIon (15h) or 6 AAA
  • Builtin Modem:
    • 9600 bps fax send modem
    • 2400 bps v.22 data modem
  • Number of build devices: unknown
  • Collector Status: relatively rare, low interest by collectors

dims

  • Manufacturer: Motorola
  • Model: Envoy 100
  • Year of introdution: January 1995 (USA)
  • Introductory price: $800
  • CPU: Motorola Dragon I 68349 16MHz
  • OS version: Magic Cap 1.0
  • RAM: 1 MB DRAM
  • ROM: 4 MB
  • Weight: 800g
  • Graphics: 480×320, 4 gray shades, no backlight
  • Interfaces:
    • Magicbus port (PC conn, etc.)
    • Modem port (to RJ-11)
    • 2 Type II PCMCIA slot
    • Infrared transceiver – FSK modulated, 38.4Kbps
    • AC adapter port
  • Battery: NiCd
  • Builtin Modem:
    • 9600 bps fax send modem
    • 2400 bps v.22 data modem
    • 4800 bps wireless two-way packet modem ARDIS
  • Number of build devices: unknown
  • Collector Status: quite rare, low interest by collectors
  • Manufacturer: Sony
  • Model: PIC-2000
  • Year of introdution: November 1995 (USA)
  • Introductory price: $900
  • CPU: Motorola Dragon I 68349 16MHz
  • OS version: Magic Cap 1.5
  • RAM: 2 MB DRAM
  • ROM: 4 MB
  • Weight: 500g
  • Graphics: 480×320, 4 gray shades, backlight
  • Interfaces:
    • Magicbus port (PC conn, etc.)
    • Modem port (to RJ-11)
    • 2 Type II PCMCIA slot
    • Infrared transceiver – FSK modulated, 38.4Kbps
    • AC adapter port
  • Battery: LiIon (15h) or 6 AAA
  • Builtin Modem:
    • 9600 bps fax send modem
    • 2400 bps v.22 data modem
  • Number of build devices: unknown
  • Collector Status: relatively rare, low interest by collectors
  • Manufacturer: General Magic / Icras (Oki OEM)
  • Model: DataRover 840
  • Year of introdution: 1Q 1998 (USA)
  • Introductory price: $1000
  • CPU: MIPS R3000
  • OS version: Magic Cap 3.1.2
  • RAM: 4 MB DRAM
  • ROM: 8 MB
  • Weight: 500g
  • Graphics: 480×320, 16 gray shades, backlight
  • Interfaces:
    • Magicbus port (PC conn, etc.)
    • Modem port (to RJ-11)
    • 2 Type II PCMCIA slot
    • Infrared transceiver – FSK modulated, 38.4Kbps
    • AC adapter port
  • Battery: LiIon (8h)
  • Builtin Modem:
    • 9600 bps fax send modem
    • 19200 bps data modem V32 terbo
  • Number of build devices: 6000 (manufacturing cost: $800)
  • Collector Status: sometimes still available for small bucks as NIB, low interest by collectors

AT&T PersonaLink

General Magic provided the Operating System, the hardware manufacturers provided the devices. The picture was completed by a communication service by AT&T called PersonaLink that intended to provide the intelligent communication that would allow Magic Cap devices to unfold their full potential. Unfortunately, the service never really was more than an fancy Email service. It was launched in September 1994 and  stopped in June 1996.

How the story wents on…

  • April 1993: AT&T launches the EO Communicator 440
  • August 1993: Apple launches Newton
  • September 1994: Sony PIC-1000
  • January 1995: Motorola Envoy 100
  • February 1995: General Magic goes public and doubles its share value the same day
  • November 1995: Sony PIC-2000
  • April 1996: Motorola Envoy 150
  • June 1996: AT&T stops PersonaLink
  • 1996: Andy Hertzfeld sells his shares
  • 1996: GM has ~ 300 employees.
  • 1996: Dr. Steve Markman leads the company and starts a department for speech applications. This new department has 60 – 70 employees and develops a service called Portico and an audio interface called Mary. Mary understand 20 million expressions and it able to speak some thousands
  • October 1996: Magic Cap for Windows 95 is published
  • 1998: the hardware group is outsourced as DataRover Mobile Systems
  • Spring 1998: DataRover 840
  • March 1998: GM announces a licesing agreement with Microsoft that includes an investment agains patent rights
  • May 2000: DataRover Mobile Systems changes its name to Icras. Icras has 35 employees.
  • 17. September 2002: General Magic ceases to exist. The patents are auctioned off.

Why did General Magic fail?

  • Magic Cap 1.0 was finished very late
  • Therefore, the first devices were quite late on the market
  • Magic Cap 1.0 was too bad and made early adaptors angry
  • Delays in new Magic Cap versions kept going on
  • The devices were expensive, e.g. compared to the Newton
  • There was no Handwriting Recognition (and the intial hardware could not achieve that anyway)
  • The partners included too many big companies that competed in some fields
  • The Magic Cap products were partially competing to other products of the partners
  • In the middle of the 1990s mobile phones arrived at the market and changed communication
  • GM could not secure new funding because the Internet was the next big thing

Life after General Magic (2010 edition 🙂

Not only was General Magic a hot startup at its time, also there were some people involved that made quite some impact afterwards…

  • Pierre Omidyar founds eBay
  • Tony Fadell leads Apples iPod Hardware Group
  • Kevin Lynch designs Flash
  • Andy Rubin designs the Sidekick and the Android platform
    • also Android controls the ecosystem by providing an Operating System and let 3rd parties design the hardware…
  • Bill Atkinson works at the AI startup Numenta
  • Andy Hertzfeld works for Google

References

Stretch Goal Bonus Content

There is a ton of additional information I could add. Telescript, Mobile Agents, … Actually, Mobile Agents was my first academic topic from 1995 to 2000, and General Magic’s thoughts were inspiration to the entire field.

But I will not add these things unless I get enough feedback from you…

General Magic movie

As I am researching this entry, I stumble across an upcoming documentary about General Magic, wow. I am really hyped. Even if I feel that I might be a sizeable part of the audience for this movie 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

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