Review of the documentary: General Magic

I was very excited when I learned in December 2017 that there was a documentary about the company “General Magic” in the making as I know their products, their operating system (Magic Cap), and their vision about Mobile Software Agents using their programming language Telescript. I never deeply researched the company history, though.

When I had an exhibit on Magic Cap devices and a presentation on “Mobile Agents and Telescript” at the VCFB 2018 in Berlin I thought it would round up things nicely to also have there a screening of the documentary that was first shown earlier in 2018 at diverse film festivals. Therefore, I contacted the production company and tried to arrange that. Unfortunately, as I found out, this would have commanded too much money and would have been needed to be restricted to a private audience in order not to spoil their chances at other upcoming festivals. However, they told me then, they were at the verge of doing a big distribution deal.

I now found out that this deal was the distribution as “National Geographic Channel” content and that the movie is even available in other languages (such as German). As such content, the movie is currently available on many distribution channels such as TV and streaming services. I used Sky Ticket (Entertainment), but that is only one of the options.

So, my expectations were high. How is my impression about the movie?

In the beginning, I was quite confused. The first 30 minutes (highlighting the history before General Magic was founded) seemed like an Apple fanboy fantasy. Some of the heroes (like Andy Hertzfeld) of the heroic history of the Mac join forces with the Apple visionary (Marc Porat) who dreams about smartphones as early as the 1980s. In order to bring the vision of devices which allow users to communicate everywhere they form General Magic as a spin-off of Apple. If you watch the movie you get the impression that noone has ever endeavoured such a daring task and only superhuman beings did even thought about it.

As they have not yet introduced the people whose voice they are using in the beginning, initially it is mainly the same kind of stock videos that every Youtuber uses if he/she has only a script, but no actual footage.

In this first 30 mins the movie does not look right nor left, does not take into account other approaches to similar problems, earlier developments, or even facts that do not fit the unbroken image the movie wants to project. One example is the phase in the life of Andy Hertzfeld where he leaves Apple because of the line management, his own Mac software developments outside Apple that an unpleasant-as-always Steve Jobs then licenses from him. Watching the movie you do not even learn that he was not with Apple anymore at the time of General Magic.

However, even in the first 30 mins this film transports the coolness of General Magic very well. People wanted to work there by any means because the cool guys were there, and because the company made such a fuzz (because General Magic is exactly *not* the company you have never heard of, at least at the time). Also, one starts to notice the heavy use of original video recordings at that time, mixed with parts from interviews from today.

The next 50 minutes or so the move changes its posture to a more reflected style. One can get many interesting insights in the history of the company. Also, as the history of General Magic progresses, one gets told the problems the company faces by the people that were involved.

Technically, the movie consists almost entirely from segments of interviews (old and new) and the video footage General Magic had made in their days. There are no speakers from the off and almost never interviewers asking questions. Although the film seems like an objective documentary at the surface, the (invisible) selection of answers and the absence of questions makes one suspicious whether it reflects the complete interviews truthfully.

In the last 10 minutes the movie tries to install the company as the sole reason for the existence of smartphones, naming the influences of the company visions to Steve Jobs (iPhone) and Android (as Andy Rubin who headed the development of Android worked at General Magic). In my opinion that is quite debatable as this discussion omits any discussion of ideas, projects and products outside General Magic. However, I can imagine that the history of General Magic has sharpened the senses of many former employees of which mistakes not to make šŸ™‚

All in all, in my opinion, this movie is not a technology documentary, it is a commemoration drama (in order to invent a term). It confuses the high-flying Apple vision (Pocket Crystal) with the not-so-fabulous and over-engineered-at-the-wrong-places products that in the end come out of General Magic’s efforts. It cites mainly persons inside the General Magic bubble. The film is very good in achieving to bring the visions, the atmosphere, and some of the people to life. From a computer historian’s point of view it is a primary source of subjective information, but one has to objectify and to relate the found information in a bigger picture himself. I find the movie entertaining, but then again, I would have probably done so in almost every case given the subject matter.

“General Magic” is 90 minutes long.

<update>The movie is now available as a DVD etc.</update>



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