Archive for the ‘General Magic/Magic Cap’ Category

Review of the documentary: General Magic

February 7, 2019

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 🙂

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>


Telescript University

January 2, 2019

„Telescript University“ was an early tutorial (at the General Magic premises) on how to program Telescript hold at least in May of 1994. I have a paper copy of the handouts of this event. As there is not so much material about Telescript out there, as I did not find a digital copy of this stuff in the Internet, and as a treat for the one other human interested in this sort of thing on christmas, I scanned the handouts. Here they are. Enjoy!

Title Version Date Content
Telescript-Language-Lessons DRAFT (0.x) June, 1993 Book that teaches Telescript to people with programming experience
TelescriptLanguageExcercises 1.1 8 August 1994 Short document on how to handle the exercises
Telescript Programming Telescript-Programming-part1 Telescript-Programming-part2 1.0c May 1994 The main content of the Telescript University slides: How to program Telescript
Programming-Demonstrations ? ? Short overview on Telescript program examples
HighTelescript 1.0c 24 June 1994 More formal, compact language description of Telescript
ScriptsFromScratch ? ? One programming exercise task
ExamplePrograms ? 8/10/94 A bunch of example programs, partially referenced by above documents

Everything Magic: The first app store?

December 23, 2018

When I presented my Magic Cap devices at the VCFB 2018 I heard from some people the claim that the Magic Cap devices had the first app store in the history. I never heard that claim before and decided to try to find out more about that.

It so happened that (looking through the material for the Telescript University seminar) I stumbled upon a small leaflet in the 1994 “AT&T PersonaLink Services” brochure that describes (unsurprisingly) the features of the short-lived AT&T service that provided email and other services to Magic Cap devices. One of these services was the “Market Square” service that was basically a platform for electronic shops that could be used by Magic Cap users.

The small leaflet was about one of these shops called “Everything Magic”. You can find the leaflet on page 34 and 35 of this scan of the brochure. The leaflet claims that whether “you’re looking for business software, games or even just a cool General Magic T-shirt, you’ll find it at Everything Magic […]”. The backside of the leaflet goes on: “Fast electronic software delivery. Everything Magic can deliver the software products you need right to your communicator. And because they’re send to you electronically, you get your order quickly.”

This really sounds like an app store. The electronic pay procedure probably came through the Market Square infrastructure. The delivery to the device was (push-wise) “electronically”. Whether this meant an automatic download-and-install method like in a today’s app store or as an attachment of an e-mail is unclear at this point.

According to the leaflet “Everything Magic” is a trademark of “eShop Inc.” According to its Wikipedia page, eShop Inc. was originally founded in 1991 to develop products for Go Corporation’s PenPoint operating system. In later years, it developed software for the Windows for Pen Computing and Magic Cap platforms. From 1993, it developed electronic commerce software, focusing primarily on the “business-to-consumer” marketplace. eShop was acquired by Microsoft in 1996 for less than $50 million and eShop’s technologies were integrated into Microsoft Merchant Server. Pierre Omidyar, one of the founders of eShop, earned over $1 million from the deal and later founded eBay.

So, was “Everything Magic” the first app store? According to the “App store” Wikipedia page, the first app store was the “Electronic AppWrapper” system presented in May 1993. It seems to me that the bulk of the software data of this system was distributed on a CD-ROM (maybe I am wrong there). The next contender Wikipedia mentions is a 1996 SUSE Linux component. It all depends (like for so many “firsts”) on what you see as the defining elements of an app store. Getting some software electronically and installing it on your computer is a very old feature (e.g. the original FTP protocol is from 1971). In my opinion an “app store” is a system where one can browse electronically in programs meant to be executable on some version of the user’s device, select or buy a program electronically, and the chosen program is then transferred and installed automatically in an integrated way (opposed to the need of a user to install a transferred program manually using the OS’ UI procedures). I also have the feeling that when we say “app store” we mean “for a mobile device and all that can happen virtually anywhere through the wireless data connection of the mobile device”. This latter aspect is not really a technical difference (the infrastructure on the server and the end user device side would be the same in either case).

So, if we mean “app store for mobile devices”, “Everything Magic” might have been very well the first one if

  • the program installation would have been taking place automatically (which we do not know currently)
  • if the shop was actually deployed (which we also do not know at this point. Also, one is often suspicious whether things that were announced in the Magic Cap world really made it to the product stage)

If the mobile aspect is not important to your definition of an app store,  “Everything Magic” is at least a very early example.

My VCFB 2018 Exhibit: PDAs using Magic Cap

October 21, 2018


At the VCFB 2018 I had an exhibit called “PDAs using Magic Cap”. It showed off a Sony PIC 1000 and 2000, a Motorola Envoy 100, and an Icras/General Magic DataRover 840. As the focus of the VCFB this time was “Graphical User Interfaces”, I concentrated on the Magic Cap GUI a little bit. Except the Envoy, all devices were up and running (I still have no power supply for the Envoy).

Interest in the exhibit was ok, the biggest group of people said my favorite sentence (“I have never seen something like that”), some were enthusiastic about the comic strip quality of the Magic Cap GUI, and a few people always wanted to have such a device.

There was also one (German) article about the VCFB 2018 which featured my exhibit and the presentation quite prominently.

If you want to read the posters next to the exhibit, either refer to this older blog entry of mine (English) or find it here (German).

My VCFB 2018 Presentation on “Mobile Agents and Telescript”

October 21, 2018

I had a presentation at the VCFB 2018 in Berlin on two topics on one of which I actually am an expert in :-). The title was “Mobile Agents and Telescript” and it dealt with the third topic of the General Magic topic: What would have happened technically if the first wave of Magic Cap devices would have been successful?

I gave my presentation in English for the sole purpose that you can also watch it as it was recorded (as all talks) by a CCC crew. So, without further ado, here is the link to the video recording of the presentation. And here are the slides that I presented that I presented.

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

December 28, 2017

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


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


  • 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


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 🙂