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Culture Documentary

Prophets without profits

(Spellbound Productions II)


Prophets without profits

Film tells of the smartphone that wasn't

We can text friends, research origins of yodeling, FaceTime old classmates, check The Sift for news, confirm how to spell Azerbaijan, monitor our heart rates, tap Venmo payments, send smiley faces—whew! The list is endless. We do it all on our phones and sometimes our wristwatches. Seems like magic. Once it almost was.

The 2019 documentary General Magic (available to rent on streaming) tells a fascinating story most never knew. It’s about a startup technology project spun off by Apple Computer in 1990. This new company, General Magic, co-founded by three visionaries, had the ideas and even prototypes for what became the smartphone. But despite genius, enthusiasm, and drive, the company went bankrupt. Its legacy lives on in your pocket.

Archival video segments show co-founder Marc Porat paging through the Giant Red Book full of his drawings and concepts that presaged the smartphone by years and generated excitement for investors and brainiacs.

Engineers and developers embraced the casual Silicon Valley company atmosphere, sitting on floors, testing remote control toys, building circuit boards, and programming software while pet rabbits hopped past workstations. Constant grins attest these geeks were doing what they loved. Until they weren’t.

At critical points, leaders missed signals that may have averted catastrophe.

A technology forecaster, though, says General Magic couldn’t have done anything differently: “They were there at the wrong time. They were too early.”