/How the First Smartphone Came Out in 1994, But Flopped

How the First Smartphone Came Out in 1994, But Flopped

From General Magic (screenshot by Hyperallergic)

Silicon Valley’s favorite mantra goes “Fail often, fail fast.” It captures the tech industry’s long history of dismantled startups, lost jobs, demoralization, and bankruptcy. One casualty was General Magic, an offshoot of Apple that strove to develop the next level in personal computing: a handheld computer. At the time they considered the project an advanced PDA, but today we’d recognize it as a smartphone. Before the iPhone, General Magic created the operating system for the Sony Magic Link in 1994. Sandy Kerruish and Matt Maude’s new documentary General Magic details the colossal failure that ensued.

Many things we take for granted about our phones today — immediate access to email and the internet, built-in work and productivity tools, games, emoji, apps designed in a grid-like system — were General Magic’s prototype software ideas. All in the early 1990s. What went wrong? As the company found out, if the technological infrastructure isn’t quite there yet to support your concept, then most people won’t invest $800 in a clunky box that only works a fraction of the time. When the team rush-released the Magic Link and sold a paltry 3,000 units, their investors pulled out, sinking the ship.

From General Magic (screenshot by Hyperallergic)

General Magic employed some of the most innovative figures in Silicon Valley — some of whom, like Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson, helped create the Apple Macintosh. Footage of the team’s collective enthusiasm, creativity, and technical prowess in the office is fascinating (as are some of their sartorial choices). It’s bittersweet to witness the contrast between their youthful vigor, as they manically brainstorm ideas and share delight in their inventions, and their older, wiser present-day selves contemplating their results. Many General Magic employees went on to bigger and better things. Megan Smith became a VP for Google, then the third CTO of the US under President Obama. Kevin Lynch helped invent the Apple Watch. Tony Fadell helped design the iPod. Despite its focus on a notable disaster, General Magic seems to affirm the idea of “Fail often, fail fast,” portraying the death of the Magic Link as a necessary step to get to where we are today. But the film doesn’t address some of the more difficult questions arising from this philosophy.

While the documentary is about the specific emotional journey of General Magic and the psychological impact of defeat, there’s a fair bit to unpack when we think more broadly about tech culture’s attitude toward failure. Who cleans up the mess? Who gets to fail and bounce back? How does privilege play a role? Do we only care about these stories if the people involved later triumph? Are we such suckers for the Hero’s Journey? Against this backdrop, the luminaries who do succeed dramatically change our lives, which could be seen to vindicate tech’s mythology of itself. After all, we feel the impact of those successes with every stroke of the keyboard, every block of a troll.

From General Magic (screenshot by Hyperallergic)

An issue about failure that the film doesn’t address, and which the tech industry rarely touches on, is the transmogrifying havoc technology is wreaking on the social order and human nature. The Magic Link’s slogan — “It Clears Your Desk, It Clears Your Mind” — perfectly encapsulates the irony of hindsight. The smartphone has cluttered our minds, not cleared them. Consider the evidence: the link between social-media-induced FOMO and depression, jacked-up cortisol levels from constant access to work emails, and digital addiction, among other phenomena. While there’s no need for a moral panic, our over-reliance on smartphones has made us oblivious to their negative effects. How many people in 1984, with the launch of the Macintosh, or 1994, when the Magic Link came out, or 2007, the year of the iPhone, could have predicted that a social networking website could heavily influence an election for the worse?

The lessons Silicon Valley learned in the ‘80s and ‘90s thanks to failures like General Magic helped create our digital revolution. Now that the future is here, it remains to be seen how “Fail often, fail fast” applies in realms outside of capitalism, whether it can help answer the thornier, messier questions about technology’s impact on society, politics, and the climate going forward.

General Magic is currently showing at the Laemmle Music Hall (9036 Wilshire Blvd) in Los Angeles and The Roxie (3117 16th Street) in San Francisco. It will also be playing at various theaters and film festivals nationwide in the coming months.

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