The documentary feature General Magic, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, will be released to theaters on Friday, May 10. The film, directed by Matthew Maude and Sarah Kerruish, tells the story of the eponymous company from its spin off from Apple to public offering (it was the first concept IPO) and abrupt decline. The film is poignant, honest, entertaining and full of life lessons from the small and personal to the universal. Lessons that should be appreciated by everyone, especially those on the cutting edge of technology today.
“The idea of a computer in your pocket is a really big idea,” says pioneering tech journalist and New York Times Columnist Kara Swisher. “The idea of a mobile computer was started at General Magic.” Their problem was timing. People weren’t yet doing the things General Magic made better. Few had cell phones. Few had email. The consumer had not yet reached the point of needing always-on computing. The film that was commissioned to chronicle General Magic’s rocket ride to the future instead became a requiem to its past.
The co-founder and visionary CEO of General Magic, Marc Porat, a soft spoken Stanford Ph.D., told me this about the film last year: “One of my proudest, greatest reflections is that two young software engineers, Tony Fadell and Andy Rubin, who went on to create the iPhone and Android, now 97% of the three billion smartphones on the planet, sat next to each other at General Magic.” Earlier this week we had another opportunity to interview Porat about the film, leadership and today’s tech world.
Charlie Fink: So what’s it been like to be the star of the movie?
Marc Porat: I definitely do not consider myself the star of the movie. It’s not false modesty. General Magic, the people of General Magic, are the stars. The people in the movie, and people not in the movie, all say that working at General Magic are was one of their formative experiences.
Charlie: The movie makes it seem like you were all living together to meet the deadline.
Marc: We were living together. The Magicians captured the spirit and the vision in a way that became intensely personal. I think the vision, the evolution into what we now know as mobile computing, was so intuitively correct, we all knew it was obvious and inevitable. We knew without a doubt that we were working on something that would fundamentally change everything. And that’s why it became so intensely personal to us. And that’s why it became a peak experience, everyone was pursuing it together. I think that the star of the movie is that collective spirit and drive.
Charlie: What was it like to show the movie to all the company alumni in Silicon Valley?
Marc: It was an incredible reunion. People flew in from all over the world. I heard from so many of them that their years at General Magic changed their lives as dramatically as it changed mine. We had no idea that 25 years later, there’d be a movie about the story.
Charlie: It seems like it spoke to everybody’s need to be part of something bigger than themselves.
Marc: Exactly. I think that spark, that intense spark, has to light a fire that burns so hot, that the embers don’t go out when reality keep throwing water on it, or when a company gets into trouble. The spirit, that fire, that initial fire keeps you going. It kind of reminds me when you fall in love. It’s rare. To keep going a lifetime, it has to start out hot.
Charlie: People spend more time at work than they do with their families.
Marc: And in the film, it’s pretty explicit: therein lies the risk and the downside. When we were spinning out of Apple, Bill Campbell told me to remember the occupational hazard of being a CEO, especially of a visionary company, is that it takes over your life to the exclusion of everything. It’s not a good thing. You marginalize yourself in the family inadvertently because the next challenge seems huge, an existential threat. I had a lot of those, oh-so-important moments, which in retrospect, weren’t that important. But one has to create the illusion that you’re always living on the brink of survival, in a war, or something dramatic, self-induced state. And then when you rise to the occasion, and you fight the battles, and you fight hard, and you fight to win — it drains you. One of the things that can get marginalized is the relationship with the family. So to budding entrepreneurs: be careful, save a piece of yourself. You’ll need it.
Charlie: When you took General Magic public, the market cap was like 800 million dollars and people thought it was madness. This can’t go on. This makes no sense.
Marc: I think it went from $14 to 26 a share the first day. There was frenzy around it. Investors were able to invest their imagination into the company also. Because it was so clear that the idea was correct and the future we’re describing was correct, just no one knew when it would happen. Today, smart phones is a $500 billion a year industry. So yes, investors got excited. Big tech companies like Amazon were able to survive negative earnings. The market was willing to feed those them until they crossed the chasm. We could have, maybe should have, but we were exhausted.
Charlie: You have to get the timing perfect. You had to wait until people had the problem for your solution to be understood.
Marc: We definitely did not. Kara Swisher said, “there was no digital cellular, no web, everything that wasn’t, wasn’t.” By the time we shipped in 1995, the web went from tiny to inevitable — we couldn’t pivot fast enough.
Charlie: Why not?
Marc: We ran out of time and money. We didn’t have the stamina. We would have ended up waiting 12 years [when iPhone 1 shipped]. It would have destroyed so many lives, it would have been crazy hard to do.
Charlie: My beat is focused on augmented and virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Timing is a critical issue here, too.
Marc: General Magic embodied the innovator’s dilemma. The innovator gets to be an innovator because other people haven’t noticed, or have left a vacuum. There’s a reason why innovators are able to jump in and get going, leapfrogging the big entrenched companies. The dilemma, of course, is that the infrastructure of the industry that it relies on, and user demand, they aren’t there, because if they were, then the startup would not be an innovator. It’d be sort of a follower. In our case, even being very, very good didn’t help because without nearly perfect timing, the innovator will get crushed. Light a path for others — but not get it over the line.
Charlie: Are you seeing companies that remind you of General Magic?
Marc: Our vision was so big. We saw the world horizontally not vertically. We saw people’s lives, their lifestyle, their psychology, how they communicated, got information, bought things. We saw it in a very humanistic way. The FAANG [Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google] companies changed the world (although now we’re seeing some of the social and political downside). I’ve actually not encountered a start-up recently that has that kind of coherent, revolutionary vision. I’m sure they’re out there.
Charlie: So, General Magic the Netflix series, who plays Marc Porat?
Marc: Hmm. Matt Damon, minus the ripped muscles and the Glock with silencer.