‘General Magic’ Review: Failure is Only the Beginning

Matthew Maude and Sarah Kerruish tell the story of an unsung group of developers who built the foundations of smartphone technology.

Gravitas Ventures

General Magic tells the story of how your smartphone first switched on. Co-directed by Matthew Maude and Sarah Kerruish, the documentary follows its titular Silicon Valley startup in their development of the Sony Magic Link — an early progenitor of the iPhone — in an era before Wi-Fi, cell towers, and the World Wide Web.

General Magic attracted some of the brightest minds branching off from Apple in the late 1980s, including Andy Hertzfeld, co-creator of the original Macintosh operating system, to Joanna Hoffman, a core developer who worked under Steve Jobs himself (she’s the one portrayed by Kate Winslet in the biopic Steve Jobs). Their efforts at the new company saw the creation of the USB connection, touch screens, emoticons, and most importantly, wireless communication as we know it today.

More generally, though, the film introduces us to the group of then bright-eyed twentysomethings with high levels of personal conviction. Interviews with these subjects in the present day are juxtaposed against footage of their past selves hard at work, taken by a film crew led by David Hoffman. “We’re being filmed for posterity,” says a young Hertzfeld at the brand’s first meeting, addressing dozens of co-workers gathered along a carpeted floor. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, these developers had no concept of failure; they firmly believed that their product would instantly change the world.

This framing becomes all the more impactful when that hubris finally catches up with the subjects. Indeed, there’s a reason why the name “General Magic” doesn’t inspire instinctual recognition in the same manner as Google or Microsoft; the Sony Magic Link ultimately flopped, leaving those at the company to grapple with the sudden shuttering of the project’s doors.

The strongest points of the documentary occur when those involved with the startup attempt to diagnose just what went wrong. Some focus on the fact that the technology just wasn’t there in the analog era. It was “like inventing the television in the 1880s,” says journalist Kara Swisher. Others mention how a huge shift in the industry — the arrival of the World Wide Web — wasn’t properly heralded at the fledgling company, as its co-founders did not see the advantages of engaging with a public network.

Whatever the cause, the result is a massive, public fall from grace. The documentary culminates in a series of reflections and personal truths from the General Magic team as they look back on their first major failure. A particularly powerful scene sees Hertzfeld walking through the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, with the products he purchased and worked on now merely footnotes in their installations.

The film doesn’t wallow for too long, however. The founders of General Magic reach eventual vindication, as the documentary traces their technology’s influence right to development of the iPhone and Android. General Magic also sees those who worked at the company moving on to bigger and better projects, some of them back to the likes of Apple, Google, and eBay, others even to the White House. The scope of their future careers is only revealed later in the film, effectively adding some levity to its more intense moments of self-reflection. It shows how the team’s ideas were on track, even if their timing was wrong.

While this story is certainly powerful, it should be noted that the documentary can get a bit mired in the lionizing of Silicon Valley minds; indeed, it does not entirely grapple with the ramifications of the technology that did ultimately come to pass. Swisher is the only subject who comes close to offering a more socially conscious take on the effects of General Magic’s progress. “The question is,” she asks towards the film’s closing moments, “can we take these powerful tools and do something that really does help a lot of people?”

With that said, General Magic still comes to be a strong meditation on failure and professional legacy. The film takes viewers on an engaging journey, following a largely unknown company in their quest to build the device that is now a mainstay in your palm. More importantly, it is a sensitive tale about the pain, and the redemption, that can come out of one’s first major professional pitfall. As company co-founder Mark Porat announces at the start of the film: “Failure isn’t the end. Failure is actually the beginning.”