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General Magic—how tech superfriends assembled, dreamt up smartphones, and failed

5 min read

The trailer for General Magic

The story of General Magic, which is chronicled in a new documentary named after this early ’90s Silicon Valley company, has become both a legendary and cautionary tale. Back at a 1989 Aspen Institute event, future founder and CEO Marc Porat essentially unveiled an idea for a smartphone prototype. He called it the Pocket Crystal, but the device eventually came to market as the Sony MagicLink Personal Intelligent Communicator. The concept excited onlookers to the point that Apple helped seed the company, Porat attracted high-profile former Cupertino employees, and outlets like The New York Times soon took notice.

“This was the beginning of the most important company in the history of Silicon Valley that no one ever heard of,” former Apple CEO John Sculley says in the film.

“Since the Mac, we were all looking for the next thing,” adds Joanna Hoffman, Apple’s former marketing lead. “[The Mac] really jaded us to anything else. Other projects fizzled kind of quickly because [they] didn’t have the same grandness of vision, grandness of potential impact. Now what?”

Spoiler-alert: the Next Big Thing wasn’t General Magic. The company held on until the early 2000s, but its decade-or-so run contained unlimited potential and limited success. Though the concept of a smartphone has clearly proven viable, General Magic the documentary exists because many newer tech-industry watchers don’t even recognize the name. Instead, things like Apple’s original iPhone represent the first fully-realized modern smartphone for many.

General Magic largely delivers an optimistic message—things like “failure isn’t the end, it’s the beginning” or “technology has the potential to change the world”—despite the central organization’s grim outcome. But given how much time has elapsed since General Magic’s heyday, this new documentary also contains a refreshing amount of casual, blunt honesty that you won’t find in many profiles of present-day companies. And although these may be the realities of just one slice of Silicon Valley culture circa 1990, it feels entirely plausible similar characteristics still loom in today’s tech landscape.

What had happened…

On a business front, General Magic was doomed at least partially due to conflicting corporate interests. The company’s leadership accepted funding from Apple to get going and employed a ton of former Apple personnel. But then Apple evidently saw a business opportunity and surprised the General Magic offices by pushing out the competing Newton device first.

“I thought they could coexist,” Sculley says in the film. “I wasn’t concerned that it’d hurt General Magic.”

That soundbite is promptly followed by the general General Magic sentiment at the time: “You want to know about the Newton? I’ll tell you about the Newton… fuck the Newton,” one former employee says. Later, General Magic had so many additional partners—AT&T, Motorola, Phillips, Sony—that conflict inevitably came up again and again when deadlines slipped or one backer had different demands from another.

General Magic also appeared to be a pioneer of another unfortunate tech-company trope: the vanishing work-life balance. Before the company initially demoed its product for AT&T execs, for instance, General Magic co-founder Bill Atkinson hadn’t showered for a few days and showed up in a Hawaiian shirt. Former General Magic legal counsel Michael Stern recalls AT&T execs “curling their toes” at the general stench of the place (which only emphasizes how strong the demo must’ve been in retrospect). And ahead of actual product launch, as people built bunk beds and slept in-house, staff mostly forgot to care for the various pets (mostly rabbits and parrots) that had been welcomed into the offices to keep them magical.

The overall Silicon Valley bravado within General Magic will likely feel familiar to current viewers, too. The company did work on plenty of stuff that would later become commonplace: emoticons, voice recognition, automated search. And General Magic employees talked about things like wristwatch computers and mobile touch-operating systems. But the doc shows even an idea as remarkable as the smartphone, if not executed precisely or quickly enough, will falter. And with Peter Jennings and The New York Times singing its praises pre-launch, “We started to believe we were going to conquer the world, but we hadn’t finished,” as Fadell puts it.

The poster for <em>General Magic</em>
Enlarge / The poster for General Magic

IMDB

Ultimately, multiple factors led to General Magic’s demise. The star product couldn’t get to market ahead of Apple and the Newton. AT&T’s connectivity didn’t stay consistent for the MagicLink upon rollout. The marketing contained no shortage of hype as well as some disastrous brick-and-mortar preparation at places like Fry’s. And, in 1994, the product launched at a retail price of $900—”I remember our user being Joe Sixpack,” one employee says. “And I remember thinking, ‘You know, I don’t even know if Joe Sixpack has email.'”

The company sold fewer than 3,000 units, and Stern says he recognized most of the names of the buyers. Two years later, CEO Porat stepped down amid massive layoffs. That reality seems easy to snicker at now, but just this week a futuristic-feeling consumer product launched for $2,300 (viability there remains TBD).

The film does well to show that the talent assembled at General Magic seems truly staggering in retrospect. Atkinson had written a lot of the original Mac code and invented MacPaint. Fadell went on to help invent the iPod and founded Nest. Megan Smith became a VP at Google, which feels ho-hum compared to the fact she became the first Chief Technology Office for the United States under President Barack Obama. Kevin Lynch created Adobe Dreamweaver and later served as lead engineer on the Apple Watch, Andy Hertzfeld started Google Circles (which lead to, lol, Google+); Andy Rubin invented Android. All of them worked for General Magic during this early ’90s period. Even low-level employees like Pierre Omidyar would eventually become “eBay founder Pierre Omidyar” years later.

As such, the documentary ends by presenting what’s ultimately the great paradox of something like General Magic: such an effort may eventually succeed in spirit or impact, but the practical experience will ruin a few things along the way. Despite being universally portrayed as brilliant and also a successful leader, for instance, founder Porat proves to be one of the few former General Magic-ers without a massively successful public second act (and sadly his personal life suffers, too).

Yet to a person, all the General Magic employees asked about Steve Jobs’ first unveiling of the iPhone some 15 years later see it as this realization of General Magic’s mission. “It was like I was still at General Magic in a way—it’s what we talked about, just 15 years later,” Fadell says. “We were able to realize the idea we had with Steve Jobs talking about it on stage.”

General Magic debuted at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival with a cast Q&A still available on YouTube. The film has been playing at select festivals since and is currently seeking distribution. Its Facebook page remains the best place to learn about upcoming screenings.

Listing image by GeneralMagicTheMovie.com

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Gaming

FIFA 19 The Journey: Champions Trailer, Screenshots and Details

1 min read

In FIFA 19, fans can jump into the distinctive stories of all three heroes in The Journey: Champions, the story driven mode that comes to a finale in this year’s game. Take Alex Hunter, Danny Williams, and Kim Hunter through their respective journeys as they reach some of the most significant moments of their careers. Additionally, as their stories intertwine and play out simultaneously, switch between all three characters at any time to change up your experience. Fans can also cross paths with some of the world’s most famous footballers, including Neymar Jr., Alex Morgan, Paulo Dybala, Kevin De Bruyne, and more.

All three heroes have already seen successes across their careers, with new challenges arising as they play at the highest levels in football:

  • As the original star of The Journey, Alex Hunter has already had a rollercoaster of a career in the first two instalments of The Journey. After signing for the Premier League club of his choice, Alex has gone on loan to the English Championship, spent half a season in Major League Soccer, and moved back to Europe to play for one of the continent’s biggest clubs. But in The Journey: Champions, Alex has finally secured his dream move: to Spanish footballing giants Real Madrid.
  • Alex first met Danny Williams during the National Football Academy exit trials, where they didn’t really get along. The former rivals bonded as teammates while plying their trade in the second division and eventually become close friends. When Alex leaves for L.A., Danny joins his old club to pick up the slack in Alex’s absence. After a brief scare midway through The Journey: Hunter Returns, Danny fights for his place at the club after a string of solid performances.
  • Kim Hunter is a young American soccer player with dreams of playing at the highest level of the women’s game—and she’s also Alex’s half-sister. Alex and Kim meet for the first time after Alex joins the LA Galaxy at his father’s suggestion. Not long after, Kim gets her first cap for the United States Women’s National Team. Now she’s ready to take her career to the next level in The Journey: Champions with a call-up for the Women’s World Cup.

To learn more about The Journey: Champions, you can check out an interview with Matt Prior, Creative Director on FIFA 19 here. Also, watch the trailer and view the new FIFA 19 The Journey: Champions screenshots below.

FIFA 19 The Journey: Champions Trailer, Screenshots and Details

FIFA 19 The Journey: Champions Trailer, Screenshots and DetailsFIFA 19 The Journey: Champions Trailer, Screenshots and Details FIFA 19 The Journey: Champions Trailer, Screenshots and Details

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Gaming

Steam gets built-in tools to let you run Windows games on Linux – now available in beta

1 min read

August 22, 2018 Steam’s Linux compatibility tools are confirmed – and now in beta.

Steam Play – Valve’s name for its cross-platform initiative – is getting a major update, with built-in tools allowing you to run Windows games on Linux. We saw the first hints of the feature last week, and today Valve has confirmed it. It’s available right now in beta, so if you want to test the compatibility features on your own Linux install you don’t have to wait.

The new tools run on Proton, which is custom distribution of the widely-used Wine compatibility tool. In the most practical terms, this means you can now download and install Windows games directly from the Steam client without any further fuss. Valve is currently checking “the entire Steam catalog” and whitelisting games that run without issue, but you can turn off those guidelines and install whatever you want, too.

Proton should provide enhanced performance over Wine in many cases, according to Valve. DirectX 11 and 12 implementations are now based on Vulkan, and performance in multi-threaded games “has been greatly improved compared to vanilla Wine.” You’ll also see better fullscreen and controller support with Proton. It’s also fully open source, and available on GitHub.

You can opt-in to the beta under the account tab in your Steam settings menu. Hit ‘change’ and jump into the Steam Beta Update, then restart the client and you’re golden. If you want to go beyond the official list of supported games – visible in the full announcement – you can do so via your Steam Play options. This is a Linux-only option for the foreseeable future, as Valve says there are no current plans to support the feature on Mac.

In theory, this should eventually allow nearly the entire Steam catalogue to run on Linux, though it’s possible certain types of DRM and anti-cheat measures could keep that compatibility from happening. To that end, Valve says it’s “a good idea to avoid any invasive third-party DRM middleware.” For developers wanting to make extra certain they’re Steam Play compliant, Valve recommends targeting the Vulkan API natively in those games.

Valve’s own SteamOS is built on Linux, and as we speculated when hints of this update surface last week, this could be part of a renewed push for the platform. There are rumblings around the internet about SteamOS 3.0 being on the way, even after Valve removed Steam Machines from the Steam store. At the same time, Valve reiterated its support of Linux and Vulkan for PC gaming – and this update marks a major confirmation of that support.

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Gaming

Trials Rising Gamescom Beta Trailer

1 min read

I’ve been a fan of Redlynx’s Trials series since it was a browser game, and I remain resolutely rubbish at them. Devious precision platformers cunningly disguised as motorsport, the next game in the series – Trials Rising – looks to keep up the facade. Rising is due for release on February 12th next year but players with a taste for pain and the ability to stomach a few thousand repetitions until you nail a jump just right can sign up for a closed beta next month, running from September 13th to 16th. Below, a gleefully painful new trailer from Gamescom.

While the addition of a co-op mode where you attempt to balance a tandem motorcycle together looks like a fun time, it looks like Trials Rising is mostly going the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ route. While I greatly enjoyed Trials Fusion once all the expansions were out and cross-platform level sharing was patched in, I know some people didn’t like its initially clean sci-fi aesthetic. Rising rolls back the clock, and has players leaping chasms and shattering their skeletons across the modern world. It’s just not Trials unless every track ends with a crash, either.

Rather than split its DLC up into a swarm of smaller packs (although Fusion’s eventually added up to a hefty chunk of game), Trials Rising is planned to have two expansions released after launch, which will be included in the Gold edition of the game. There will also be some cosmetic packs, letting you dress up your rider in a variety of silly costumes and decorate your bike in similar style. Personally, I’m going to be shooting for whatever the best is that can be earned through play, for bragging rights. I’ll never get any of it, but I’ll try, dammit.

While Ubisoft have said that there’ll be a sponsorship and challenge system in Trials Rising to earn extra rewards, I hope it doesn’t stray too far from Fusion’s excellent bonus objectives. Every track had three extra goals. Some were clever (find a portal to a secret level), some were silly (complete the entire track while on fire), and some were nigh impossible (complete a very hard track without leaning), but they were always interesting, and the tracks were packed with optional, hidden details, including a visual novel at one point. More of that, please.

Trials Rising will be out on February 12th, and you can find it on both Steam and Ubisoft’s official site here. Those who want to suffer early can sign up for September’s closed beta on the 13th here. You’ll need a Ubisoft account to log in.

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