General Magic: A brief lesson about how the first smartphone

How the product decades ahead of its time made General Magic go from Silicon Valley's most promising startup to the hit.

Written by:

Claudio Almeida
3 min
– Failure is not the end, failure is actually the beginning.

That’s how the General Magic documentary starts.

Co-founded by some of the brightest minds in the field, like Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld, the company was driven by the charismatic Marc Porat, who came from Apple with an innovative vision of a personal handheld smartphone.

He even sent an e-mail to Apple’s CEO saying that “a tiny computer, a telephone, a very personal object... should be beautiful. It should offer the kind of personal satisfaction that beautiful jewelry does. It will have a perceived value even when not used. It will offer the comfort of a touchstone, the tactile satisfaction of a seashell, and the enchantment of a crystal. Once you use it, you won't be able to live without it.”

With Apple's backing and Porat's overarching vision, General Magic attracted partners who could turn a dream into reality, like the world's leading chipmaker Motorola, the leader of consumer electronics Sony, telecommunications companies such as AT&T and NTT, and the investment of Goldman Sachs bank. 

The excitement was so high that General Magic had an IPO in 1995, despite having no products or revenue, being the first Silicon Valley Concept IPO. This was i’s biggest triumph and biggest mistake

Once in the public eye, the clock began to run. At the same time, their fortunes were tied to five analog technology companies that did not survive the Internet revolution intact.

The product never took off

They had engineering and market problems, and General Magic went out of business just a few years later. However, they weren’t wrong. The introduction of the Internet and mobile data networks changed everything, and much of their work is in the products we use now. 

Their problem was timing. They were three steps ahead and people weren’t ready for them yet: few had cell phones or even e-mails. The consumer had not yet reached the point of needing always-on computing. 

Having only a great idea is not enough

It's also about timing. Since the most important person to consider throughout the design process is the end customer, you need to think: Who will buy this? How will they use it? How much will they pay for it? Is the market ready for this?

Timing in technology is often more important than ideas.

For example, it would take more than a decade for the world to be smartphone ready. Cell Phones were expensive and unusual in the analog world of 1995. People were starting to think they might need an expensive personal computer in their house. No one seemed to think they needed an always-on computer in their pocket to keep them connected.

Marc Porat's vision was far ahead of its time, and while he has had merit (we know from iPhone’s success) — it wasn't enough to convince the public. 


The final lesson

Understand your audience and have them front and center throughout the design and development stage. But also, as a designer, to have the ability to listen. Listen to your employees, customers, and the market. And also pay attention to those who disagree with you, because they might be your best teachers.