General Magic – The Success of Failure

?Failure is not the end. Failure is actually the beginning?

In the early 1990s a group of Apple employees left the company to try to take computing to the next step?a handheld computer that people can carry around. And they did. Except the company they started failed. But failure isn?t always failure. General Magic documents that bit of tech history, but it also serves to inspire us to look beyond what seems to be failure.

The 1990s were something of a heyday for tech innovation. Apple had just come out with the Mac, Ipods were coming shortly. Wouldn?t it be great to have a computer you could carry with you? You could send messages to other people. You could look things up. (Okay, I know you can do all that and more with your phone?but back then, it was the dream of the people who formed the General Magic Company.) The film chronicles their enthusiasm and work as they develop usable interfaces that would allow people to connect in various ways. And in time they had a device that would do all those things they wanted. But no one bought them.

There are some problems they didn?t expect, such as the way the World Wide Web caught on, and the fact that their idea was ahead of its time?no one thought they needed a computer they could carry. So the great idea they had and brought to life seems to have failed.

However, the people involved in that company went on to found or become key players in other companies, such as Ebay, Android, and Linkedin. Those innovators have gone on to be of great importance at Apple, Facebook, and Samsung, among other companies. And the ideas they had actually seem a bit quaint now, because we are so used to using the very things they were inventing.

One of the fun things about watching this doc is seeing just how different the world was 25 years ago. The things that so fill our lives via our phones or computers were either just developing or not thought of yet. Many things like email were seen as a bit of a novelty, which would probably soon pass away. Instant messaging? In the 90s that was called a telephone.

But the real value of the film is the chance it gives us to think about how we view failure. At the time, the failure of General Magic might have seemed like an end to promising careers and ideas. But as we look back from the distance of time, we see that the ideas they had continued to grow and found ways into the world so that the very thing they sought to create has become a staple of modern life. In fact, your phone probably makes use of some of the ideas developed by General Magic. The people in that company went on to develop those ideas and many more that we use today.

So the real question posed by the film is not whether something good can come out of failure, but rather whether the story of General Magic really was a story of failure. That is often the case: a failure may turn into something even grander than success would have been.

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