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The Milwaukee Film Festival is screening a documentary named after a company called General Magic, about “The most important company that came out of Silicon Valley that nobody’s heard of.” General Magic was a company spun out of John Sculley’s Apple Computer company in 1990 that developed a new kind of handheld communications device, a PDA precursor with the ability to communicate. More importantly, General Magic created the software to run the PDA, the interpolation to communicate across a variety of devices, and the interface to make it usable and worthwhile to people.
Technology companies and the Valley today aren’t a vision of people at their best. Sometimes they’re quirky and fun, and General Magic had their share including rabbits free-roaming around the office. But usually if you imagine the antics of Silicon Valley today, the exorbitant rents, the egregious sexism, and the 10 or 20 bad-boy names that keep being shown as the faces of silicon valley, and it’s easy to want to disregard the entire sector.
General Magic shows another side of the Valley entirely, it shows founders and CEOs who value people and interactions, and who had a long term vision. It shows a company that considers women and people of color as equal and valuable workers. And it shows the value of falling down and getting back up with grace and humility.
One of the interesting details about General Magic is how secretive they had to be, and how the secrecy itself generated a buzz, and how they lined up major industry partners almost seemingly on that buzz alone. AT&T, Sony, Motorola, Philips and others were announced as the partners that would employ the protocols to allow devices from any company to interact with each other seamlessly and instantly.
Despite the fact this was 14 years prior to the first iPhone, General Magic was ahead of its time with a surprisingly small team, considering the overall reach they had on technology in general. That’s not unlike the team at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in the 70s that was quietly creating pointer devices, graphical interfaces and object oriented programming that became the basis of desktop computing ten years later.
Assuming General Magic, the movie directed by Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude, follows the story of General Magic the company, this will be an inspirational film in a lot of ways, and hopefully as well a look at the ideals and values of a 90s Silicon Valley. With any luck, all the current Valley’s CEOs will be stuck on a flight with this as the only movie in the entertainment system on loop, maybe they’d get that building something cool and useful really has more value than the modern Valley values of disruption and bad behavior.
Check out General Magic at the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival. The Milwaukee Film Festival is ten years running, and the tenth largest film festival in the US, and runs Oct. 18 to Nov. 1, 2018. General Magic screens Saturday October 27, 10 p.m. at the newly christened Jan Serr Studio Cinema on the top floor of UWM Peck School of the Arts, and on Monday October 29, 1 p.m. at Oriental Theater East. See you there!