The Magical Apple Spin-Off That Almost Invented the iPhone … in 1993

The Magical Apple Spin-Off That Almost Invented the iPhone … in 1993
By Sean Braswell
Jun 27 2017

Can you guess which company penned this mission statement in 1990?

We have a dream of improving the lives of many millions of people by means of small, intimate life support systems that people carry with them everywhere. These systems will help people to organize their lives, to communicate with other people, and to access information of all kinds….

Apple is a good guess, but the above was actually the dream of General Magic, an Apple Inc. spin-off that aimed to create a revolutionary hand-held computer. Named after Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim that “the best new technology is indistinguishable from magic,” it was Silicon Valley’s hottest startup, at least for a spell. But even magic and partnerships with Apple, Sony, Motorola and other big players failed to conjure a market for its innovative but unsettled technology.

General Magic was the brainchild of Apple’s Marc Porat, once labeled a “wizard with a business plan.” Months before the U.S. Olympic Basketball program started assembling its “dream team” in 1991, Porat began assembling his own all-star squad of coding legends and design and hardware gurus from within Apple’s ranks. Leading the talented crew of tech wizards were co-founders Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld — two of Macintosh’s key designers — as well as artist Susan Kare (designer of the trash can and other Mac icons). 

General Magic’s vision was more an illusion than a reality. 

Technology startups are often born in garages, but as the Los Angeles Timesobserved, “General Magic was born in a mansion.” Apple Chairman John Sculley, also on General Magic’s board, helped Porat build his dream team, and Apple, likely trying to hedge its bets with its own hand-held project, Newton, came aboard early with $10 million in seed money. The secret startup initially flew under the radar, but as it began drawing more big-name investors and partners, including AT&T, Sanyo and Sony, word got out.

Almost 17 years before the iPhone, General Magic’s aim was nothing less than a pocket-size communications device that could send messages, perform computing and make calls. The company called a dramatic press conference in February 1993 to announce two key components of that device: Magic Cap (a user-friendly operating system) and Telescript (a telecommunications language to allow devices to communicate across different networks). Industry observers raved that the company was creating “the digital version of English” to go with its hand-held personal assistant of the future. General Magic raised almost $90 million, and another $82 million at its 1995 initial public offering. Silicon Valley’s brightest angled to work at its Mountain View headquarters, equipped with free-roaming rabbits and conference rooms named after famous illusionists like Houdini.



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