On the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude talk about their new documentary, “General Magic,” which tells the story of a pioneering tech startup that tried and failed to invent a smartphone in the 1990s. Kara appears in the documentary, as do some of the most important figures from the company’s history, such as Andy Hertzfeld, John Sculley and Tony Fadell. Although few people know the name General Magic anymore, Kerruish and Maude say the team’s failure paved the way for the Silicon Valley we know today.
You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited transcript of Kara’s full conversation with Kerruish and Maude. You can learn more about the documentary at its website here.
Kara Swisher: Today, I’m delighted to have Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude in the studio. They’re the directors of a new documentary called “General Magic,” which is about a pioneering tech company of the same name, which really started Silicon Valley in a lot of ways. You may not know about it, but you should. Sarah and Matt, welcome to Recode Decode.
Sarah Kerruish: Thank you, Kara.
Matt Maude: Thank you.
Talk to me about this project, because I’m in the movie. Just full disclosure, I’m in the movie because I’m a genius about these things. It’s an astonishing story. Give a background of what General Magic is, one of you, either one of you.
SK: General Magic spun out of Apple to make, essentially, what was the first smartphone, and John Sculley famously said, “It’s the most famous company or the most important company in Silicon Valley that nobody’s ever heard of.” It was this incredible team of people that went on to build that thing that we use every day, that everyone has in their pockets. We don’t know about it because, first, they went through what was a spectacular failure before the people who worked there went on to build the Android and the iPhone and eBay and work CTO for Obama, and went on to do extraordinary things.
Let’s talk a little bit about the background of it, because Apple was ... Set up the situation with how General Magic got created, and the name and everything else.
MM: When Sculley was in charge of Apple, so following —
Jobs had been fired.
MM: Yeah. Jobs had been fired, and Sculley was looking for the next big thing. Macintosh sales were steady, but he was looking for his legacy project. There was a guy that was working there that was called Marc Porat, and he was walking around with some diagrams and a balsa model of what looks like the smartphone that we hold today. John said, “Well, let’s do it. Let’s do it inside of Apple.” Marc said, “Well, if we’re going to do it, we can’t do it in Apple. It will just be killed by too many cooks.”
He said, “We need to spin out.” John gave his money, and they rented a small little enclave just out in Mountain View, and they started putting together the engineers and the designers to make the smartphone. They had Andy Hertzfeld, they had Bill Atkinson, they had Joanna Hoffman, all veterans of the original Macintosh project.
Explain who each of these people are, Sarah.
SK: Andy and Joanna really were the core team that built the original Macintosh.
SK: Hoffman, who was played by Kate Winslet in the Aaron Sorkin movie. They were really worthy ... I view them as Steve Jobs’s disciples. They were the people who took that learning and wanted to go ... When Steve was fired, they were in exile and wanted to build the next great thing, and for them, it was taking the desktop and putting it in everybody’s pockets. That was the vision.
Joanna and Andy were responsible for ... Let’s give them their due at Apple.
MM: The Macintosh.
MM: They were the rock stars. People told us about that Rolling Stone article where they’re seeing engineers in a Rolling Stone magazine. Andy was the software wizard, Joanna was responsible for the international marketing, and then Bill Atkinson was responsible for pretty much all the middle lines of the Macintosh. Bill dominated the whole way through that machine, so he did all the stuff for Quick Paint, but then he also worked out where ...
MM: HyperCard. These guys were the originators, and people really, really looked up to them. When people found out that Bill and Andy and Joanna were working on this secret project, they didn’t know what it was, what it could be, but they just wanted to work with these amazing people.
Right. Which attracted a lot of people, especially very young people very early in their careers. Talk about Marc Porat. How did he decide to carry around this balsa wood model?
SK: Marc Porat was at the Aspen Institute, and he’d been working on a thesis about the information age. He saw this was the next great age.
What was his background?
SK: He was an academic and he was at Stanford. He’s a classic visionary. He went into the visionary wilderness and came back from the mount with literally this spell book, an extraordinary, large, red tome full of visions of the future in incredible detail, not just a smartphone with apps, but something he called Facebase which sounds awfully like Facebook. It is today a remarkable document.
MM: He talked about being a time traveler, that he went off into the future and that he saw that everybody was interacting with this device that enabled you to talk to anyone anywhere across the world. Reading it — and him saying that we won’t use names to interact with each other, we’ll interact through photos and it will be called the Facebase. I remember reading that when I first started working on the project, and I was like, “What?!”
It wasn’t just that it looked remarkably like an iPhone. It wasn’t that it had all the apps and all the economies that are all used through iPhones. It was ...
It looked like a 10-pound version of the iPhone, is what it did. Because of the time, because all the pieces weren’t in place then.
MM: To be fair, the diagram that he designed looked exactly like an iPhone 6.
MM: It took a little longer.
He had no experience in running a company, correct?
SK: No. He was a broadcaster. He was basically an academic.
MM: I think he’d done some CEO work, but at much smaller companies. Nothing of this size.
SK: Nothing of this sort.
MM: Not something that’s built ...
How much money did they get? Talk about the money, because this was the great exploding startup. There were a couple of pen computing companies and things like that.
MM: They raised finance through two different ways. The first of which was an idea that Marc had was that in order to create this infrastructure you had to partner with the global industries at the time, because this was the time before wireless. In terms of being able to get a device that talks to another device, you needed to go to the telecom companies.
There was no Wi-Fi.
MM: You have to go to the biggest, and that’s AT&T. Then they spoke to Sony in terms of actually building it, and then Motorola for their own device. With all these, what are known as “founding partners,” and there were 16 by the end of it that all put $6 million into the entity, that was their first way of raising finance.
$6 million total or each?
MM: $6 million ...
So it’s a lot of money.
MM: Yeah, but it was also at a time when it’s like, “Well, we’re running out of money. Let’s bring in a new partner, and then let’s bring in a new partner because we need more money.” Suddenly this thing that felt very nimble and very agile and maybe just working with three partners, had swollen to 16. That was one aspect of it.
SK: I just have a quick story about my husband, Steve Jarrett, that I met at General Magic. He had one week where he sold ...
You worked there.
SK: I worked there, and he sold more than $30 million of “shares” in one week. It was just crazy the demand, and it was unprecedented, building this sort of collaboration of industry partners. It had never been done.
Explain what wasn’t there. There was no Wi-Fi. There was no cellphones.
SK: No internet.
No internet. What else wasn’t there?
MM: This is strange to me.
SK: No touchscreen.
MM: This is strange to me, because in the film these are your words that say this back at us in the film. You’re the one that said, “There’s no Wi-Fi, and there’s no phones.” It’s like there was ...
I’ll say it again.
MM: There was nothing. Everything that we rely on today just did not exist. There’s an incredible sequence where Megan Smith is diving through the cupboards and brings out this walkabout device that’s huge, but she’s talking about pressing on it and saying that you need to balance the X and the Y axis to be able to create touchscreen, because touchscreen hadn’t been invented before. Everything that there wasn’t ...
Wasn’t. So how did they hope to make a communications device when there wasn’t ... They were just using the telephone, telcos.
MM: Yeah. Like taking fax ...
You plug it in.
MM: Taking fax and turning it on its head and trying to work out ... I mean, the software modem was invented there. There’s a line that Kevin Lynch says, Kevin’s the VP of technology at Apple.
And he later went to Adobe and a bunch of places.
MM: Dreamweaver and everything.
SK: And built the watch.
MM: He was saying normally you build on the shoulders of giants, but they were starting from the toes all the way up. It was insanely ambitious that they were trying to do all this 17 years before the iPhone, 10 years before…
Explain the name General Magic. Why was it called that? They called themselves “magicians,” as I recall.
MM: The Arthur C. Clarke quote is that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Then the second part of it is, “There was General Electric, there was General Motors, we’ll be General Magic. We’ll become a household name.” Between those two phrases, that’s why.
They raised what, $100 million? No, that seems …
SK: No. There was the initial funding from the partners and then they went public, and they were the first concept IPO. Basically they didn’t have a product, they just had an idea and they raised $96 million right on the first day on the stock exchange.
Without a product.
SK: Without a product.
It sounds like now. They did this and were creating this product. Talk a little bit about the product development at the time. What were they doing? What were they creating? I have one of them in my basement. What was it called? It was the Magic Leap.
SK: Magic Link.
Magic Link that’s right.
SK: There were different ones, but the ...
Magic Leap is the other overfunded company, currently.
SK: Good cognitive dissonance. The project itself was a handheld. They basically had a metaphor of, your desk and a street and using Susan Kare’s amazing designs, Susan who did all ...
Say who Susan is.
SK: Susan is, I think, the most important designer of her age. Everything you interact with, pretty much, she’s influenced, from the original desktop icons on the Macintosh to the ...
She works at Apple.
SK: Yeah. She worked at Apple with the original ...
MM: Now at Pinterest.
SK: ... Macintosh team. Now at Pinterest. She designed this beautiful world that you’d interact with, all the things you’d need to do and communicate, make calls, make little beautiful notes. They designed emojis, like these incredible walking lemons ... Emojis that even today far exceed what we have on our phones, but that was the genesis of that idea. So many important ideas came together in this one device. The problem was that device was, as you know, clunky and big, and very expensive. It was $800, I think, the original sales price.
It was also too early in terms of adoption. It was really just when people were starting to use email.
Which was what year? This was?
SK: This was ‘95 when it went on sale. Some people had massive brick wireless phones, but that was it.
Right. I had one of those.
SK: They were too early in terms of the actual development of the product itself, because everything was too expensive, the components, and therefore the price was too expensive, but also ...
MM: And they also tried to ship perfection.
SK: They tried to ship perfection. I think General Magic and other companies like them led to this way that we develop today, this agile method of development, because they would work at this thing for two or three years and then, ta-dah! Of course, if no one bought it that was catastrophic, and particularly in General Magic’s case.
Yeah. Because things weren’t ready, because there wasn’t a use case, necessarily. I don’t think I can even turn it on now, maybe it could. It had the desk and you touched the mailbox. What else was on there? There was definitely a trash ...
SK: A phone.
There was a phone.
SK: There was a Rolodex ...
SK: ... to keep track of all your accounts. Then you’d move through into this other world, which was Main Street, where you could go along and you could do, what became online shopping. Then there was another place that was sort of your hallway, and that was your games room. It was an incredible feat of creativity and design. I mean, it still is.
It was too much, really.
SK: It was too much. I think that was one of the roots of the failure was that they were so enamored with the joy of making and of the creativity without the stick of Steve Jobs to come and say, “Well, that’s all very nice, walking lemons, but actually let’s focus on shipping a product.”
MM: Also, what one problem does it solve now? What one problem does it solve for people in this year? Not what they want in the future, when it’s going to be their world, but what is the one thing that they solve? They tried to do a thousand things.
SK: And Palm, on the other hand, did that. They really focused in on that contact piece.
The small part of it, same thing with the BlackBerry. The communications part. Each one of them that was successful took a small part of it and moved it forward.
Talk about the people that were there. It was not just Andy Hertzfeld and Joanna Hoffman, but everybody. Pierre Omidyar.
SK: Pierre is a particularly great story. The story of Pierre is this guy who was the developer relations guy, and we would walk past his desk and there would be a big pile of what looked like checks or paper or envelopes on his desk, and say, “Hey, Pierre, what is that on your desk?” He said, “Well, I got this little idea about connecting people on the internet via an auction.” Everybody would say, “That’s odd.”
In fact, he actually went to the general counsel and said, “Hey, Mike, I’m thinking about doing this auction thing. I’m thinking about spinning it out. Do you want to be involved?” And Mike said, “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard of.”
MM: “You want to trust people on the internet?”
SK: “You want to trust people on the internet?” That became eBay.
They gave away the IP, right?
That would have been ...
SK: They didn’t want it!
SK: They didn’t ...
MM: Mike did it twice. Once for General Magic’s sake, and then Pierre said, “Well, would you like to invest?” He said, “I don’t think you heard me. You should not be trusting people on the internet. Get out of here.”
Now Pierre owns France or something like that.
MM: Yes. He’s the seventh biggest GDP in the world or something. Chris MacAskill took him to an investor conference. Pierre, this was at the time when he had a ponytail down to his waist.
He did. Yeah.
MM: People were not taking him seriously. They left and said to Chris Mac, “Don’t do that to me, ever again.” And lo and behold …
It became eBay.
MM: Tony Fadell, he slept on the doorstep outside of General Magic. He would not budge until someone gave him an interview.
He was from?
MM: He was from Michigan. He was in the sticks in comparison to everybody else, but once he got the job, he packed up his parents’ car, put all his belongings there. Then he didn’t move out of Mountain View for about a year and a half. He just worked solidly, because he was just blown away to be working with his heroes. It’s a who’s who.
So Tony, what happened to Tony?
SK: Tony then went to Philips, and actually I think one of the most poignant parts of the film is when Tony had a vision for where the product could go, and in fact he went on to make that at Philips, which was a critical success but a commercial failure, and then ended up with Steve Jobs calling him and saying, “I think it’s time to do something.” Tony always loved music: “Well, we should do something small that lives in your pocket that plays your hundred songs.”
MM: Thousand songs in your pocket.
SK: Tony became co-inventor of the iPod, and then the ...
SK: ... iPhone. Then of course went on to found Nest and now Future Shape. To me, he represents somebody who really took the lessons of General Magic. Really, if things aren’t working, break it down, start again, iterate, iterate until it is perfect.
MM: Andy Rubin was there.
Explain who he is.
SK: Andy Rubin, Android, the creator of the Android. Rubin was an amazing character. He used to keep his Ferrari in my garage, and he was always doing these crazy things like representing himself as the chief communications minister of the Grand Caymans. There was always these massive, crazy pranks involving world global ...
MM: If you imagine Neverland and there’s all these lost boys that are all just ...
SK: And girls.
MM: And girls. Sorry. Finding themselves for the first time, but there are no parents around. It was just the most incredible chaos, and they were all just running and bouncing off each other to make this bit.
With ideas and stuff like that.
SK: I think it’s important to note that they made huge breakthroughs, whether it’s the USB or the software modem or the touchscreen or emojis. There are literally hundreds of innovations that were developed at General Magic.
We’re here with Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude. They’re the directors of a new documentary called “General Magic,” which was one of the most critical companies in Silicon Valley you’ve never heard of. In fact, it was the home of many of the people that went on to invent things like the iPhone, and Android, Nest, all kinds of things, eBay.
SK: Apple Watch.
Apple Watch. Everything, pretty much. It was by people who invented things already. You started to talk about the things that came off of this product, that was a failed product, it really was, and very few people bought them. How many did they sell?
SK: Well, the initial sales were at 3,000, and all of those were sold to friends and family. The sales figures were absolutely abysmal. In terms of things they created, as I said: USB, touchscreen, emojis. The list goes on and on and on. I think it was interesting, I think it was Nathan Myhrvold who ended up buying the IP from General Magic, an extraordinary catalog of IP. People still talk about it to this day.
What happened? Talk about what happened, Matt.
MM: We talk about there being three things that went wrong. I think one of it is that when you’re trying to achieve perfection, you can’t do it all at once. If General Magic had potentially iterated in a way that the iPod did, that they released a different iteration of the iPod every single year and just encapsulated new features, and that six, seven years later that iPod become the iPhone, General Magic could quite easily have done that rather than trying to put five years of work just into one device.
Then there was also the external pressures, which John Sculley, who was almost the father of General Magic in terms of spinning it out of Apple, betrayed General Magic by taking some of the products, thoughts, some of the marketing plan and releasing the Newton, which was a direct competitor to the General Magic device.
Also a failure.
MM: Also a failure. Then the third thing is what killed them both, which is the World Wide Web. If you’re trying to create a proprietary form of the internet in which you pay to use it, and then another thing comes out that is free to use, you’re on the losing side of an argument. That decimated everything. It wasn’t just General Magic that made that mistake. It wasn’t just the Newton.
MM: Bill Gates was also trying to create their own proprietary form of it. Everybody knew it was coming.
They all wanted a device, a personal device. They were all thinking in those lines. Talk about the Newton, Sarah. It was an Apple product.
SK: It was an Apple product, and it was a little messaging product. All I remember, actually, because I was at General Magic at the time, was the intense pressure that was caused by the fact that Newton shipped early, and the fact that people were so upset that it shipped.
Why was Apple developing this, as an investor in General Magic and also developing …?
MM: It’s the unknown. Apple only owned a small percentage of General Magic, whereas with the Newton, they owned it in its entirety. Apple could see across the board what General Magic was doing. I think it was really hard for some of the engineers, for people like Andy Hertzfeld whose friends, people that he’d worked with on the Macintosh, were working on the Newton project. I think that was really hard for people like Andy and Bill to see people like Steve Capps working on this direct competitor, and just to be completely surrounded in secrecy.
It was a really hard time. I think it created a bunker mentality across General Magic to really put their heads down and fight for their lives.
SK: It also caused them to go out early in terms of publicity, because they had been in stealth mode. That announcement forced them to go out.
With their own product.
Talk about the public offering. They go public why? They needed money.
SK: They needed independence. They’d created this monolithic entity with all these different partners who were arguing. Many of them were natural enemies. It was just too cumbersome. It didn’t work well.
MM: These board of directors were the CEOs of these alliance partners, so you’ve got Sony’s president, you’ve got AT&T’s president all sitting on the board of General Magic, all dictating to General Magic what they should be doing, what they shouldn’t be doing. They made the realization that they needed to go public to cut the ties of this really powerful board. That’s what it was, it was the first concept IPO.
SK: It was amazingly audacious when you think about it, because they didn’t have a product. They didn’t. Just at that point they were in really early development phase. It was an audacious, bold move, and it initially paid off. It was a spectacular day when they went public.
With their rabbit logo. They had a rabbit in a hat logo.
SK: Yeah. A great Susan Kare logo, an iconic Susan Kare logo.
What happened then?
SK: I think, as Matt said, they were too early and they just couldn’t ship a product that people wanted in any meaningful volume. I think, fundamentally, they lost heart. I think they really did lose heart.
Talk about that.
SK: I think when you work that hard and that intensely on something — and they worked harder than anyone I’ve ever seen, I mean years and years. People pull all-nighters at tech companies, so that’s not unusual, but this was years of it. People really gave up a huge part of their lives to do this, and I think at the end of the day Tony, as I said, said, “Look, this is how I think we can make a product that will sell.” I think Andy said, “I think we’re just too ...” There was a famous meeting, actually, where Andy said, “We’re just too tired and we can’t pivot. We can’t make that shift.”
To the product, to another product.
Then what happened?
MM: For us, it’s the beginning of the Act 3 of the film, in which there’s a period of mourning, where it’s as palpable as grief. For some people at General Magic, that’s a grief that they never recovered from. For the younger generation of “magicians,” the people that had come to the company because they wanted to work with people like Andy and Joanna and Bill, there was a time in which they were to look at the mistakes that had been made both as a company as well as themselves, but still taking the ideas of General Magic, the original vision that we would carry around a device in our pocket. Each of those magicians took that vision and put it into their own domain.
SK: To their next thing.
MM: Yeah. For, say, Tony Fadell, which is that idea of being able to carry something in your pocket that you could put 1,000 songs, and that you could carry around everywhere, became the iPod. And all these different little iterations that people started to spawn out. I think for Kevin, Dreamweaver in terms of being able to have something that could be built by the consumer, that was what he tried to do at General Magic that you would create all of this developer access. Then he took that and put it into Adobe, into the creative world.
You could just see different parts of the vision all populating in different places with different magicians. Now you look at it and the entire vision has been achieved by all these magicians.
In different parts. By all of them individually.
MM: It’s almost their combined way of doing it.
SK: They went bankrupt.
They went bankrupt.
SK: That was the end. I do think it’s important to note, though, that I think one ... We haven’t talked about this, but I think it’s really important, and I think the magicians would admit this, that hubris played an element in it. I think you have to have this certain incredible faith in your abilities to pull off miraculous things and walk through walls when you’re trying to do something as technologically hard as they were. At the same time, there was a certain hubris where they weren’t willing to look outside of their world and their bubble. I think that really was instrumental in their failure.
In their failure, and not understanding the product.
SK: Not understanding the product and the climate and the time, and not being willing to question the orthodoxy. You have to believe so passionately, when you’re trying to do those kinds of things, but at the same time, you need to be able to retain the ability to take a hard, cold look.
MM: You need that cold-hearted person or cold-hearted people to come in and say, “It doesn’t matter where the loyalty of, say, an AT&T is in creating a proprietary internet. If the World Wide Web’s come out, you have to cut that partner.”
What was their internet called? What was AT&T? Interchange, right? Interchange.
MM: Personal Link.
No. It was Interchange, the original one. Because they competed with AOL.
SK: And the cloud. They had a cloud. We made the first video about the cloud.
They had a concept. I remember Interchange only because the Washington Post was going to invest either in Interchange or AOL, and I kept urging them to invest in AOL at the time. They would have made billions. They would have had money for the rest of their lives, essentially. It was really they were like, “No. You can’t bet against AT&T.” I’m like, “Yeah, you can.” It was an interesting ...
SK: And thus history was made.
Yeah. Absolutely. I want to get to what impact it has in the next section. But, so, it goes bankrupt and everybody scatters to the winds, essentially, and goes to different places. They all go and do the great things they’re going to do. Nathan Myhrvold buys the IP, and that’s that. It’s like a typical Silicon Valley crackup, essentially.
SK: It is all gone. One of the reasons I wanted to make the film is, I’m really interested in failure, having experienced a very personal catastrophic failure of a startup I was involved in. I was really interested in the idea of, first of all, the role of that in the journey, the startup journey, but also in what it takes to bring big ideas to life. We didn’t want to make a film that in any way glorified failure. It is so painful and it wrecks people’s lives. I think that’s an important note from me that this is really one of the reasons we wanted to make the film.
MM: It’s Amy Lindberg who worked at General Magic, who’s now at Docker, she talks about General Magic being a supernova. It’s the star that exploded that created so much of what we use today. There is a real, happy ending to this film, but it’s only from the people that have taken a long, hard look at themselves.
Not for the shareholders. They lost all their money, pretty much. Did anyone make money at General Magic?
MM: Uh, no.
I don’t think anyone walked away, even the investors? They didn’t ...
Maybe at the IP ...
MM: It was the brightest spark on Wall Street for a while.
What was it worth on Wall Street when it went public?
MM: I remember that it was supposed to go at $14 a share and it closed at 32.
SK: It was 96 million.
MM: It cleared 96 million in the first day.
It was worth something and then it just wasn’t, so those shareholders lost their money. What happened to Marc?
SK: That’s a really good question. I think of all the main characters ...
He’s in the movie. He opens the movie, right?
SK: He’s in the movie and I think ...
MM: And closes it.
SK: I think Marc went through a long phase of wilderness and came out the other side. I actually think one of my favorite parts of the film is when John Sculley says, “Where was Marc’s second act?” Because he really was the person who saw the future, and all the products he so meticulously designed in his books really are reality today.
He’s done some interesting things in terms of sustainable building materials. He’s very interested in all things green. He’s very active right now against Trump.
But he never did another company, right?
SK: I don’t think he had it in him. I think he gave so much and sacrificed so much, including his marriage.
Just as a point of fact, his sister …
SK: Yes. Ruth. CFO of Alphabet.
Yeah. She’s kind of a big deal.
SK: She’s a very big deal.
It’s very interesting how all these things intersect. She was at either Morgan Stanley at the time.
SK: Goldman Sachs.
MM: Goldman Sachs.
Goldman Sachs at the time. In London, I remember meeting her a long time ago, so she was a banker essentially for a long, long time.
We’re here with Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude. They’re the directors of a new documentary called “General Magic,” which I am in. My ex-wife is also in it, Megan Smith, who was a big player there. She was a young person when she was there working on, what? What did she work on? I forget.
SK: In her 20s, and she was on the hardware team, and then she worked on the sales team. Then famously went on to be a VP at Google, and start Planet Out, was the former CEO of Planet Out, and then she went to be the third CTO ...
Of the United States.
SK: Of the United States of America ...
We don’t have one now.
SK: ... under President Obama. We don’t have one anymore.
We don’t have one anymore.
SK: But we will again.
Yes. We will again. Let’s talk about that idea. These people that went off and they got scattered to the winds and they all had impact in their own ways, and that the real money they made was later, was at Google, or whether it was at Nest or Apple. These ideas were brought elsewhere. Andy brought Android eventually to Google. Pierre did eBay by himself. Everything went everywhere else. Talk about that idea of, a tree can die in Silicon Valley yet it creates a lot of wealth that you don’t understand.
MM: We spoke with a Stanford professor called Fred Turner, and he made this incredible observation that engineers don’t work for one company, they work for the Valley, and that if one company fails, they take all the ideas of that failure and then just iterate it at a new company. And I really like that idea that the huge microcosm that is Silicon Valley the lessons are just being passed on between different companies.
I think that General Magic is a really good example of that, that you can learn from a mistake somewhere else but be able to make it a success in another company, or in your own venture. I think that supernova metaphor, the redwoods that you were talking about, you see that iterating everywhere across the Valley, but you also see it iterating in nature.
When we were making the film, we also looked for these examples in nature that would be able to break up the monotony of very urban landscapes, so that we could put some cinematic footage into it, and looking for those kind of nature examples in waves, in forest fires, in redwood forests. Because success spawns from failure.
Talk about that, Sarah.
SK: I would also like to say that the mentor — the story of the master and the apprentice — is also a big part of the film and a very big part of the Valley, and seeing Steve handing his lessons to his disciples, and then those lessons being passed down, I think that’s a really important tradition in the Valley that continues. You see that today with all the magicians — Megan, and Tony — and just that desire to pass the knowledge on and use these lessons to solve some of the really big problems.
You talk about this beautifully in the film, and I think it’s the most important message in the film, which is, how do we take these lessons in bringing big ideas to life and apply them to the problems we really need to solve?
And also not kill off ideas. When you look at it in retrospect, it’s really astonishing, it really is, the iPhone — which came out in 2004? I think it was something like that.
’07. Sorry. That was even later. Facebook is 2004. When you look at it, it is like looking at how did they ... When you see those Leonardo da Vinci drawings of flying machines, you’re like ...
SK: That’s a good analogy.
“He’s kind of got it, directionally for sure.”
SK: The Codex. That’s a good analogy.
It’s really interesting, when you look at those drawings, and even when you look at the device itself, it’s sort of, every idea is there. It hadn’t been there, by the way. It hadn’t before that. I was there. There were street ideas. Apple had a street. What was it? It was run by Peter ... I can’t remember his name. They had an online service that looked like a town and it beep-beeped. It was terrible. But it was directionally correct, which was interesting.
What do you imagine keeps innovation going here? A lot of people feel innovation is gone, that these people have gotten older, that they’ve gotten too rich. There’s a lot of people that feel that innovation’s moved to China, or the enthusiasm has. How does that …? Because there are cycles of innovation.
SK: I think that’s true, but I also think that really, the big lesson is the lesson that came from Steve, which is the lesson about — that these people don’t do things for money. I’m sure they like making the money. I’m sure that’s not a horrible thing to do, but most or at least everybody I know in this context was driven by a vision and an idea, and that very much came from Steve. Andy Hertzfeld talks about that. I think it’s that passion to create and make change that drives it.
But where is that now? How do you assess it right now, looking at it?
SK: For me personally, where I see it blossoming in the most meaningful ways are in the dig-health space. I’m working at a company now, Kheiron, that is using AI to read mammograms. A state-of-the-art performance. The work that we’re doing and others are doing is going to change cancer diagnosis, for example. Then you look at the work that’s being done in immunotherapy in cancer treatments. I think that’s where I get most excited. Then there’s the green tech space, which is just super-interesting. The ed tech space. I think there’s so much happening. And I continue to be optimistic and excited about the innovation and the people, the innovators.
MM: I’m not a technologist at all, so for me, stepping into this world and discovering as much as I have, it gives me a massive amount of hope for where we’re going. There is a lot of fear and there’s a lot of uncertainty that is surrounding us everywhere. When I consistently look towards technologists and innovators within technology, it’s the one thing that gives me hope, because there are problems that people are finding solutions to. There’s problems that I’m not even aware of that people are finding solutions towards, as well.
I think in terms of what is the next cycle of innovation, I’m not sure if it’s known now, but I think it’s being worked on. It’s maybe just been worked on in a different basement or in a different garage. They might not be here yet.
These people have gotten to you, because they’ve broken a lot of things.
SK: What do you think?
I do not think. I think innovation is almost dead here.
MM: In the Valley?
Yeah. I think these things have a cycle.
MM: It could be dead in the Valley, but I think it ...
There’s indicators of innovation and they’re always around tolerance, openness, fresh ideas, willingness to change, and stuff like that. Then there’s signals of decay. It happens. There’s a really good author, the guy who did, I think it’s something to happiness, the places where all the happiest people are. He also did where innovation thrives and then dies, and it’s always the same pattern in every place, whether it was Rome or whether it was ... “That was an innovative place until it wasn’t.”
MM: And Venice. The capital may move. Sorry. The capital will move once the actual, like the name of the town has moved. Silicon Valley has it, at the moment. They’ve got the streaks of the money, but the money will move depending on where the innovation occurs.
Not just the money. It’s the inspiration. I think they’ve broken a lot of things. Look at what’s happening around Facebook now and Twitter and everything else. You cannot say the damage they’re doing to society is not significant, all of them. They’re not aware of it, and meanwhile they float away on their giant piles of money with very little care or knowledge of what’s going on, or just the bubble. They’re floating on something that doesn’t exist, and now they’re becoming painfully aware of the damage they’ve caused.
MM: I think my greater worry is that the technology is a signal, but where that noise is coming from isn’t coming from technology. Facebook is exacerbating the volume of it, but the problem’s elsewhere. There’s a worrisome trend about what’s happening with how news is heard, how news is spread, and that’s changed in my lifetime, the idea of what a fact is and what truth is. Unfortunately, Facebook is the one that picks up the speaker, but …
They pick up the speaker, make the tools and then don’t monitor the tools they make. I give them a little more responsibility.
MM: They didn’t sign up for that, unfortunately. They should have done.
Yes, they absolutely did.
MM: They should have done.
No. They absolutely signed up for it. They created the platform that caused the problem. You don’t think they signed up for it?
MM: No. I think that you’ve got ...
Oh, they don’t like the trouble they’ve caused with their Frankenstein monster.
Oh, that monster is killing people, so…
MM: The genie in the box, unfortunately. Nobody was checking it, and that’s the problem.
Except everybody was making money off of it.
MM: No. I get that. You and I are talking about two different types of innovators. For me, I’m not looking at Facebook and saying, “Wow, they’re solving any problem in existence.”
Sure. Absolutely. 100 percent. I’m talking about, where is the innovation? You were talking about health care, that it’s really happening. Then even attached to those there’s worrisome issues around privacy, around all kinds of things, that we’re giving too much of ourselves to the technology. I think the real worry is, where does humanity end and technology begin?
SK: I agree.
And things like that. When you look at disturbing ... In the interview I did with Mark last week, he was saying, “Well, if I don’t thrive, you’re going to deal with China, and they’re not as good.” I don’t think the choice is Xi or him. I don’t like that choice. That’s not a particularly good choice. But it’s true. You have a country that’s a surveillance economy, essentially, with values that are not ones that you think about openness, although very good at innovation and very good at ...
MM: It’s strange. When I first started working on the film it was over three years ago, and it felt like where we were going politically was in a much more positive direction to where it is now. Brexit has occurred, Trump has occurred, nationalism seems to be something that is going rife everywhere. In terms of wanting to be engaged with films that tackle those issues and asks those more difficult questions, yeah, it feels like it’s a good time to be asking them.
Two more questions before we end: I want to end on where you think that inspiration came from, from these people. You had a lot of archival footage. Where did you get all that stuff, and who didn’t you get that you wanted for this film? Did you get everybody?
SK: No. We didn’t get everybody. Andy Rubin, we didn’t get. Pierre Omidyar, we didn’t get.
Why didn’t they talk to you? Pierre, bad Pierre! I try.
SK: Timing. I think it was just they’re busy people.
Oh please. Andy’s not that busy now, but go ahead.
SK: Well, the footage was the joy. It was. We had the original footage that I’d helped shoot in 1993, and then we had ...
You were doing that for what reason?
SK: Because Marc had pulled in this crew led by David Hoffman to make a film about something that he’d imagined, because it wasn’t real yet. How could we help communicate this vision of the future? That’s where I started at General Magic. We had that cache, and then there was two other instances when we found enormous stockpiles of footage — one in Hawaii, 600 tapes in Hawaii, and another one, which was a smaller collection of footage, but so important. In fact, we’d almost edited the film at the point we got the second stash of footage. And that was like Christmas. I still dream about getting footage. I still dream about finding boxes of footage, and it’s so joyful.
Because nobody had phones. Nobody was taking pictures constantly.
SK: No. To have this footage is, I think, one of the best things about the film.
People forget nobody had phones. Nobody had cellphones. Nobody had cameras on their cellphones, for sure.
MM: It was still cameras, Polaroids and video cameras.
SK: Very few people really had video cameras. Bill Atkinson had brought one back from Japan, and he was filming, so that was this incredible insider view. We knew the story that we wanted to tell, but to actually find the footage that supported the story, that was incredible.
As storytellers, how has that changed for you? You’re doing a documentary, which is an old, traditional trope. How do you think about this in this age?
SK: We viewed it as like a narrative film. We wrote it as a script and then we have ... We don’t follow the conventions of a documentary film in the sense that we don’t have a narrator. We just build those scenes, we build those archival scenes that tell the story. Then we have our Greek chorus, which is you and John Markoff and Paul Saffo. I think for me that’s such an important element in the film. It’s giving us that perspective of what this story means.
When you’re making a documentary, now, what’s that like? It’s changed.
SK: Hard. It’s always hard.
It’s always been hard.
SK: It takes years longer than you think.
MM: I think every film requires the same amount of people hours. When you’re making a fiction film you’re doing it with 400 people, and so you condense all that time into eight weeks of shooting. When you’re making a documentary, you’re doing it with 10 other people, and it just takes a lot, lot longer.
SK: It was also a joy, I have to say. It was a total joy. So many interesting moments. The interview with John Sculley was a revelation. There were just so many moments that it was a fabulous, fabulous journey to go on.
MM: It was.
John Sculley’s a guy who always went left when he should have gone right, right?
SK: But owned it.
SK: When we interviewed him ...
He should own it.
SK: ... he really owned it. He did, and so many people don’t.
SK: I think actually that’s my lesson from the film, is that the people who really own their mistakes and their failures experience some form of redemption.
I like John personally, but, man, did he make such bad choices in his life. It was funny. Although, that’s good though, because it caused Steve to be angry to do — it created better things, which you don’t realize at the time. You need some sort of ... not villain, I wouldn’t call him a villain. You know what I mean, you need some …
Antagonist that the hero has to overcome. What lessons did you learn from the film?
MM: For me, I think it’s not enough to love the thing you’re making, you have to love the people that you’re making it with. When you’re making a film, for me it’s been three years in making the film, there’s always going to be struggles in creating something, but when you’re doing it with people that you have their back, they have yours, it’s an absolute joy.
There’s a lot of parallels between General Magic the company and General Magic the film. One thing that’s ever-present in the footage is just this incredible companionship and friendship of doing something wildly ambitious with their tribe of people. And that felt amazing, doing that.
They’re all still close.
MM: Yeah. I hope so.
SK: Except let’s hope more people watch it than buy the actual Sony Magic Link.
Yeah. 3,000 people? Yeah. So, where is it going to be? You’ve been at all these film festivals. You’re premiering it here in Silicon Valley. Where does it go?
SK: We had our world premiere at Tribeca, which was great, one of the top 10 films according to Time Out. Thank you, Time Out. That was wonderful. Now really we’re trying to decide what to do with it. Part of what we want to do is make sure ... What I want to see is I want to show it at inner-city schools. I want to show it to kids, and we want to show it in universities. That’s one track. Then we hope the right distributor will pick it up and that it’ll get seen by people.
Ultimately, it’s not a film about tech. It’s a film about people who have a dream to change the world and what it takes to do it.
It’s the best part of Silicon Valley. It really is, in a lot of ways. Then, would you go to Netflix or what happens? What do you do?
SK: Netflix would be great. HBO would be great.
Somewhere where people will see it and stuff like that.
MM: I think you alluded to this question earlier, but documentaries is changing. Prior to the world of Netflix, it was very hard to watch documentaries. Few would make a theatrical release. Otherwise, you’d have to go down to your local Blockbuster.
I watched one last night that I ...
MM: The world’s changed now. What’s great is you’re seeing, like the people with the money are seeing that documentaries are being watched, and there is a huge audience and a huge appetite.
It’s interesting. I was looking at all of them on ... I forget where I got it. I don’t know even how I pulled it in. It was on the Comcast thing. I’m watching “The Fourth Estate,” the New York Times thing, because I’m going to be writing for them.
MM: It’s amazing.
I got to say, looking at reporters for hours and hours is not the most exciting thing.
MM: The first episode just gripped me, though.
I know, but after a while you’re like, “Oh, God.”
MM: Really? Are you well in?
I just have done it. It’s just funny.
MM: They just did one episode. They premiered it at the Tribeca and I thought that was very good.
No. It’s good. The first episode’s great, but everything’s a crisis. “Oh! Now he’s doing ... Oh! Now, it’s Charlottesville. Wait a minute, now it’s whatever! And Manafort.” You’re like, “Okay.” Then they all go crazy and type, type, type. They’re great people, by the way.
MM: I can get behind that.
They’re fantastic people. In any case, Sarah and Matt, thanks so much for coming in and good luck tonight with your ... It’s Thursday night that you premiere.
Where this film is going, everybody should see it — mostly because I’m in it, but everybody should see it because it really is a document to Silicon Valley and the people who made it. The stuff you’re using today was ... It’s a bright line between General Magic and everything you’re doing today, so you should look at it and see where you came from.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.