General Magic Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us to innovate (and sometimes cope with) the future! Today’s episode is on a little-known company called General Magic who certainly had a substantial impact on the modern, mobile age of computing. Imagine if you had some of the best and brightest people in the world. And imagine if they were inspired by a revolutionary idea. The Mac changed the way people thought about computers when it was released in 1984. And very quickly thereafter they had left Apple. What happened to them? They got depressed and many moved on. The Personal Computer Revolution was upon us. And people who have changed the world can be hard to inspire. Especially at A big company like what Apple was becoming, where they can easily lose the ability to innovate. Mark Pratt had an idea. The mobile device was going to be the next big thing. The next wave. I mean, Steve Jobs has talked about mobile computing all the way back in 83. And it had been researched at PARC before that and philosophically the computer science research community had actually conceptualized ubiquitous computing. But Pratt knew they couldn’t build something at Apple. So in 1990 John Sculley, then CEO at Apple, worked with Pratt and they got The Apple board of directors to invest in the idea, which they built a company for, called General Magic. He kept his ideas in a book called Pocket Crystal. Two of the most important members of the original Mac team, Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld were inspired by the vision and joined on as well. Now legends, everyone wanted to work with them. It was an immediate draw for the best and brightest in the world. Megan Smith, Dan Winkler, amy Lindbergh, Joanna Hoffman, Scott Canaster, Darin Adler, Kevin Lynch, big names in software. They were ready to change the world. Again. They would build a small computer into a phone. A computer... in your pocket. It would be described as a telephone, a fax, and a computer. They went to Fry’s. A lot. USB didn’t exist yet. So they made it. ARPANET was a known quantity but The Internet hadn’t been born yet. Still, a pocket computer with the notes from your refrigerator, files from your computer, contacts , schedules, calculators. They had a vision. They wanted expressive icons, so they invented emoticons. And animated them. There was no data network to connect computers on phones with. So they reached out to AT&T and Go figure, they signed on. Sony, Phillips, Motorola, Mitsubishi gave them 6 million each. And they created an alliance of partners. Frank Canova built a device he showed off as “Angler” at COMDEX in 1992. Mobile devices were on the way. By 1993, the Apple Board of Directors was pressuring Sculley for the next Mac-type of visionary idea. So the Newton was announced in 1994, with the General Magic team feeling betrayed by Sculley. And General Magic got shoved out of the nest of stealth mode. After a great announcement they got a lot of press. They went public without having a product. The devices were trying to do a lot. Maybe too much. The devices were slow. Some aspects of the devices worked, for other aspects, They faked demos. The web showed up and They didn’t embrace it. In fact, Dean Omijar with Auctionweb was on the team. He thought the web was way cooler than the mobile device but the name needed work so it became eBay. The team didn’t embrace management or working together. They weren’t finishing projects. They were scope creeping the projects. The delays started. Some of the team had missed delays for the Mac and that worked. But other devices shipped. After 4 years, they shipped the Sony Magic Link in 1994. The devices were $800. People weren’t ready to be connected all the time. The network was buggy. They sold less than 3k. The stock tumbled and by 95 the Internet miss was huge. They were right. The future was in mobile computing. They needed the markets to be patient. They weren’t. They had inspired a revolution in computing and it slipped through their fingers. AT&T killed the devices, Marc was ousted as CEO, and after massive losses, they laid off nearly a quarter of the team and ultimately filed chapter 11. They weren’t the only ones. Sculley has invested so much into the Newton that he got sacked from Apple. But the vision and the press. They inspired a wave of technology. Rising like a Phoenix from the postPC, ubiquitous ashes CDMA would slowly come down in cost over the next decade and evolve connectivity through 3g and the upcoming 5g revolution. And out of their innovations came the Simon Personal Communicator by BellSouth and manufactured as the IBM Simon by Mitsubishi. The Palm, Symbian, and Pocket PC, or Windows CE would come out shortly thereafter and rise in popularity over the next few years. Tony Farrell repeated the excersize when helping invent the iPod as well and Steve Jobs even mentioned he had considered some of the tech from Magic Hat. He would later found Nest. And Andy Rubin, one of the creators of Android, also come from General Magic. Next time you read about the fact that Samsung and Apple combined control 98% of the mobile market or that Android overtook Windows for market share by double digits you can thank General Magic for at least part of the education that shaped those. The alumni include the head of speech recognition from Google, VPs from Google, Samsung, Apple, Blacberry, ebay, the CTOs of Twitter, LinkedIn, Adobe, and the United States. Alumni also include the lead engineers of the Safari browser and AI at Apple, cofounders of webtv, leaders from Pinterest, creator of dreamweaver. And now there’s a documentary about their journey called appropriately, General Magic. Their work and vision inspired the mobility industry. They touch nearly every aspect of mobile devices today and we owe them for bringing us forward into one of the most transparent and connected eras of humanity. Next time you see a racist slur recorded from a cell phone, next time a political gaffe goes viral, next time the black community finally shows proof of the police shootings they’ve complained about for decades, next time political dissenters show proof of mass killings, next time abuse at the hands of sports coaches is caught and next time all the other horrible injustices of humanity are forced upon us, thank them. Just as I owe you my thanks. I am sooooo lucky you chose to listen to this episode of the history of computing podcast. Thank you so much for joining me. Have a great day!
Today we’re going to talk through the history of the Data General Nova. Digital Equipment was founded in 1957 and released a game changing computer, the PDP-8, in 1965. We covered Digital in a previous episode, but to understand the Data General Nova, you kinda’ need to understand the PDP. It was a fully transistorized computer and it was revolutionary in the sense that it brought interactive computing to the masses. Based in part on research from work done for MIT in the TX-0 era, the PDP made computing more accessible to companies that couldn’t spend millions on computers and it was easier to program - and the PDP-1 could be obtained for less than a hundred thousand dollars. You could use a screen, type commands on a keyboard for the first time and it would actually output to screen rather than reading teletypes or punch cards. That interactivity unlocked so much.
The PDP began the minicomputer revolution. The first real computer game Spacewar! Was played on it and the adoption increased. The computers got faster. They could do as much as large mainframes. The thousands of transistors were faster and less error-prone than the old tubes. In fact, those transistors signaled that the third generation of computers was upon us. And people who liked the PDP were life-long converts. Fanatical even. The PDP evolved until 1965 when the PDP-8 was released. This is where Edson de Castro comes in, acting as the project manager for the PDP-8 development at Digital. 3 years later, he, Henry Burkhardt, and Richard Sogge of Digital would be joined by Herbert Richman a sales person from Fairchild Semiconductor.
They were proud of the PDP-8. It was a beautiful machine. But they wanted to go even further. And they didn’t feel like they could do so at Digital. They would build a less expensive minicomputer that opened up even more markets. They saw new circuit board manufacturing techniques, new automation techniques, new reasons to abandon the 12-bit CPU techniques. Edson had wanted to build a PDP with all of this and the ability to use 8 bit, 16 bit, or 32 bit architectures, but it got shut down at Digital. So they got two rounds of venture capital at $400,000 each and struck out on their own. They wanted the computer to fit into a 19-inch rack mount. That choice would basically make the 19 inch rack the standard from then on.
They wanted the machines to be 16-bit, moving past the 8 or 12 bit computers common in mini-computing at the time. They used an accumulator-based architecture, which is to say that there was a CPU that had a register that stored the results of various bits of code. This way you weren’t writing the results of all the maths into memory and then sending it right back to the CPU. Suddenly, you could do infinitely more math! Having someone from Fairchild really unlocked a lot of knowledge about what was happening in the integrated circuit market. They were able to get the price down into the thousands, not tens of thousands.
You could actually buy a computer for less than 4 thousand dollars.
The Nova would ship in 1969 and be an instant success with a lot of organizations. Especially smaller science labs like one at the University of Texas that was their first real paying cusotmer. Within 6 months they sold 100 units and within the first few years, they were over $100 million in sales. They were seeking into Digital’s profits. No one would have invested in Digital had they tried to compete head-on with IBM. Digital had become the leader in the minicomputer market, effectively owning the category. But Nova posed a threat. Until they decided to get into a horse race with Digital and release the SuperNOVA to compete with the PDP-11. They used space age designs. They were great computers. But Digital was moving faster. And Data General started to have production and supply chain problems, which led to law suits and angry customers. Never good.
By 1977 Digital came out with the VAX line, setting the standard to 32-bit. Data General was late to that party and honestly, after being a market leader in low-cost computing they started to slip. By the end of the 70s microchips and personal computers would basically kill minicomputers and while transitioning from minicomputers to servers, Data General never made quite the same inroads that Digital Equipment did. Data General would end up with their own DOS, like everyone their own UNIX System V variant, one of the first portable computers, but by the mid-80s, IBM showed up on the market and Data General would make databases and a number of other areas to justify what was becoming a server market.
In fact, the eventual home for Data General would be to get acquired by EMC and become CLaRiiON under the EMC imprint. It was an amazing rise. Hardware that often looked like it came straight out of Buck Rogers. Beautiful engineering. But you just can’t compete on price and stay in business forever. Especially when you’re competing with your former bosses who have much much deeper pockets.
EMC benefited from a lot of these types of acquisitions over the years, to become a colossus by the end of the 2010s. We can thank Data General and specifically the space age nova, for helping set many standards we use today. We can thank them for helping democratize computing in general. And if you’re a heavy user of EMC appliances, you can probably thank them for plenty of underlying bits of what you do even through to today. But the minicomputer market required companies to make their own chips in that era and that was destroyed by the dominance of Intel in the microchip industry. It’s too bad.
So many good ideas. But the costs to keep up turned out to be too much for them, as with many other vendors. One way to think about this story. You can pick up on new manufacturing and design techniques and compete with some pretty large players, especially on price. But when the realities of scaling an operation come you can’t stumble or customer confidence will erode and there’s a chance you won’t get to compete for deals again in the future. But try telling that to your growing sales team.
I hear people say you have to outgrow the growth rate of your category. You don’t. But you do have to do what you say you will and deliver. And when changes in the industry come, you can’t be all over the place. A cohesive strategy will help you whether the storm. So thank you for tuning into this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We are so lucky you chose to join us and we hope to see you next time! Have a great day!