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A time in 1994 when Steve Jobs got to use a device like an iPhone (cake.co)
470 points by pr0zac 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 102 comments

I'd have to say that the General Magic user interface (Magic Cap) was much more similar to the user interface in Microsoft Bob than an iPhone.

>Microsoft Bob presented screens showing a "house", with "rooms" that the user could go to containing familiar objects corresponding to computer applications—for instance, a desk with pen and paper, a checkbook, and other items. In this case, clicking on the pen and paper would open the word processor.


Here's a short overview of a device running Magic Cap and it's user interface for comparison.


Funny; Home Assistant [2], one of the top projects on github, just added a feature that allows people to build out really nice UI's for their home automation systems. Some of them [1] look a heck of a lot like MS Bob, but this time you can actually flip your actual lights on and off! It was just ahead of its time.

[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/homeassistant/comments/8wdscs/lovel...

[2] https://www.home-assistant.io/

Reminds me of Don Norman's kinda crazy light switches in his house, described in "The Design of Everyday Things":

> FIGURE 4.5. A Natural Mapping of Light Switches to Lights. This is how I mapped five switches to the lights in my living room. I placed small toggle switches that fit onto a plan of the home’s living room, balcony, and hall, with each switch placed where the light was located. The X by the center switch indicates where this panel was located. The surface was tilted to make it easier to relate it to the horizontal arrangement of the lights, and the slope provided a natural anti-affordance, preventing people from putting coffee cups and drink containers on the controls.

I was an OS/2 guy at the time of Bob, so I never used it. But what I see reminds me of a modern upgrade of Commodore’s 1983 Magic Desk.



That seems...stressful. I'd hate to accidentally move it while trying to press the fire button and delete all the stuff on my disk.

Its also interesting to see the desktop metaphor work on such weak equipment, at least outside of a lab. I think this is also further evidence that GUIs just couldnt really work well with such low resolution.

Two years later you had GEOS which looks like something I could tolerate today:


I know a retired Microsoft employee that literally quit on day one after being assigned to the Bob project because it was so incredibly stupid. He was reassigned after that.

It's always really cool seeing designs like this, just a reminder that nobody really had any idea what they were doing when building these UIs back then since it was totally unexplored territory

If anything, they had a better idea what they were doing than people do now. Windows 95 is a case study in good design. They got there by testing it and iterating on it a ton. https://socket3.wordpress.com/2018/02/03/designing-windows-9...

This. We’ve gone backwards in informed usability.

In my first software job in 1997, the UI department employed an industrial designer, a graphic designer and a researcher with a masters in cognition science. The company had a usability lab where the UI was tested under controlled conditions.

Today companies have a graphic designer who calls themselves a “UX expert” and draws pictures of interfaces in Sketch.

Win95 and Win2k where in my opinion the high water mark of Windows UI, everything since has mostly been different or worse.

Though with touchscreens I can see why that pattern would have dated badly.

That said, 16 year old me would have zero issues with using Cinnamon how I have it setup 22 years later.

Well after he stopped pointing at the screen in amazement and trying to get his head around a laptop with 4x2.8GHz cores and 8 threads.

Hell he’d even recognise a thinkpad in 2018 mostly because 16yo me really wanted one.

Win 2k really was sharp. Xp eventually was able to get close but by then it was replaced by Vista, and I switched to Mac.

> nobody really had any idea what they were doing when building these UIs back then

We evolved to flat design with minimal user cues and abstract icons lacking any text labels sitting inside a giant Javascript blob that breaks the browser's back button and scroll bars and is a 20mb download. Yay?

It was common trope in the early days of UX to use real-world analogues to model your interactions. It was believed this would help with adoption because it would seem familiar.

Finally!!! I always remembered Microsoft Bob from my childhood, but was never able to find it back in the internet since I didn't know how it was called

I worked at Motorola on the team building the Envoy GM device.

When GM first proposed the idea of a handheld digital assistant in the immediate pre-WWW era, e-mail was catching on as the hot new novelty, and GM's pitch to its partners was that you could go to the store, buy a device and have an e-mail account by doing little more than turning the thing on. Easy enough for Grandma to do was the idea.

When I came aboard the project was 18 months along and they thought they were on the verge of shipping. But the software was buggy and the API unstable, so partners had a hard time integrating it with their hardware.

Another 18 months went by before devices finally shipped, still buggy. But in that time AOL had grown exponentially and captured the concept of easy e-mail access in the minds of the masses. GM had no compelling alternative story they could replace their original pitch with, and their partners had lost patience and interest. Motorola put only minimal money into marketing the Envoy device.

That's my recollection of the dynamics that led to GM's failure.

At the time pagers had hit huge in the consumer market, and Motorola was making a mint selling them. Motorola had also developed the first practical wireless modem and was trying to market a sort of super-pager using the modem to enable two-way comms and longer messages than a pager allowed. But it was literally the size and shape of a brick and marketing wasn't going anywhere.

Motorola bet on GM as a way to extend their pager winning streak with a more consumer-friendly device and more savvy marketing. The Motorola Envoy team was given the mission of miniaturizing the modem enough to fit in a smaller, more attractive package.

They largely succeeded, but the shipping delays also allowed growth of miniature cell phones to take hold, and Motorola saw their future there more than with extensions to the pager paradigm. That contributed to Motorola's loss of interest in marketing the Envoy.

This is first time I'm learning about this company. Interesting read.

This part:

"General Magic came to an excruciating end. Tony went on to build the iPhone, Andy Rubin built Android, Pierre Omidyar built eBay, Megan Smith became VP of Google and then America’s CTO, Kevin Lynch built apple Watch…I could keep going."

Reminded me of Jorodosky's Dune and how the team he gathered went on the do iconic films/art

The Wikipedia page about General Magic draws this comparison between GM and Fairchild:

> Magic's engineering team is viewed as one of the most talented in the Valley's history, and Magic is generally seen as the Fairchild of mobile, social and ecommerce—the fountain from which much of today's smartphone and online communication and commerce technology sprang, just as Fairchild Semiconductor spawned Intel, National Semiconductor, AMD and the rest of the Valley's semiconductor industry.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Magic#Legacy

Interesting timing for this article and documentary to emerge, while a modern company with so many parallels, Magic Leap, is apparently releasing their device in the coming days. As General Magic was an ambitious and visionary precursor to the iPhone, so it seems Magic Leap may be the ambitious and visionary precursor to a mainstream spatial computing headset of the not-too-distant future.

With recent leaks of the 40 degree FOV and headset footage, it seems that Magic Leap, like General Magic, has not yet been able to deliver the technology necessary for widespread appeal. This time around, at least Magic Leap has raised a war chest so large, perhaps they can move forward with a far improved version 2 and continue operations and development, given only modest sales.

Hopefully Magic Leap can learn a lesson here and avoid becoming a General Magic (although, if it does, it was still a worthwhile effort to push the field forward, as General Magic did).

I don't see how Magic Leap and General Magic have anything in common besides the name and the eventual failure. Magic Leap hasn't innovated anything new compared to the HoloLens or other AR devices (see Leap Motion's AR device), while General Magic seemed to have pioneered portable touch screen communication devices.

Nokia 9000 is another old smartphone from 1996. Features a web browser, email client, telnet, etc. Grayscale 640x200 display.


The 9000 was part of our "on-call kit" in my SA team at the time. I remember being out on a hike in Atlanta one weekend when I got paged while I was on call and trying to use it to ssh in to fix an issue. It worked, but barely. I wish I could remember the exact details, but all I recall is that I was able to fix the problem and didn't need to end my hike early.

The wiki page doesn't say anything about ssh, but I'm almost certain it had it. This may have been around 98 or 99 though.

Well, the first version of SSH was released in 1995, so it probably wasn't widespread enough to be included in the first Communicator. Even though they are both Finnish inventions.

Indeed. We were commonly using telnet in those days.

Slightly amusing side story. Some of the guys had gotten those Motorola Timeport pagers with the screen and qwerty keyboard. One of them had rigged up some scripts so that he could send a text message with a Unix command, and his workstation would text him back the output of the command.

Hilariously insecure, but a pretty cool demo at the time.

Well it was basically a tiny PC, so it's entirely possible that you just used some DOS SSH client

It ran Symbian didn't it?

If you look at the wiki page, symbian only came with later versions of the communicator

Yeah, the very first one actually ran some sort of a DOS and had an x86 chip.


yep it did...

Sharp Zaurus, Handspring Visor, Treo, are all from that time as well.

I had the 9000 and loved it

Sidenote: the author of the post (Chris MacAskill) is also the co-founder of SmugMug which recently acquired Flickr. And apparently he also runs https://advrider.com/. Quite the renaissance person.


A new book came out recently about the history of Silicon Valley called "Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley". I've been working my way through the audiobook and it tells the story of General Magic in there. Would 100% recommend- it filled me with the same excitement as reading Steven Levy's original "Hackers".

I also bought this audiobook and just started it. Finished the first chapter. I found it a bit difficult to follow the format with so many quotes though. Is the rest of the book structured like the first chapter?

I am reading the text version, and it is indeed all quotes throughout. The first chapter is the most awkward, both from the author figuring out how the format works and the reader adapting to it. Three chapters in it reads just as smoothly as another book. The great thing about the all-quotes format is you get a real sense of the personalities and there’s less author bias.

I really like it, learned a lot of interesting factoids about SV’s history. Some fascinating patterns, like how everyone thinks things turned to crap right after their big thing failed.


The book format is definitely unorthodox with it being constructed from quotes (the whole book is indeed all quotes, like the first chapter.) I found the change in style odd at first, but I found it easier to follow as I continued to listen. I actually really fell in love with the format after a few chapters.

So basically it's an oral history of SV? Sounds awesome I'll check it out thanks.


I love the part about telling Steve that Sculley owned the same Mercedes. That's pro level trolling right there.

I had one of these SONY-branded devices, in Italy, gifted to me by an American relative when I must’ve been 13 or 14. I absolutely loved it even though it a bit less functionality than my PSION 3a. Ultimately it met a gruesome end when a school bully purposefully smashed its screen in an act of jealous spite.

Ouch, that’s rough. But dropped in to say I still think fondly of the last PSION I owned m, the PSION Revo.

Have you seen Gemini PDA? https://www.planetcom.co.uk/

Having owned one, the Magic Cap OS is nothing like an iPhone. Plus, it crashed a lot. I loved the idea and Telescript is an under-copied language, but the Newton with the cellphone (Motorola Marco) was a better attempt at what the iPhone would be.

Thomas Dolby [0] has a great anecdote about meeting Marc Porat and Bill Gates in his autobiography ‘The Speed of Sound’

“Marc Porat and I were eyeball-to-eyeball as he continued to fill me in about his company. Marc didn’t notice, but across the table, Bill Gates was ignoring the sycophants to his left and right, and straining to eavesdrop on Marc’s jargon-laden elevator pitch. Gates seemed to be getting more and more agitated, and was poking at his beef Wellington. As Marc explained his technology in more detail, Gates began rocking nervily back and forth in his chair.

“You’ll have these intelligent agents, as I call them,” said Marc quietly, “scouting and negotiating on your behalf, pulling in data from all over the Net. Eventually you won’t really need a PC, because all your work will be in a sort of cloud.”

Suddenly there was an explosion from across the table. “MARC, THAT’S FUCKING BULLSHIT AND YOU KNOW IT!” It was Gates.

His tie was too tight and the veins were bulging on his neck. In the wake of this high-decibel outburst, a deadly silence descended on the room. Startled faces at both tables turned our way. Even the waiters froze, silver ladles in their hands. Amid the hush that had fallen, Marc Porat visibly shriveled in his seat, looking like he wished a hole would swallow him up.”

The whole book is worth a read.

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Dolby

Fascinating! I didn't know that. Telescript was the networking software and it's not even mentioned in the movie. I thought it was crazy when I worked there. It had the structure of a virus.

Telescript was an amazingly cool idea. I almost quit a very good job to go to work for GM and work on Telescript. In retrospect, it was indeed a language whose purpose was writing [benevolent] viruses but it had no security whatsoever (or at best very little).

>>Eventually you won’t really need a PC, because all your work will be in a sort of cloud.

Microsoft has missed quite a few trends in the past.

I wonder how much of that is due to this sort of an attitude.

What Porat is describing sounds a lot like what is described in this old book I've been reading called Mirror Worlds by David Gelernter. I think it was published in 1991. It has some pretty interesting ideas, although I don't think that the use of "intelligent agents" is quite mainstream yet. We do see this among programmers with things like IRC bots though.

Microsoft came out with a competing technology in that timeframe called 'Microsoft Pen Computing' as a direct response to the hype around General Magic.


Book URL as it's at the bottom of that page as a ref:


FYI, the cofounder of this website/product (Cake) is also the author of the post. So this has some similarities to content marketing.

Hi, I also work for Cake.

For what it's worth, we were surprised to see this hit HN today. None of us submitted it, and we don't know the submitter.

I don't know you guys either! Just thought it was an interesting post to share.

Though it was published a month ago.

Throwing it out there for those who aren't aware of it

Clint of "LazyGameReviews" did a fascinating retrospective on General Magic a while back


I really enjoy hearing what really happened behind closed doors of what is, to me, one of the most interesting times in computer history.

What a gift to be a part of it! Keep these coming Chris!

I had one of the Sony backlit devices. It was a poor purchase decision, perhaps, but it was quite advanced.

AT&T pulling support for it was my first experience with "the cloud giveth and the cloud taketh away".

Paired with a more modern cpu and battery though with some updates, it could be quite useful even today, though...

Interesting story, but comes off as self-obsessed and a little bit not credible as a result of comments like these:

"...to what they called the cloud,"

"Placing a thumbs-up icon on a message to show that you liked it felt like something which could catch on"

"My favorite was maps from StreetLight that gave you turn-by-turn directions. Oh my God. That felt like an app everyone would love"

>"My favorite was maps from StreetLight that gave you turn-by-turn directions. Oh my God. That felt like an app everyone would love"

This is interesting, since Elon Musk has claimed to have written the first ever point-to-point directions software at Zip2, founded in 1995:


>At Zip2, I wrote entire V1 of software for drawing vector maps & calculating point to point directions anywhere in US (first ever company to do so), as well as white pages & business listings w reviews (an early Yelp). Also wrote V1 of classifieds, autotrading & real estate apps.

Didn't Nextbase Autoroute released circa 1992 have point to point directions and vector maps?

> "Placing a thumbs-up icon on a message to show that you liked it felt like something which could catch on"

> a little bit not credible

Especially as, as far as I understand, it was obviously not used "to show that you liked" to somebody else the content of his/hers message?

So yes, it's a bit [citation needed].

> it was obviously not used "to show that you liked" to somebody else the content of his/hers message

Specificly, according to the pictures, the “thumb up sign” by General Magic was designed as a decoration for an own creation (a clip-art kind) not as a signal “that you liked” what somebody else wrote or done. So the association with the more recent use of the symbol for the Facebook use case is unsupported.

Here's an earlier thread about the movie https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16897690 and an article apparently inspired by the release of the movie https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16897690

How can I see the documentary referenced at the end? The trailer is 2 years old, there are some reviews but not rental options ...

The documentary hasn't been released yet. I was at the West Coast premiere of it in California Theatre in downtown San Jose last week. Maybe Netflix, Amazon or Hulu will get the rights for distribution soon until then I'll have to wait to watch it again.

Why is this particular presentation format better than a good old fashioned blog post?

For the writer, this format has the same advantage as a tweetstorm: they get feedback that's very granular because each tweet / text block / whatever has its own reaction counters.

It can be surprisingly revealing to see that a particular paragraph got 100 likes and the next one got 15, for example. That data can be used to hone future writing for the audience's taste.

I enjoy reading in this format since the story can be told over time and through separate posts. Each post is like a mini story of its own. Also it is nice to see a discussion referencing specific posts. It is different, but I like it.

Except in this particular case each post was barely a minute apart.

This format is not too different from the textbook definition of a "blog post"

It isn't. Reading it I was like "what the hell is this? Is this some kind of reformatting of a series of tweets or something?" but it turns out it is some new format that the author is behind. No thanks.


I'm curious about what was the hiring process at companies like General Magic and Paypal. What do they do (from interview questions perspective) that they end up with so many game changing folks?

A film was made about General Magic that was a pretty big hit at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. There was a showing in a big theater in San Jose last week but it sold out. They have another showing at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View this Friday. Let's hope it gets on Netflix.

The CHM event on Friday is also sold out.

Hmm, Steve Jobs also killed the Newton, which did many of the same things, and was released in 1993.

The YouTube channel LGR has a great video on General Magic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Opcuy-8VO64

Bill Fallon in the article responded in the comments with this:

"Chris: There were probably some hard feelings a couple of decades ago but none lingering, not even those that may have been there wouldn't have been squarely aimed at you.

Since you were in charge of dealing with 3'd party developers I think I always realized you had a hand in the onboarding of AOL, though until I read your post I always assumed the idea originated with Sony. In the end it didn't really matter - the presence of AOL on SONY MagicLink's did not generate device sales any more than our name did, and ultimately AT&T PersonaLink was utterly dependent on device sales and unlike AOL, spent a fair amount of money to actually attempt to actually generate device sales. As you'll see in point 2 below we saw an urgent need to diversify into a PC application about a year before the MagicLink launched, but as we both know that idea died a slow, agonizing death.

There are two somewhat related points that I don't recall if we discussed or not which could have possibly (though not probably) reversed the fortunes of at least our part of the General Magic universe.

1. AT&T spent all that money developing what we would today call a cloud based platform for "communicating applications using General Magic's Telescript technology." Our deal with General Magic obligated us to be the first to develop any application that had anything to do with Telescript, and that was the GM/PersonaLink messaging application. If all General Magic wanted was a then current state of the art e-mail network, we could have made that available a week after our initial meeting with Marc Porat, Rich Miller and Bill Atkinson when they first visited us at a Bell Labs facility in NJ. No, it had to have Telescript.

To my recollection no 3'd party apps were ever developed using Telescript, including AOL's. In truth there wasn't much Telescript in the PersonaLink Mail application - I think it was primarily tied to authenticating users and providing a rather clever user directory, but it was a start, and again, a core contractual item we were obligated to meet.

While AT&T certainly had an issue with AOL, we never quite understood why General Magic didn't have an isssue with it (at least when we thought it was all Sony's doing), as it substantially compromised the value of it's whole Telescript proposition, which, despite various public pronouncements to the contrary, was obviously a distant second in importance internally to MagicCap. Various Magicians have indicated their disdain for John Sculley and Apple for upstaging General Magic's device - can you see the similarity AT&T saw for the introduction of an AOL messaging app on MagicCap devices to Apple's action? We had a similar reaction to Motorola's tie up with an outfit named RadioMail. Perhaps you were involved with that one also.

2. We campaigned long and hard for a MagicCap for PC's sofware app as it became apparent that Sony's $800+ device wasn't likely to fly off of store shelves and Motorola's $1500+ device might not ever make it to market, along with the phantom devices of other alliance members Panasonic and Philips. Rich a company as we were, AT&T could not afford to dole out Sony MagicLink's for free or very little to tens of thousands of customers, but we easily could have and would have distributed software to millions of customers for free, which we believe would have put tens of thousands of users on the PersonaLink network, generating revenue for both AT&T and General Magic, and perhaps providing a "tandem" device-computer solution that would have benefited device partners - which was ultimately the architecture that won that generation of handheld devices.

Our requests went nowhere for quite awhile, and were ultimately undertaken by a too little, too late internal effort at General Magic that never produced a viable product."

Interesting to learn what inspired the Apple Newton - it ironically focused a lot more on handwriting recognition, which Palm would do a much better job with Grafitti in terms of day to day use.

The Newton came out before the Magic Cap OS.

General Magic might have released after the Newton but appeared to be under development prior?

The article referenced this:

"Steve’s nemesis had made General Magic possible by allowing Marc Porat to spin it out of Apple. Sculley served on General Magic’s board. He had been considered a marketing genius when the Mac regained momentum after Steve was forced out.

He became General Magic’s villain too when he surprised us and released the Newton, which competed with us and discredited the category."

Interesting. I knew General Magic had many ex-Apple employees, but thought the Newton had been in development since before General Magic existed. Sculley’s Knowledge Navigator video was from 1987. https://youtu.be/hb4AzF6wEoc

Pretty weird that he was on the board of a company that he went on to compete with. He must have had inside info about General Magic’s schedule that allowed the Newton to beat it to market. Pretty scummy.

I forgot about the knowledge navigator. Makes a little more sense that so many core Apple employees left to start General Magic.

/rant Interesting story, however the format is horrible. It's my first time coming across posts like this and it was a struggle to read till the end (much like Twitter threads are a mess). The whole story will make for a great blog post.

Hi! I work on Cake.

This is fair criticism. Cake currently only allows one photo per post, so splitting the story across multiple posts is one way people can tell a story with multiple photos. We have more advanced multi-image support on our roadmap, we just haven't gotten to it yet.

I actually found this format refreshing so keep doing a good job!

Thanks! I appreciate the positivity. :)

The picture-as-a-story reminds me of the old Brightkite social network. Can you please tell your bosses to rip them off and re-invent it so I can use it again? It's the only social network I have ever loved, and it's been dead for 7 years. It was such a fun community.

I'll be keeping an eye, thanks for dropping in. There are more "conversations" on the homepage and for most the format and extra engagement from the community works great.

On mobile, the whole story is displayed on one page, so presumably you could just do the same thing on the desktop.

The whole story is displayed on a single unbroken page on all platforms, unless you have JS disabled, in which case you'll only see 25 posts per page.

Indeed. The format is so horrible in fact that I left the web page confused, not realising that there is more to read until I read this comment.

Agreed that this seems like a longer story cut up to fit the format, rather than the other way around.

From the "about" page, the author of this post series is one of the co-founders of the site it is posted on.

(I saw the technical limitation below)

It could be worse. It could have been a slide show.

I agree. I had to re-read the first few posts multiple times because I thought I missed something. It wasn't really clear to me that "the call" in question was a job offer so I just thought Steve heard about this phone call and then needed to chat. On top of that, it's weird to get these little breaks because the story flows pretty naturally but feels disjointed.

I think it's not the format but the telling. Or maybe the format made the story jumpy and fuzzy.

I gave up utterly confused and annoyed at "page 5".

I thought it was some sort of reformatted twitter thread at first. It was really distracting.

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