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Magic Mirror

Hocus pocus, we've got focus

By Dan Hanttula
August 1998, issue 23

I have serious admiration for the folks at General Magic. After years of seeing the same smiling faces, working hard and believing in what they do, I’ve gained respect for and many friendships with the magicians. But most of the original GMers are gone, and the remaining ones are starting to tire. Last December at the DataRover briefing, the usually energetic and always enthusiastic Steve Schramm looked a little weary. When I talk to other people on the DataRover project team, they sometimes seem withdrawn. The entire team has been working hard and it shows in their products. But now General Magic needs results.

Although I have heard about GM’s work with a public utility and significant developments in the healthcare industry for Magic Cap, the company has announced no design wins. An example "design win" would be the creation of a proprietary application for a corporation (which hopefully pays for it) and the purchase of a number of DataRover units to run the application.

To make matters worse, the Remote Access and Developer’s Kits are still in beta and not yet ready to go to work for the company. I have received many requests for information from developers who want to get to work making Magic Cap applications. After numerous conversations with General Magic, it appears they have nothing up their sleeves for the general public.

While GM stressed that they do not want to dissuade interested parties from hopping on the Magic Cap bandwagon, developers must undergo an "interview" to apply for a Developer’s Kit. This is the result of General Magic’s new and tighter focus to work closely with developers and control more of the Magic Cap community. Interested developers should e-mail for more information.
But again, with hindsight as my guide, this seems like the General Magic of old, where they try to keep too many things under their control and do too little about promotion and production.

Speaking of promotion, GM has produced only one press release about DataRover this year, while a dozen dispatches have been issued about the company’s other product, Portico (formerly known as the "Serengeti" virtual assistant). Included in the list of Portico releases is the company’s announcement of a new corporate image (see article, last issue) that all but swept the Magic Cap identity under the rug.

Poof! A Magic Phone appears
But as grand proof that Magic Cap is still alive and breathing, General Magic has developed a hybrid (Portico/Magic Cap) product called Magic Phone. On display at the "Digital Living Room Conference" in Dana Point, California, the Magic Phone has the footprint of an office phone with a backlit one-quarter VGA (240 x 320 pixels) grayscale LCD screen. The system is voice-activated and incorporates a speakerphone, digital answering machine, and a built-in voice-controlled phone book capable of storing more than 100 entries. Steve Markman, CEO, president, and chairman of General Magic, reports that the Magic Phone "leverage[d] some of our development efforts originating from the Magic Cap operating system and hardware with our ongoing efforts in agent and voice technologies."

While it’s hard to tell from the outside, the system consists of advanced versions of General Magic’s two-chip PIC set, two custom chips that General Magic code-named "Dino" and "Betty." The company states that the CPU has seen significant cost reductions and now runs at 74MHz. Although the system hardware hides behind the phone’s stylish exterior, the operating system behind the Magic Phone is most certainly Magic Cap. The interface, though now icon driven, has a familiar look and still features the Universal Inbox (which now supports voice messages). The technical staff at GM also informed me that Magic Phone uses Magic Cap all the way to the low-level operating system functions, like the multi-tasking capabilities of the kernel, certain libraries, as well as drivers for the LCD screen, keypad, microphone, speaker, phone line, timer, power, and battery. New features include a set of news and information services, delivered via GM’s Portico network service, and powerful caller ID features that will announce the incoming caller and allow you to pick up the phone via voice commands. In addition, the phone will also support Internet telephony technology allowing Magic Phone users to call each other across the Internet, avoiding long distance charges.

I know Markman isn’t apt to discuss a product or technology until it is very near completion, but the team at General Magic stressed that this was only a prototype. They will test the Magic Phone with focus groups to determine exactly which features and functions consumers would want most in an intelligent screen phone system. While the market for web connected phones is growing and has been acknowledged by Philips, AT&T, and other giants, many companies have been founded on the fact that top-level executives have phones on their desks that they use habitually, while their computers only serve up e-mail. This could be another clever way to sneak Magic Cap into the back door of corporations. Giving the CEO the ability to view the third quarter sales statistics on his Magic Phone, as reported by his sales staff using a fleet of DataRover devices would make a very powerful statement.

But regardless of their tactics, this endeavor could result in a new consumer level Magic Cap product, an increase in the number of communications applications for DataRover products, and a healthy shot in the arm for General Magic. One additional note, when I received the technical specs on the Magic Phone, the author described their new chip as "for use in MagicPhone or other lower cost Internet appliances." Meaning we might have more than one new Internet-based product coming out of the Magicians’ hats after all!

Dan Hanttula the platform editor for Windows CE and Magic Cap operating systems and the president of HomeRun Advertising. He can be reached via e-mail at

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