In 1989, General Magic Saw the Future of Smartphones

The Motorola Envoy’s smart desktop was way ahead of its time—until it wasn’t

6 min read

An electronic communication device with a black and white screen and antenna. The words Motorola and Envoy are printed on the device.

Introduced in 1994, the Motorola Envoy used a groundbreaking operating system created by Apple spinoff General Magic.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Sometimes a design is so perfectly representative of its time that to see it brings long-forgotten memories flooding back. The user interface of the Motorola Envoy does that for me, even though I never owned one, or indeed any personal digital assistant. There’s just something about the Envoy’s bitmapped grayscale icons that screams 1990s, a time when we were on the cusp of the Internet boom but didn’t yet realize what that meant.

The Motorola Envoy was a paragon of skeuomorphic design

Open up the Envoy, and the home screen features a tableau of a typical office circa 1994. On your grayscale desk sits a telephone (a landline, of course), a Rolodex, a notepad, and a calendar. Behind the desk are a wall clock, in- and out-boxes, and a filing cabinet. It’s a masterstroke in skeuomorphic design.

Skeuomorphism is a term used by graphical user interface designers to describe GUI objects that mimic their real-world counterparts; click on the telephone to make a call, click on the calendar to make an appointment. In 1994, when the Envoy debuted, the design was so intuitive that many users did not need to consult the user manual to start using their new device.

About the size of a paperback and weighing in at 0.77 kilograms (1.7 pounds), the Envoy was a little too big to fit in your pocket. It had a 7.6-by-11.4-centimeter LCD screen, which reviewers at the time noted was not backlit. The device came with 1 megabyte of RAM, 4 MB of ROM, a built-in 4,800-bit-per-second radio modem, a fax and data modem, and an infrared transceiver.

The Envoy was one of the first handheld computers designed to run the Magic Cap (short for Communicating Applications Platform) operating system. It used the metaphor of a room to organize applications and help users navigate through the various options. For most business users, the Office with its default desk was the main interface. The user could also navigate to the virtual Hallway—complete with wall art and furniture—and then enter other rooms, including the Game Room, Living Room, Storeroom, and Control Room. Each room featured its own applications.

A grayscale graphical user interface shows a desktop with icons for a phone, Rolodex, calendar, and other common office implements. The Motorola Envoy’s graphical user interface was based on skeuomorphic design, in which virtual objects resemble their real-world counterparts and suggest their uses.Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

A control bar across the bottom of the screen aided in navigation. The desk button, the equivalent of a home link, returned the user to the Office. The rubber stamp offered decorative elements, including emoticons, which were then a new concept. The magic lamp gave access to search, print, fax, and mail commands. An icon that looks like a purse, but was described as a tote bag, served as a holding place for copied text that could then be carried to other applications, similar to your computer’s clipboard. The tool caddy invoked drawing and editing options. The keyboard button brought up an onscreen keyboard, an innovation widely copied by later PDAs and smartphones.

Skeuomorphic design began to wane in the mid-2000s, as Microsoft, Google, and Apple embraced flat design. A minimalist response to skeuomorphism, flat design prioritized two-dimensional elements and bright colors. Gone were needless animation and 3D effects. Apple’s trash can and Windows’ recycling bin are two skeuomorphic icons that survived. (Envoy had a garbage truck on its toolbar for that purpose.)

Part of the shift away from skeuomorphism was purely functional; as devices added more applications and features, designers needed a cleaner display to organize information. And the fast-paced evolution of both physical and digital technologies quickly led to outdated icons. Does anyone still use a Rolodex to store contact information or a floppy disc to save data? As their real-world counterparts became obsolete, the skeuomorphic equivalents looked old-fashioned.

The Envoy’s user interface is one of the reasons why the object pictured at top found its way to the collections of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in New York City. Preserving and displaying the Envoy’s functionality a quarter century after its heyday presented a special challenge. Ben Fino-Radin, founder and lead conservator at Small Data Industries, worked on the digital conservation of the Envoy and wrote an instructive blog post about it. Museums have centuries’ worth of experience preserving physical objects, but capturing the unique 1994 feel of a software design required new technical expertise. Small Data Industries ended up purchasing a second Envoy on eBay in order to deconstruct it, inspect the internal components, and reverse engineer how it worked.

How General Magic both failed and succeeded

Although the Envoy’s interface is what captured my interest and made me select it for this month’s column, that is not why the Envoy is beloved of computer historians and retro-tech enthusiasts. Rather, it is the company behind the Envoy, General Magic, that continues to fascinate.

General Magic is considered a classic example of a Silicon Valley heroic failure. That is, if you define the precursor to the smartphone and a design team whose members later brought us the iPod, iPhone, Android, eBay, Dreamweaver, Apple Watch, and Nest as failures.

The story of General Magic begins at Apple in 1989, when Bill Atkinson, Andy Hertzfeld, and Marc Porat, all veterans of the Macintosh development team, started working on the Paradigm project. They tried to convince Apple CEO John Sculley that the next big thing was a marriage of communications and consumer electronics embodied in a handheld device. After about nine months, the team was not finding the support it wanted within Apple, and Porat convinced Sculley to spin it off as an independent company, with Apple maintaining a 10 percent stake.

In 1990, General Magic kicked off its operations with an ambitious mission statement:

We have a dream of improving the lives of many millions of people by means of small, intimate life support systems that people carry with them everywhere. These systems will help people to organize their lives, to communicate with other people, and to access information of all kinds. They will be simple to use, and come in a wide range of models to fit every budget, need, and taste. They will change the way people live and communicate.

Pretty heady stuff.

General Magic quickly became the hottest secret in Silicon Valley. The company prized confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements to keep its talent from leaking, but as well-known developers joined the team, anticipation of greatness kept building. General Magic inked partnerships with Sony, Motorola, AT&T, Matsushita, and Philips, each bringing a specific expertise to the table.

At its heart, General Magic was attempting to transform personal communications. A competitor to the Motorola Envoy that also used Magic Cap, Sony’s Magic Link, had a phone jack and could connect to the AT&T PersonaLink Service network via a dial-up modem; it also had built-in access to the America Online network. The Envoy, on the other hand, had an antenna to connect to the ARDIS (Advanced Radio Data Information Service) network, the first wireless data network in the United States. Formed in 1983 by Motorola and IBM, ARDIS had sketchy data coverage, its speeds were slow (no more than 19.2 kilobits per second), and costs were high. The Envoy initially sold for US $1,500, but monthly data fees could run $400 or more. Neither the Magic Link nor the Envoy were commercial successes.

Rabbits roam free to help spur creativity, personal hygiene seems optional, and pulling all-nighters is the norm.

Perhaps it was the hubris before the fall, or maybe the General Magic team truly believed that they were undertaking something historic, but the company allowed documentary filmmaker David Hoffman to record meetings and interview its employees. Filmmakers Sarah Kerruish, Matt Maude, and Michael Stern took this archival treasure trove and turned it into the award-winning 2018 documentary General Magic.

The original footage perfectly captures the energy and drive of a 1990s startup. Rabbits roam the office to help spur creativity, personal hygiene seems optional, and pulling all-nighters is the norm. Young engineers invent their own versions of the USB and touch screens in order to realize their dreams.

The film also shows a company so caught up in a vision of the future that it fails to see the world changing around it—specifically the emergence of the World Wide Web. As General Magic begins to miss deadlines and its products don’t live up to their hype, the company falters and goes into bankruptcy.

But the story doesn’t end there. The cast of characters moves on to other projects that prove far more remarkable than Magic Cap and the Envoy. Tony Fadell, who had joined General Magic right after college, goes on to invent the iPod, coinvent the iPhone, and found Nest (now Google Nest). Kevin Lynch, a star Mac software developer when he joined General Magic, leads the team that develops Dreamweaver (now an Adobe product) and serves as lead engineer on the Apple Watch. Megan Smith, a product design lead at General Magic, later becomes chief technology officer in the Obama administration.

Marc Porat had challenged his team to create a product that “once you use it, you won’t be able to live without it.” General Magic fell short of that mark, but it groomed a cadre of engineers and designers who went on to deliver those can’t-live-without-it devices.

Part of a continuing serieslooking at photographs of historical artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of technology.

An abridged version of this article appears in the January 2022 print issue as “Ode to the Envoy.”

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SHI CHAOLIN05 Jan, 2022