I watched the documentary General Magic (mentioned in Tony Fadell’s book Build) about the 1990s Apple spin-off company General Magic that built the iPhone before the iPhone. Ultimately the product was a commercial failure, but the documentary is a wonderful look at product design and what happens when you let talented engineers roam free range. They invented USB, created capacitive touch screen GUIs, and imagined the portable “Post-PC” world before Windows 95 and the Internet were ever popular. Ultimately the product was a failure, too early for its time. How did they build this product? Well the answer is… prototypes.
My favorite part of the documentary is Megan Smith beaming over her cabinet full of hardware prototypes. Her focus on making something people love, an intimate device, is infectious. Her eagerness to blend everyone’s wishes with the harsh reality of available and affordable hardware shows. Starting with off-the-shelf components and inventing if necessary. When describing the product, she’s not talking about megabytes, protocols, and pixels, but talking about the sound, the feeling, the touch of the product and software in people’s hands.
I feel more vindicated than ever that prototypes, put in people’s hands, are the biggest opportunity to capture lightning in a bottle. These people are imagining and building the iPhone 17 years before the iPhone launched. Megan Smith talks like Steve Jobs, but Steve Jobs doesn’t work at Apple or General Magic. We often herald the invention of the iPhone or Android and these magic devices as invented out of thin air or our collective science fiction, but both of those products used by billions of people rose from the ashes of General Magic’s failure. That’s a lot to dwell on. The composting of failures produces rich and fertile soil.