Great expectations and the general magic of failure

A new film by Dickens Universe regular and benefactor Mike Stern is the story of a little-known company that set in motion much of our technological world

Michael Stern, Matt Maude, Sarah Kerrush, the producers of General Magic.
Mike Stern (left) with his fellow producers, Matt Maude (middle), and Sarah Kerrush (right). Together they produced General Magic, a new film about the company that made the precursor to smart phones. Photo courtesy of Mike Stern.
A couple years ago, Mike Stern set out to share the story of a great Silicon Valley failure.

In the mid 1990s, he had become general counsel for a company called General Magic. General Magic, the film that Stern executive produced, follows the group of former Apple employees as they create a product with most of the capabilities of modern smartphones long before such devices became ubiquitous. The film has garnered dozens of awards and opens in theaters May 10.

You wouldn’t know from meeting him…

A Dickens Universe regular, Mike Stern’s conversation is a rich stream of ideas. On topics he cares about—General Magic, Dickens—he conveys infectious, wide-eyed enthusiasm.

Matt Maude, coproducer and director of the film, really enjoys introducing him with details such as his arrest while protesting the Vietnam War as a Columbia undergraduate, becoming a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post before beginning a career as a scholar of literature, then practicing intellectual property law with one of Silicon Valley’s leading law firms (a role from which Stern recently retired).

“I get halfway through and people’s mouths are hanging wide,” Maude says.

At Dickens Universe, which he has attended without fail since 2012, Stern is an enthusiastic and gregarious participant, says Dickens Project Director John Jordan.

“He’s right there interacting with people from any background. Mike is just an ordinary guy,” Jordan says. “You wouldn’t know from meeting him that he has a literature Ph.D., and only if you asked would you find out about his legal training.”

Mary Doyle (Porter ‘74, biology, economics), a trustee of the UC Santa Cruz Foundation, succeeded Stern at General Magic. Doyle describes Stern as a wonderful mentor and an insightful attorney.

“Those who have had the chance to work with Mike can’t say enough about his kindness, his humility, his readiness to redirect the spotlight to those coming up behind him,” Doyle says.

“Dickens Camp”

In 2011 The New Yorker published a feature with an in-depth description of the Dickens Universe. Stern, a fan of Dickens since college, was delighted to find the event a short drive from home.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God! I didn’t know this was there. I have to go. I just have to go,’” Stern says. “It turned out the featured book that summer was Bleak House, which is the great Dickens book for lawyers. And so it was a perfect match.”

A few years later, Stern joined Jordan in making a generous gift to the Dickens Project. Combined with matching funds from the University of California, their gift established the Jordan-Stern Presidential Chair for Dickens and Nineteenth-Century Studies. The endowed chair freed the Dickens Project from the need to constantly seek operational funds, says Professor Murray Baumgarten, the program’s founder.

“The chair has been enormously important,” Baumgarten says. “It has solidified the project and put it on stable ground.”

In addition, the chair funds research, including the recently published The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens. Jordan, one of three editors, expects it will be a primary reference about Dickens for at least the next 10 years.

Failure is just the beginning

In addition to becoming deeply involved in the Dickens Universe, Stern became immersed in a different kind of storytelling with his documentary on General Magic. In 1990, Apple spun off General Magic, charging the small company with doing for telecommunication what the Macintosh had done for personal computers. Four years later General Magic began selling “personal intelligent communicators.” The handheld phones ran a variety of applications—much the way smartphones would.

“The idea that I could hold something in my hand,” Stern says, “that integrated access to knowledge, personal interaction, shopping, you name it—that it would all be in my hand—the idea just seemed ‘Yes, we have to do this.’”

At first the company followed an upward trajectory. It went public with enormous investment from companies including Sony, Motorola, and AT&T. Then the communicators didn’t sell. General Magic adapted some of the technology for other purposes before it went out of business—its voice recognition software would become the core of OnStar.

“Everything we take for granted about social and mobile and ecommerce and all the rest was developed at Magic,” Stern says. “We were just too soon.”

It takes tens of thousands

Maude was drawn to help with General Magic to tell the stories of the many people who contributed to General Magic’s product.

“If you think about tech today. Each company is personified by one person. That’s not real,” Maude says. ”It takes tens of thousands of people to make those technologies.”

The film is scripted to follow a traditional narrative arc, says Jennifer Calvanico, who organized archival video and did fact-checking. General Magic often had cameras recording what was happening at the company in the early 90s, so much of the story is conveyed through that archival video.

“It’s a very familiar story,” says Calvanico (Ph.D. ‘20, feminist studies). “The movie explores ‘What is failure?’ ‘What is success?’ ‘What is technological change, and what is the time for it?’”

Stern says he hopes audiences will see that Magic’s failure carries a message about persistence.

“It’s not just incredible success stories: Mark Zuckerberg drops out of Harvard and does Facebook; Steve Jobs drops out of Reed and does Apple,” he says. “The valley is really about failure as a necessary precursor for success. And Magic was a classic failure, but it set the table for everything that came after it.”