In the early 1990s, at an Apple spinoff called General Magic, a band of prodigies set out to make “small, intimate life support systems.”
They meant ‘life’ in the day-to-day sense, rather than the opposite-of-death sense. This life support wasn’t intended to keep people breathing. But to the engineers at General Magic, who were thinking on societal scales, the idea seemed almost as profound.
“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,” read the company’s mission statement. “These systems will help people to organize their lives, to communicate with other people, and to access information of all kinds.
“They will change the way people live and communicate.”
This was about a decade after the launch of IBM’s first PC and eight years after Apple introduced the Macintosh. Personal computers had established themselves in American homes and offices. But robust handheld devices and smartphones were somewhere between a prototype and a glimmer in an engineer’s eye.
Sometimes you have to trust your gut and go with it even when everything rational says no.Tony Fadell
In 1991, Tony Fadell finished his computer engineering degree at Michigan. With three startups already under his belt, the 22-year-old headed west to find work with his heroes – the “magicians” of Mountain View. Among them were the creators of Apple’s storied 1984 Mac, the first computer to give its users the desktop metaphor and graphical interface we now take for granted.
“I knocked on their door until they hired me later that year,” Fadell wrote in the New York Times in 2013.
General Magic was a blazing startup. It was backed by some of the time’s largest electronics firms: Sony, Motorola, Philips and AT&T. Analysts predicted that its programming language and operating system could become the standards of the burgeoning PDA industry.
“I was working with the team that created the Mac – that had changed the world,” Fadell said. “We were all dead set on changing the world again. And everyone told us we could, so we just poured everything into it.”
The team worked 18-hour days. Some built tented bunk beds over their desks. Despite the pet rabbits that hopped around headquarters to spark creativity, it took them years longer than they expected to ship their first products. But 1994 brought the release of the Sony MagicLink and the Motorola Envoy, both of which were hosted on a custom network by AT&T. The much-anticipated devices had mobile email, downloadable games and shopping options, among many other new and noteworthy features.
But the world wasn’t ready for them. They flopped.
The experience shook Fadell. “Everything you thought you believed didn’t come true,” he said. “You have to process that and learn from it.”
In time, he and the team did. Many members went on to be highly influential in the tech sector. Forbes later dubbed General Magic “the most important dead company in Silicon Valley.” And when Fadell found himself leading Apple’s effort to build a smartphone in 2004, not only did he have a head start, he knew how to fill out the roster.
“At General Magic, we were making the predecessor to the iPhone 15 years too early,” Fadell said. “Sometimes you’ve got to go through a spectacular failure and turn it into a learning experience to be the phoenix from the ashes.”
Fadell is the iPod inventor, iPhone creator, and founder of Nest, the company that designed an iconic smart thermostat that’s at the core of the Internet of Things smart home revolution. When he came back to campus last fall, he opened up about what it takes to change the trajectory of an industry. Fadell spent time with the next generation of tech upstarts in the Center for Entrepreneurship and a software design course taught by one of his former instructors and business partners, Professor Elliot Soloway. Fadell was encouraging and candid as he divulged some of the lessons he’s learned in his 25-year career. We’ll focus on five.