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Just Some General Magic

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I attended a talk by General Magic's CEO, Marc Porat, a few weeks back, and although I'm not sure I've fully assimilated everything he said, I came away with one important realization - General Magic has the right idea. Their focus is on people, not technogizmos, an idea that far too few developers understand. Marc said that General Magic's design axiom is "Never do anything to damage the self-esteem of the customer." If you're a developer, please repeat that statement a few time every night before you go to bed.

The same applies to the Internet, which is one of the reasons I constantly push for SLIP or PPP access - I won't pretend that the current graphical interfaces to the Internet are ideal, but they sure beat the more-powerful Unix programs in terms of making it possible for people to interact on the Internet without damaging self-esteem.

I don't want to say too much about General Magic, in large part because although they've announced their two main technologies, Magic Cap and Telescript, there's nothing but smoke and mirrors for likes of me to see. In short then, Magic Cap is an operating environment that presents a virtual world that maps more directly to the real world. That's a mediocre description, but until I can play with it, it's the best I can do. Conversations with others indicate that the interface, although it looks cartoonish and oriented to the novice, is quite deep. A friend told me how you can jump directly to any place within the world (in other words, you need not map real-world travel time into the virtual world) and how you can completely customize the environment. Those features will appeal to current sophisticated users. Young novice users (say, under 25) might not think of it in the same way, but having grown up with video games from the Atari 2600 to Nintendo and Sega, the concept of acting within a virtual world should be simple. The people I fear might have trouble with the Magic Cap interface are members of the generation that predates video games and who also haven't used computers. I'm not saying that Magic Cap will be harder than anything else, and in fact it will probably be easier, but the world view necessary for certain types of human-computer interactions simply won't exist for those people. Oh, and yes, there will be a version of Magic Cap for the Macintosh, although Apple has apparently grown a bit distant from General Magic because of the Newton, which doesn't use Magic Cap and which will compete with the personal intelligent communicators from General Magic partners such as Sony, Phillips, and Matsushita.

Telescript is more obvious, more necessary and less likely to succeed than Magic Cap. Like PostScript, Telescript is a language, but more importantly, it's an agent technology that enables intelligent agents to roam the networks seeking to fulfill your requests, which might range from a simple piece of information like a telephone number to a set of concert tickets to a little-known performer who only comes through town once every few years. The problem Telescript faces, as I understand it, is that everything must be rewritten to support it, and that's never a popular requirement.

Telescript includes the concept of Teleclicks, electronic money that agents can spend according to your directions. Everything uses authentication technology to ensure the legitimacy of agents and to trace transactions back to the person who must convert Teleclicks into hard cash.

General Magic is realistic about the technology, and cautions that it could take ten or more years to catch on, starting in the second half of this year. Their two most dubious parts are the emphasis on electronic merchants, when, by their own admission, we as a society know nothing about electronic merchandising, and the use of interactive television as one of the main Magic Cap interfaces to the world, when pretty much every interactive television project has been a complete flop. People stare at televisions; they don't interact with them. That might change, but I don't see it happening soon.

Criticisms aside, General Magic has the right idea in focusing on people and doing nothing to damage a customer's self-esteem. Products will appear and should be interesting to see, but if the industry can get its collective head around the concept of people, General Magic will have made its mark.

 

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