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It will likely take years, but General Magic and its partners want to create a ubiquitous communications infrastructure

Reprinted from Byte, February 1994, pp. 22-23.

No matter where you are in Magic Cap, you can call someone, send a message, or look up someone’s address.
This image can be zoomedNo matter where you are in Magic Cap, you can call someone, send a message, or look up someone’s address.
Today’s communications infrastructure is a chaotic mishmash of wired and wireless networks that either aren’t interconnected or are linked via clumsy gateways. Business users and consumers who could benefit from ubiquitous communications have trouble dealing with all the different platforms, topologies, and protocols. Developers who could provide solutions face formidable obstacles because there’s no unifying technology to bridge the gaps. Although users can access a wealth of on-line information and services, they must know where to look and be willing to master different user interfaces, which tend to be rigidly text-based and command-line-oriented.

After four years in development, a suite of technologies designed to profoundly alter this structure is coming to market. The technologies were developed by General Magic (Mountain View, CA), a start-up company that counts Apple, AT&T, Matsushita, Motorola, Philips, and Sony among its partners. The pieces include Telescript, a communications-oriented programming language for creating distributed applications and intelligent agents; Magic Cap, an object-oriented operating system designed for PDAs (personal digital assistants); and a new GUI that’s a radical departure for the Lisa-Macintosh-Windows model of the 1980s.

All these technologies will start appearing in the next few months, embedded in devices from General Magic’s partners and licensees. At least two firms – Sony and Motorola – plan to introduce their PDAs by midyear. Initially, they will be based on Motorola’s 68349 “Dragon” microprocessors, and Magic Cap is being ported to other chips, including Intel 80x86 and the PowerPC.

Magic Cap may resemble a cartoon, but it’s simple enough for casual users and is a radical departure from today’s GUIs.
This image can be zoomedMagic Cap may resemble a cartoon, but it’s simple enough for casual users and is a radical departure from today’s GUIs.
These new PDAs probably won’t rely as heavily on handwriting recognition as Appple MessagePad and Tandy/Casio’s Zoomer. Instead, the be more communications-oriented, with integral wireless and cellular-phone capabilities.

Telescript, a communications-oriented programming language comparable to C or Pascal, will let developers create network-independent intelligent agents and distributed applications. Some of these applications, in turn, may be tools that let ordinary users create intelligent agents without programming. What PostScript did for cross-platform, device-independent documents, Telescript aims to do for cross-platform, network-independent messaging. General Magic hopes Telescript will become lingua franca for communications.

Because Telescript is a portable language that executes atop a run-time interpreter, applications can run without recompilation on any supported platform or network, not just Magic Cap. Equally important, Telescript shields programmers from many of the underlying complexities of network protocols and directory services, just as the Windows API and Mac Toolbox shield programmers from the complexities of window management, graphics, and device I/O. General Magic is widely licensing Telescript to vendors for many different purposes.

For example, AT&T is now using Telescript to build a new E-mail service that will support rich messaging and data interchange. The new service offer gateways to existing services, such as CompuServe, America Online, and AT&T’s own EasyLink. Because Telescript is also being adopted by other General Magic partners, it has an opportunity to become the standard middleware for all communications-centric applications.

Like Telescript, Magic Cap will appear on PDAs from multiple vendors, including General Magic’s partners and licensees. Magic Cap isn’t just an operating system for PDAs, however. It could also be used in devices like fax machines, smart phones, or even TV cable boxes.

Magic Cap’s desk metaphor lets you file documents in a drawer.
This image can be zoomedMagic Cap’s desk metaphor lets you file documents in a drawer.
Magic Cap represents General Magic’s bid to take GUIs to the next conceptual level. While today’s environments protect users from many details of the hardware and operating system, Magic Cap goes even further. For instance, no longer must users understand the differences between executable and nonexecutable files, directories and subdirectories, physical and logical drives, or filenames and extensions.

The new GUI was invented by ex-Apple engineers and General Magic cofounders Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld. It may appear as absurd and cartoon-like to experienced computer users as the Lisa’s GUI did in 1983, but it’s intended to make personal computing accessible to the millions of people who otherwise might never buy a computer. Although Magic Cap is optimized for the small LCD screens of PDAs, it will also run on desktop computers, either as the primary GUI or atop an existing one (much as Apple’s At Ease runs atop System 7), such as the Mac or Windows.

Magic Cap already runs on the Mac, and it can take advantage of the higher resolution and better color available on the screens of desktop computers. It has the potential to become a leading desktop GUI for users who are technically unsophisticated. Even if it fails in this attempt, it will likely influence the future evolution of other user interfaces.

Magic Cap provides you with a set of editable rules for handling incoming messages.
This image can be zoomedMagic Cap provides you with a set of editable rules for handling incoming messages.
General Magic has many potential competitors. Magic Cap goes up against operating systems like Windows for Pens/Winpad, PenPoint, Newton Intelligence, GeoWorks’ GEOS, and DOS running on pocket PCs. Microsoft is promising users and ISVs (independent software vendors) “Windows everywhere,” but it remains to be seen how the look and feel of Windows will be preserved across disparate platforms and devices. GEOS does a better job of bridging these differences by decoupling the user interface from the application code, and it’s already showing up on PDAs from Tandy, Casio, and Sony. The fate of the MessagePad is unclear.

The competition for Telescript is not as obvious. Its closest rivals appear to be RPC (remote procedure call) mechanisms like the OSF’s (Open Software Foundation’s) DCE (Distributed Computing Environment) and Sun’s DOE (Distributed Objects Everywhere), as well as store-and-forward architectures like Microsoft’s MAPI (Messaging API).

The obstacles to General Magic’s success may appear daunting, but General Magic is not your typical start-up company. Its partners include some of the biggest players in the worlds of computing, communications, and consumer electronics, and it’s loaded with top-notch engineers who have been given a clean slate to reinvent traditional approaches to ubiquitous worldwide communications.

by Tom R. Halfhill and Andy Reinhardt

“Agents on the loose”

Page added on 25th August 2005.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.