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.
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.
|No matter where you are in Magic Cap, you can call someone, send a message, or look up someone’s address.|
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.
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.
|Magic Cap may resemble a cartoon, but it’s simple enough for casual users and is a radical departure from today’s GUIs.|
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
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 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.
|Magic Cap’s desk metaphor lets you file documents in a drawer.|
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.
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.
|Magic Cap provides you with a set of editable rules for handling incoming messages.|
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.