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Trying to recapture the magic

General Magic unveils to developers the new version of its Magic Cap operating system for handheld computers, code-named Rosemary.

Hoping to end a gloomy 1996 on an high note, General Magic (GMGC) gathered software developers today in Silicon Valley to unveil the new version of its Magic Cap operating system for handheld computers, code-named Rosemary.

But the event left a lot of open questions as the company declined to discuss Rosemary's hardware or software developers. "The point of this meeting is to just announce that we're working on a next generation of the operating system," said Steve Schramm, vice president and general manager the company's communication products division. "There are no public dates of availability and no specified set of developers."

The reluctance of consumers to embrace the Magic Cap operating system has shaken General Magic's ranks from top to bottom this year. After ex-Novell executive Steve Markman replaced Robert Kelsch at the helm in September, the company proceeded to lay off almost 30 percent of its work force and post a $12 million dollar loss at the end of October.

The company hopes Rosemary will spice up the handheld market at a time when Microsoft's Windows CE operating system announcements are abundant and new machines based on Apple Computer's Newton OS are imminent. Unlike CE and Newton, Magic Cap uses a highly visual graphical workspace--to check addresses, click on the Rolodex; to send a fax, click on the fax machine--and allows users to send and receive email with multimedia attachments.

The current version is available on two handheld devices, the Sony Magic Link and the Motorola Envoy, which Motorola just announced it will no longer sell. Rosemary is migrating to a new hardware platform based on a 32-bit R3000 RISC processor, but the company is not discussing which hardware vendors will actually build Rosemary-based devices.

"We will make sure that there is a Rosemary product or set of products in the North American market," said Schramm. "We have partners who don't want to be publicly committed to a date."

Schramm said hardware developers have been working with Rosemary since August and a final version will be sent to OEMs in the first quarter of next year, but until such vendors are publicly announced, it could be hard to convince software developers to join the effort.

"It's good that they're evolving [the OS] to run on a RISC chip," said Dataquest analyst Mike McGuire. "But can they generate enough interest from hardware vendors to sustain it? With Microsoft in the picture, it's an exponentially more competitive market and it's going to be very difficult."

Rosemary has been rewritten in C++, which makes it easier to port to other platforms, and the API (application programming interface) set is being overhauled. The overhaul means that software developers will not have an easy time retooling legacy Magic Cap applications for Rosemary.

The new operating system will include a Web browser, support for multiple mail accounts, a software modem, and integrated support for Internet protocols including TCP/IP, PPP, SMTP, MIME, and POP3.