How the imac changed com­put­ing for­ever

Benj Ed­wards looks at Ap­ple’s most iconic desk­top com­puter

Macworld - - Contents -

The imac made an in­stant im­pres­sion when Ap­ple first un­veiled it in May 1998. But it didn’t start to re­ally shake things up un­til it be­gan to ship – which hap­pened 20 years ago on 15 Au­gust, 1998. Ar­guably the most in­flu­en­tial desk­top com­puter of the past two decades, the

orig­i­nal imac’s spec­i­fi­ca­tions seem quaint by to­day’s stan­dards. If you were lucky enough to own one, you came home with a 233MHZ Pow­erpc G3 pro­ces­sor, 32MB of RAM, a 4GB hard drive, a 15in built-in mon­i­tor, and stereo speak­ers – all in an amaz­ingly stylish case.

The Bondi Blue won­der her­alded the re­turn of Steve Jobs as a vi­sion­ary leader for Ap­ple, and it halted Ap­ple’s mid-1990s fi­nan­cial free fall. Ini­tially mar­keted as an easy-to-use gate­way to the In­ter­net, the imac tran­scended that sim­ple role and re­de­fined the desk­top PC mar­ket – not to men­tion con­sumer in­dus­trial de­sign – for­ever.

But have you ever won­dered how? Here’s how the orig­i­nal imac shook the world.

It killed beige

Be­fore the imac, per­sonal com­puter en­clo­sures were stuck in a de­sign rut. Most man­u­fac­tur­ers pro­duced beige or grey me­tal boxes, each de­signed as a merely func­tional piece of equip­ment in­stead of an aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing cre­ative tool. The imac’s de­sign shat­tered the sta­tus quo with its pref­er­ence for gentle curves over harsh cor­ners, and for vi­brant colour over dull neu­tral­ity. Ap­ple even coined a new term, ‘Bondi Blue’ – a blue-green hue named af­ter Aus­tralia’s Bondi Beach shore­line – to de­scribe the colour of its new ma­chine. Com­bined with an ice­white pin­stripe pat­tern, the colour scheme cre­ate a stun­ning en­clo­sure thereto­fore un­seen in the PC world. It made quite an im­pact on the pub­lic, but that was only the be­gin­ning.

It hit us in the ‘i’

ithis, ithat – ipod, iphone, ichat, il­ife, isight. Where did all those low­er­case iprefixes come from. You can thank the imac for start­ing this ubiq­ui­tous Ap­ple brand­ing trend.

The ‘i’ in ‘imac’ orig­i­nally stood for ‘In­ter­net’ (or al­ter­nately: “in­di­vid­ual, in­struct, in­form, or in­spire,” ac­cord­ing to Steve Jobs’ in­tro­duc­tory 1998 imac slide show). The ‘i’ pre­fix even trick­led out to non­ap­ple prod­uct names – mostly in the form of ipod ac­ces­sories. Af­ter the In­ter­net be­came ho-hum ev­ery­day news, Ap­ple’s iprefix shifted mean­ing to serve puns like ‘isight’, or to am­bigu­ously im­ply the em­pow­er­ing first-per­son pro­noun ‘I’, as in ‘ichat’.

It launched on the In­ter­net wave

Ap­ple’s first mar­ket­ing an­gle with the imac re­lied heav­ily on the ex­pand­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the In­ter­net in the mid-1990s. With the ‘i’ in ‘imac’ be­ing short for ‘In­ter­net’, Ap­ple billed the imac as an easy way to get con­nected to the global net­work (in just two steps, ac­cord­ing to one Ap­ple ad­ver­tise­ment). By fo­cus­ing on the imac’s In­ter­net ap­ti­tude, Ap­ple chose a unique way to dif­fer­en­ti­ate its prod­uct from other com­put­ers and to leapfrog to the top of the con­sumer PC heap. It worked.

It in­tro­duced USB to the masses

The imac’s sole re­liance on the USB in­ter­face meant that Mac users had to throw out all their old mice, key­boards, scan­ners, print­ers, and ex­ter­nal drives. The com­puter’s lack of SCSI ports

par­tic­u­larly scared Mac pun­dits, who long re­lied on SCSI for ex­ter­nal stor­age. But at the same time, the imac pro­vided the first kick-start USB needed to re­ally get off the ground. Thanks to the imac, many pe­riph­eral man­u­fac­tur­ers launched their first-ever round of USB com­puter ac­ces­sories – it was no coin­ci­dence that most of them shipped in trans­par­ent blue-green hous­ing.

It killed the floppy drive

Ap­ple launched the Sony 3.5in disk drive with the Macin­tosh in 1984 – and 14 years later, the com­pany killed it with the imac, which had no floppy drive what­so­ever. The press greeted the de­ci­sion to omit re­mov­able stor­age with con­sid­er­able scep­ti­cism. But the ab­sence of a floppy drive was a

bold state­ment – Ap­ple was declar­ing that from now on you will use the In­ter­net and lo­cal net­works to trans­fer your files. And Ap­ple was right, even if the com­pany was slightly ahead of the curve.

It set stan­dards for in­dus­trial de­sign

The next time you see a con­sumer thingam­abob with a translu­cent plas­tic case – es­pe­cially those avail­able in mul­ti­ple candy colours – you can thank (or curse) imac chief de­signer Jonathan Ive. Af­ter the re­lease of imac, mul­ti­coloured translu­cent plas­tic hous­ing be­came such a com­mon sta­ple in the con­sumer prod­ucts in­dus­try that the imac’s

1999 to 2000 Tech­ni­color pa­rade of mod­els al­most be­came a par­ody of it­self. Ap­ple had to move on, drop­ping the bright ar­ray of colours from the prod­uct line with the re­lease of the flat-panel imac in 2002. Even then, other com­pa­nies came along for the ride: most con­sumer elec­tron­ics de­vices now ship in brushed alu­minium, frosty white, or glossy black – the colours used in other imac it­er­a­tions.

It re­deemed Steve Jobs

Dur­ing a power strug­gle in 1985, Ap­ple ex­ec­u­tives forced Steve Jobs to re­sign from the com­pany he co-founded. Af­ter Ap­ple pur­chased NEXT in 1997, Jobs re­turned to the firm and soon be­came ‘In­terim CEO’. The world looked to him to turn the com­pany around, and he de­liv­ered: af­ter dump­ing un­prof­itable prod­uct lines and stream­lin­ing the busi­ness in gen­eral, Ap­ple was back in the black. But no amount of fid­dling with the bud­get could

com­pare sym­bol­i­cally with the suc­cess of the imac – clearly Jobs’ baby – which served as a con­crete re­minder of his un­canny abil­ity to in­spire those un­der him to cre­ate in­cred­i­ble prod­ucts. The imac’s suc­cess meant Jobs’ suc­cess, and it in­spired the Ap­ple faith­ful to fol­low him once more.

It saved Ap­ple, too

In 1996 to 1997, the me­dia pro­nounced Ap­ple all but dead. The com­pany lost $878 mil­lion in 1997, but un­der the re­newed guid­ance of Steve Jobs, it earned $414 mil­lion in 1998, its first profit in three years. Those re­sults stemmed from both re­duc­ing op­er­at­ing costs and from imac sales. And yet the imac meant more than just fi­nan­cial re­turns: the sym­bolic im­pact of Ap­ple once again hav­ing an ex­cit­ing, in­no­va­tive prod­uct marked a vic­tory in the hearts and the minds of the pub­lic, and it proved that Ap­ple still had the chops to stay in busi­ness.

Thanks to con­tin­ued in­no­va­tion in the imac line and be­yond, Ap­ple is now more prof­itable than ever, and will likely con­tinue to be so. But even with the iphones and ipads dom­i­nat­ing to­day’s news, we shouldn’t for­get that Ap­ple’s 21st cen­tury suc­cess can be traced di­rectly back to imac’s launch a decades ago.

Be­fore the imac most peo­ple were un­fa­mil­iar with USB

Why is this man smil­ing? Be­cause the imac helped re­vive his com­pany

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