The imac at 20


Macworld (USA) - - Contents - BY JA­SON SNELL


Iwas work­ing at home when I got the mes­sage: The en­tire Mac­world ed­i­to­rial staff needed to gather in a con­fer­ence room in a cou­ple of hours. Ap­ple had an­nounced some­thing huge ( go.mac­ and we needed to re­act im­me­di­ately.


It was May 1998 and I was work­ing as a fea­tures editor at Mac­world mag­a­zine— and in those days, mag­a­zines were su­per­heroes and web­sites were their plucky side­kicks. Monthly mag­a­zines had a rel­a­tively leisurely sched­ule, but the day the imac was an­nounced ( go.mac­world. com/8way), Mac­world was in the midst of “close”—the one week where we fi­nal­ized ev­ery sin­gle page in the mag­a­zine, back to front, and trans­mit­ted them to our print­ing press in the Mid­west. We needed to get the imac in that is­sue. Back in those days, far more peo­ple would get news about Ap­ple from print me­dia than the web. There would be a Newsweek

exclusive the next week, and news­pa­per cov­er­age, but it wouldn’t do for Mac­world

to go a month and a half with­out any word about this prod­uct that, editor-in-chief An­drew Gore was cer­tain, would change the Mac for­ever. (He was the only mem­ber of the ed­i­to­rial staff to at­tend the imac launch event, and he was right.)

If you look at the re­sult­ing is­sue of Mac­world— I ad­mit that I pulled mine out of stor­age this week­end—you’ll find that the four-page fea­ture story on the imac an­nounce­ment is spread across one page num­ber. (Andy’s EIC col­umn about the event [ go. mac­] is on page 17, and his fea­ture, co-writ­ten with re­views editor Anita Epler [ go.mac­world. com/imcm], is on pages 17A, 17B,

17C, and 17D.)

You can’t add a sin­gle page to a print mag­a­zine—we could only add them four at a time, be­cause the pa­per the mag­a­zine was printed on was ac­tu­ally a dou­ble­sized sheet of pa­per, folded in half to make four, with the folded ends all stuck to­gether and bound to make the com­plete is­sue. And since we had started ship­ping pages for the is­sue, the ta­ble of con­tents and page num­ber­ing was locked—so we couldn’t add any num­bers. So that his­toric cover says “page 17A.” Weird.


The imac was a dra­matic right turn for the Mac prod­uct line, and is the per­fect rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the changes Steve Jobs was mak­ing to Ap­ple’s cul­ture at the time. Out went beige boxes, an un­count­able col­lec­tion of dif­fer­ent model num­bers, and a col­lec­tion of Mac clones that were bet­ter than Ap­ple’s Macs at ev­ery turn.

But iron­i­cally, the imac’s de­sign was in­flu­enced by the very clone mar­ket that Steve Jobs killed. As an Ap­ple mar­ket­ing man­ager told Mac­world back in 1998, the imac was able to be de­signed and built in ten months be­cause of the work Ap­ple had done on some­thing called CHRP, the Com­mon Hard­ware Ref­er­ence Plat­form.

CHRP (and its pre­de­ces­sor, PREP) are now ut­terly for­got­ten, but there was a time when the Pow­erpc al­liance of IBM, Ap­ple, and Mo­torola worked to­gether to cre­ate a hard­ware stan­dard for com­put­ers that ran on Pow­erpc chips (like the G3 in the imac) rather than In­tel pro­ces­sors (like the Pen­tium II, which Ap­ple ran speed tests against

dur­ing its imac un­veil­ing). Es­sen­tially, CHRP was sup­posed to cre­ate a stan­dard that was the Pow­erpc equiv­a­lent of the In­tel PC—A set of hard­ware that could run all sorts of dif­fer­ent op­er­at­ing sys­tems, in­clud­ing Mac OS (Mo­torola an­nounced a CHRP Mac clone, the Star­max Pro, which we tested but it never shipped), BEOS (which al­most beat out NEXT to be the source of the re­place­ment for Clas­sic Mac OS), mk­linux, Win­dows NT (!), and Rhap­sody (soon to be re­named Mac OS X).

The imac wasn’t a CHRP com­puter, but it was “darn close,” as Mac­world wrote in 1998. It used PC stan­dard RAM, USB, and had an Open­firmware ROM (mean­ing that, un­like older Macs that had ROM chips con­tain­ing com­plex, ma­chine-spe­cific in­struc­tion sets, the imac kept most of its hard­ware in­struc­tions in its main mem­ory). Ap­ple took all the work that went to­ward mak­ing generic Pow­erpc hard­ware, used what it wanted, dis­carded the rest (like the man­date that ev­ery CHRP com­puter fea­ture a PC par­al­lel port)—and made the most dis­tinc­tive Mac yet cre­ated.


From the per­spec­tive of 2018, the imac is his­tory, and his­tory is writ­ten by the vic­tors. But in 1998, the imac was con­tro­ver­sial, es­pe­cially among the sorts of ded­i­cated Mac users who sub­scribed to Mac­world. It ditched the floppy drive that had been on ev­ery sin­gle Mac to that date, as well as sev­eral ports—scsi, se­rial, and Adb—that had been on ba­si­cally ev­ery Mac since the

Mac SE. Imag­ine Ap­ple re­mov­ing the head­phone jack from the iphone 7, mul­ti­plied by four. Lit­er­ally ev­ery Mac ac­ces­sory ever made was no longer com­pat­i­ble with­out an adapter.

I also dug out the is­sue of Mac­world that fea­tured let­ters re­spond­ing to the re­lease of the imac, and that was re­ally en­ter­tain­ing. Here’s a sam­ple:

L. Good­man: I’m as­tounded by your de­fense of Ap­ple’s de­ci­sion not to in­clude a floppy drive with the imac.... I think the imac is a fab­u­lous-look­ing com­puter. It’s go­ing to wow a lot of

peo­ple. But a lot of po­ten­tial buy­ers will sadly give the ma­chine a pass when they dis­cover that Ap­ple skimped on a floppy drive and ex­pan­sion slots.

Mike Ke­merer: I like the imac’s de­sign and low price, but I’m con­cerned about its lack of a SCSI con­nec­tor.... How does Ap­ple ex­pect to sell home com­put­ers that can’t con­nect to all the equip­ment peo­ple have in­vested in.... I’ll stick with my old sys­tem.

Eric Wenocur: If Steve Jobs is so damn smart, why did he ap­prove the next great Ap­ple dis­as­ter, the imac? I can’t be­lieve that Ap­ple would re­turn to the con­sumer mar­ket by of­fer­ing a Mac that is com­pletely in­com­pat­i­ble with the cur­rent in­stalled base of Macs and soft­ware. No floppy drive?... No ADB, SCSI, or Mac se­rial ports?... There is such a thing as be­ing too far ahead of your time, and the imac is a good ex­am­ple.

An­thony Ran­dazzo: I would like to com­mend Ap­ple on the imac. It is every­thing that is Mac­in­tosh—in­no­va­tive, dar­ing, easy to use, and fast. Plus, I’m glad to see the floppy drive go. I never use flop­pies. The sub­trac­tion of the floppy drive and the ad­di­tion of USB in the imac just show that Ap­ple is mov­ing ahead, away from an­cient and use­less tech­nolo­gies.

Robert M. Witt: Peo­ple are still liv­ing in the past. Loosen up! I be­lieve that Steve has seen the fu­ture: the imac is the In­ter­net

Mac. It doesn’t need pe­riph­er­als or flop­pies. It con­nects to the net­work, pe­riod. It works only on the In­ter­net.... If the imac con­nects eas­ily to the In­ter­net, it could be­come the com­puter for the rest of the world.

Loosen up, in­deed. A sen­ti­ment we all might want to keep in mind the next time Ap­ple elim­i­nates some­thing we’re com­fort­able with in or­der to push us to use the next big thing. ■

The imac came with a disc drive.

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