The original iMac entered a computing world that was in desperate need of a shake-up.
After the wild early days of the personal computer revolution, things had become stagnant by the mid-1990s. Apple had spent a decade frittering away the Mac’s advantages until most of them were gone, blown out of the water by the enormous splash of Windows 95. It was the era of beige desktop computers chained to big CRT displays and other peripherals.
In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to an Apple that was at death’s door, and in true Princess Bride style, he rapidly ran down a list of the company’s assets and liabilities. Apple didn’t have a wheelbarrow or a holocaust cloak, but it did have a young industrial designer who had been experimenting with colors and translucent plastic in Apple’s otherwise boring hardware designs.
With Jobs’ brains, Jony Ive’s designs, and the new PowerPC G3 chip supplied by Motorola, the company began to form a plan. Essentially, Jobs went back to his playbook for the original “computer for the rest of us,” the Mac, to sell simplicity. The Mac’s mouse-driven graphical interface may have changed the course of the PC world, but its all-in-one design just hadn’t clicked. Jobs decided it was time to try again.
The iMac contradicted every rule of the PC industry of the mid-’90s. Instead of being modular, it was a self-contained unit (with a built-in handle!). Beige was out, and translucent blue-green plastic was in. The iMac looked like nothing else in the computer industry.
But the iMac wasn’t just a rule-breaker when it came to looks. Jobs made a series of decisions that were surprising at the time, though he’d keep repeating them throughout his tenure at Apple. The iMac gave no consideration to compatibility or continuity and embraced promising new technology when the staid PC industry refused.
The iMac gave no consideration to compatibility or continuity
Since the 1980s, Macs connected to accessories via a few standard ports: SCSI (for fast connections to devices like drives and scanners), serial (for printers, modems, and local networking), and Apple Desktop Bus (for keyboards and mice). Mac users had built up ecosystems around all those ports, separate from the incompatible serial and parallel ports in the PC world.
Jobs threw all that stuff in the trash and started again. Instead of old ports, the iMac would use a new standard that hadn’t really caught fire in the PC world: Universal Serial Bus, or USB.
The iMac gets remembered for a lot of things, and rightly so, but it doesn’t get enough credit for essentially kick-starting the USB revolution. (I can type on a 25-year-old iMac USB keyboard attached to a 2023 Mac Mini with no adapters! What stunning longevity.)
Straight outta Bondi
Though LCD screens certainly existed outside of a laptop in 1998 — Apple shipped the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh the previous year — they were considered too small and expensive to be used in a desktop context. (In fact, Apple toyed with shipping a high-end iMac with an LCD screen from the very beginning, but it proved to be far too expensive.)
Ive’s design embraced the big, bulbous shape of the electron gun housing that tapered out behind the display and covered it all in a two-tone aqua and white plastic shell. The aqua color was dubbed Bondi blue, which Ive described as having been inspired by the color of the water at Sydney’s Bondi Beach, and the semitransparent plastic (including ventilation holes and handle) gave you a clear view of the metal interior structure of the computer.
The front and bottom of the iMac were primarily a more opaque white plastic with a ribbed pattern of vertical stripes. The aqua color and vertical ribbing would be echoed a couple of years later in the original Mac OS X interface, Aqua. Yes, the iMac was so successful that Apple designed its next-generation operating system to match its industrial design.
Mac OS X was hardly the only product built to match the iMac. The iMac inspired a new generation of product designers to clad their products in colorful semitranslucent plastic. It wasn’t just computer accessories — just about any consumer product that had a plastic piece that could easily be swapped out was rereleased in a colorful iMac-inspired version.
None of these products would look like this if it weren’t for the original bondi blue iMac.
The exemplar of the iMac design fad was probably the George Foreman Grill, which didn’t melt your grilled cheese any faster but did it under a blue plastic shell. (The geniuses behind George Foreman Grills were big fans of Apple, which culminated in the release of the iGrill in 2007, combination grill and iPod speaker.)
The success of the iMac also informed Apple’s hardware design for years to come, but there were limits to its influence. When Apple’s next-generation Power Mac tower arrived in a blue and white coating, professional users rebelled. (Subsequent models were a more stately gray, and to this day, Apple prefers to release all of its “Pro” products with little to no color.) Apple’s first consumer-focused laptop, the iBook, was a bulbous and brightly colored cousin to the iMac, but after a few years, it was redesigned to be a white plastic rectangle instead.
Still, Jobs had seen the potential of an unchained Ive. Not all of Apple’s next hardware products would be hits — remember the Xserve? — but Ive was experimenting with other materials beyond translucent plastic — most notably, stainless steel and aluminum. The iPod featured plastic on the front and stainless steel on the back. Over time, Apple’s products would largely drop the plastic and be built out of metal.
I’d like to think that the original iMac design was so influential that its echoes continue to ring throughout the product design world. A few years ago, I bought a Nissan Leaf. It’s bright blue with a strangely bulbous backside. It took me a couple of years to realize I was basically driving a child of the iMac.
With Apple having embraced the fledgling USB standard, peripheral makers had a real opportunity to rev up their production of USB accessories. But when Apple announced the iMac, very few USB products actually existed. In the three months between the iMac’s announcement and its release, those accessory makers scrambled to announce and ship their trackballs and keyboards and printers and — most of all — their floppy disk drives.
In a stunning bit of computing heresy, the iMac had no 3.5-inch floppy disk drive. The floppy drive was standard equipment on literally every computer in existence in the mid-’90s. Even if you had hard drives or larger removable media like Zip or Jaz disks, your computer had a floppy drive, too. In the era before USB thumb drives, sharing data with other people generally meant copying it onto a diskette.
The lack of a floppy drive was considered heresy
But Apple reasoned that most people were consumers, not creators. The computer could boot from its internal tray-loaded CD-ROM drive in a pinch, and that drive could install third-party software and play games and other entertainment titles. (Entertainment CD-ROMs were a thing in the 1990s. Ask your parents.)
Critics were apoplectic. How could Apple design a computer without writeable, removable media? Apple’s answer was right in the product’s name: the “i” in iMac stands for internet. If you wanted to send a friend a file, why not just email it to them?
The platformless era
Selling the iMac as an internet appliance was a stroke of genius. It came with a built-in modem, leading to the definitive iMac TV commercial — you plugged the iMac into power, plugged a telephone wire into its modem jack, and you were online — there was no step three.
After Windows became dominant, the Mac’s greatest liability was simply its incompatibility. One of the reasons to get a computer at home during this era was to run the same programs you ran at school or work. And while many schools had Macs, few businesses did outside of the design and publishing industries. While Apple had built up a community of customers who felt the product was superior to the competition, most people just opted for the default, and that was Windows.
But the rise of online services and the internet in the mid-1990s gave Apple a unique opportunity. On the internet, nobody knew you were using a Mac. Once you connected, you were using AOL or CompuServe or just your local internet provider and a web browser or email app. While some sites didn’t function if you weren’t using Internet Explorer for Windows, most worked fine.
So, if you were a family looking to get on the internet, why wouldn’t you buy an iMac? It worked with the internet, would look great on a desk or table, and was easy to get up and running. And sure, if you wanted to run Microsoft Office, they made that for Mac OS 8, too.
“i” for everyone
Upon its release, the iMac became so well known that it may have even eclipsed the Apple brand for a little while. It was at least a strong enough signifier that Apple began using it on other products. The iBook laptop was an obvious choice, but in 2001, the company chose to reuse the branding for its new music player, the iPod.
The iPod didn’t connect to the internet, but it didn’t matter. Apple was declaring that the “i” stood for another cool Apple product you’d want to buy, and people bought an awful lot of iPods. Apple began slapping the lowercase “i” in front of a lot of its hardware, software, and services, culminating in the release of the iPhone and iPad.
Those products (and the iMac itself!) are still with us and bear so much brand recognition that it’s unlikely Apple will ever change their names. But throughout the rest of Apple’s product line, Apple has spent the last decade de-emphasizing the prefix.
These days, Apple itself is the brand name, usually attached to a generic word or two. (The strong implication is that the Apple version of the thing is always going to be the one you want.) So now, we live in an era of the Apple Watch, Apple Vision Pro, Apple TV, Apple News, and Apple Fitness Plus. iBooks became Books. iCal became Calendar. (I don’t know why iCloud hasn’t been renamed, but here we are.)
Funding the future
While PC makers spent many years trying (and failing, for the most part) to make iMac knockoffs, it was really a transitional device. While Apple still has a nice business selling iMacs to families, schools, and hotel check-in desks, most of the computers it sells are laptops.
The iMac’s strongest legacy is Apple itself
Still, I think the iMac pointed the way to the era of ubiquitous laptops. (What is a laptop but an all-in-one computer? Fortunately, laptops don’t weigh 38 pounds like the iMac G3.) From the very beginning, the iMac was criticized as being limited and underpowered. Apple frequently used laptop parts in the iMac, whether it was for cost savings or miniaturization reasons. Today, Mac desktops use more or less the same parts as Mac laptops.
But perhaps the iMac’s strongest legacy is Apple itself. The company was close to bankruptcy when Jobs returned, and the iMac gave the company a cash infusion that allowed it to complete work on Mac OS X, rebuild the rest of the Mac product line in the iMac’s image, open Apple Stores, make the iPod, and set the tone for the next twenty five years.