The iMac debuted 20 years ago this week. It’s not hyperbole to say that it’s the computer that saved Apple and set the stage for Apple’s ascendance to becoming the biggest tech company in the world. All that said, Apple’s lost something in the translation – while the iMac is still a fixture in Apple’s product line, it lacks some essential qualities of that first model. Its personality has changed. The iMac has gotten harder. It’s lost the sense of whimsy, fun, and wonder that made the first iMac such a joy to use.
The iMac made computers fun…again
The first iMac was everything that PCs (and many previous Macs) weren’t. Bulbous, round, organic-looking, colorful. Free of legacy ports like parallel and serial connections, equipped instead with the then-novel USB interface for easy peripheral connectivity. An integrated design that didn’t lend itself to tinkering, but made the iMac less scary to people who weren’t familiar with computers.
The iMac was an inventive, imaginative, whimsically designed device that had an appealing human quality. It was a quality lacking in most of the Macs that preceded it, and it would set the stage for how Apple designed devices for years after.
Apple rode the wave initiated by the iMac for quite some time, making them in different colors and patterns, steadily improve what was inside to keep and set the pace with what people expected. The success of the iMac emboldened Apple to introduce the iBook, Apple’s first laptop computer squarely aimed at consumers. It borrowed the organic, colorful shape of the iMac and incorporated other innovations. It was the first popular computer to sport built-in wireless networking, for example. Even while some tech journalists discounted the iMac and the iBook as toys – John C. Dvorak dismissed the iBook in rather misogynistic terms as “girly” and only lacking a Barbie logo – they sold like hotcakes because they resounded with a buying public that wanted something different.
The iMac wasn’t a new idea
The iMac wasn’t Apple’s first foray into building a computer “for the rest of us.” That was, in fact, the mantra Apple made for the original Macintosh. According to lore, the original Mac design was meant to invoke a household kitchen appliance more than a computer. So the iMac, which debuted almost a decade and a half after the first Mac, was really coming around full-circle. After years of unremarkable beige boxes, Apple’s first big hit was another computer for the rest of us.
Apple iterated the Mac design for several years before it went in a very different direction with the iMac G4. While the original iMac had rounded edges and soft shapes, The iMac G4 was an elegant combination of geometric solids encased in surgically white plastic and gleaming chrome. Most of its circuits lived in a white hemispherical dome body that served as the base. A polished aluminum neck balanced a pivoting flat panel display inside an elegant rectangular bezel whose edge tapered to transparency.
The iMac G4 was radically different from the first iMac but still unique. The iMac G4 may have been more austere than the colorful iMacs we’d gotten used to, but had a very apparent sense of humor and whimsy. Many people’s first reaction to the iMac G4 was either to say “wow” or to laugh because it just looked friendly and cool.
The iMac has outgrown its roots
Unfortunately, that lampshade iMac was the last of the iMacs with a personality. After that has been a parade of all-in-one rectangular boxes, gradually tapering over the years to the point that some people think they’re just displays and wonder where the rest of the computer is hiding. Making a “friendly” computer that didn’t look like a computer had been central to much of the original Mac and iMac design philosophy. But for more than the last decade, Apple’s moved to increasingly austere designs that make the Mac almost invisible. The focus, instead, is on getting the work done. I’ve written about this before, in case you’re interested in reading more.
Take a look at the iMac 20 years after its creation, and it’s turned into something altogether different from its original intent. The original iMac was a mass-market computer designed to appeal to consumers, educators, and others that Apple saw as a ripe market. Today’s iMac is orders of magnitude faster and more capable, but as a design exercise, it’s also infinitely more severe. Severe in both form and function. Nowhere is that more apparent than the $5,000 iMac Pro, a black-clad powerhouse very specifically designed for demanding technical users who need the fastest possible hardware. It has, for the moment, eclipsed the moribund Mac Pro as Apple’s best-suited “pro” desktop machine.
Jony Ive makes no secret of his appreciation for German industrial designer Dieter Rams, whose designs defined the appliance maker Braun for decades. Rams is a minimalist whose central design philosophy is “Less, but better.” Rams and by extension Ive are perhaps the best living exemplars of the Bauhaus design school in practice. If “less, but better” is your belief, getting the machine’s design out of the way of its actual use makes sense.
I love my Mac. But I don’t look at it the same way I looked at that first iMac, or my first Mac, a 512K “Fat Mac,” when I first unboxed it in 1985. My MacBook Pro doesn’t resonate with me on a personal level like some earlier Mac models do. So, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something along the way.
I hope that Apple finds an opportunity to go full circle with the Mac yet again. It probably won’t be the iMac, but I hope that some future Apple device, whether it’s a phone, tablet, laptop or desktop machine, or some hitherto unimagined gadget, regains that sense of whimsy and wonder we’ve seen before. Something to help us emotionally connect with it and that essential Apple user experience in a way that’s different, and less invisible, than how we do today.