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By Jason Snell

The original iMac: 20 years since Apple changed its fate

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

The original iMac. (Photo courtesy Stephen Hackett.)

20 years ago today, Steve Jobs (the interim CEO of Apple) stood on the same stage from which he introduced the original Macintosh, and spent the first half-hour of his presentation trying to convince the world that Apple was no longer failing.

There were charts about employee retention. There were signs of promising Mac sales. There were the recently announced Power Mac G3 and PowerBook G3, models that had a little more flair than previous ones. There was a lot of talk about how the PowerPC processors in the Mac product line were way better than the competition, Intel’s Pentium II.

But after all of that justification for Apple’s continued existence, Jobs pulled a sheet off of the product that would truly turn around Apple’s fortunes once and for all. With the sweep of an arm, Jobs unveiled the iMac and Apple went from being a troubled maker of oddball products to a tech company on the rise, for 20 years and counting.

It’s hard to believe today that a Steve Jobs product presentation would be met with indifference, but there was a huge amount of skepticism about Apple’s product announcements back in early 1998. Though there were definitely signs that the company was turning it around, I also recall being summoned to Apple product events where nothing much at all was announced. Regardless, only the editor in chief of Macworld, Andy Gore, even bothered to go to the announcement at the Flint Center that day.

As soon as the event ended, I got a phone call—I was working at home that day—and was told to immediately get in to the office, for an all-hands-on-deck meeting, because Apple had announced a new computer that was going to change everything. I have to give Andy credit—the moment he saw the iMac he knew it was going to be huge. We tore up our magazine issue in the matter of about a day in order to get first word about the iMac out to people in the days before instant Apple news was a thing.

In the late 90s the perception was that the Mac was a weird, incompatible device, popular in corporate design departments and portions of education and pretty much nowhere else. And that was not a mistaken perception. In the 80s and 90s a lot of home-computer sales were driven by the idea that you could use your PC to bring work home. That computer at work was almost certainly a PC running DOS or Windows.

But with the rise of the Internet, someone at Apple realized that there was suddenly a huge opportunity to sell people an appliance to let them get online. That was the core idea of the Jeff Goldbum-narrated “There’s No Step Three” TV ad: Plug in the iMac, plug in a phone line, and that’s it—you’re on the Internet. That concept put the “i” prefix in Apple’s product dictionary, where it remains to this day.

Apple’s bold choice to rip out all of the Mac’s traditional ports—Mac serial, Apple Desktop Bus, and SCSI—and replace it with the USB standard that was just starting to emerge in the PC world, was also helpful. It made all of us longtime Mac users cringe—you think the iPhone losing its headphone jack was tough?—but in a stroke it made the iMac compatible with a huge range of peripherals previously only designed to be used on PCs, and it made accessory manufacturers happy because with a low amount of effort the stuff they were making for PCs could now also be sold to new iMac users.

It was very clear, in the days after the announcement, that there would be a lot of those new iMac users. The iMac wasn’t a computer for the existing Mac user base (though we all came along as well, in the end), but for a whole new group—this was a true renewal of the promise, made 14 years earlier, that the Mac was a “computer for the rest of us.”

Jason’s car.

That original iMac “Elroy” enclosure was radical in an era where all computers were boxy and beige. It was hugely influential on what was to come—both in freeing designers to be more whimsical, with curves and colors and translucency, and in leading to an infestation of translucent blue plastic stuff in the lives of everyone during the late 90s and early 2000s. If you were a plastics manufacturer, translucency and bright colors immediately went into your brochure—because you haven’t lived until you’ve bought an orange semi-clear clock radio.

In fact, as I wrote this article I realized just how far the iMac’s design legacy has gone. My family owns a bright blue first-generation Nissan Leaf. I realize now that for the last year I’ve been driving around an iMac G3.

The definitive Mac, and beyond

The original iMac was underpowered and underfeatured by the standards of the time—power users cringed at the lack of writeable-media support in an era where we were still moving things around on floppies and Zip disks, USB was slow and FireWire was still on the horizon, and even the iMac’s G3 processor was middling—but at $1299 it was still a great product. It rapidly became the definitive Mac model, the representative of Apple’s revived brand until the iPod eclipsed it four or five years later.

Over the years, the iMac became the mainstream Mac desktop model, both because it became more capable and because Apple’s professional desktop lines (the Power Mac/Mac Pro) became increasingly expensive and targeted at the highest end of the market. In 1998 I was excited by the iMac but wouldn’t be caught dead using one myself (I was a Power Mac person all the way); ten years later the computer we bought for our house was an iMac. And today, the iMac has evolved to encompass a massive range of needs, from a low-cost 21.5-inch model up to the most powerful Mac yet made, the iMac Pro.

The history of the iMac is also a history of all the technologies that have evolved in the computer industry in the past two decades. The iMac design turned flat as soon as LCD displays became mainstream; once computer parts were miniaturized enough for Apple to hide them right behind the screen, the computer disappeared altogether. Over the years the iMac has become thinner and more power efficient, ditched the optical-disc drive, and with the iMac Pro, has even kicked out space for spinning hard drives altogether.

For a while now, most of the Macs Apple sells have been laptops. The iMac no longer defines the Mac, though it does still hold an important place on the desks and tables of its users. Likewise, the Mac itself no longer defines Apple, with the success of the iPhone and other products like the iPad and Apple Watch changing how the company sees itself and how it’s seen by others.

Sitting in the Flint Center in 1998, it would have been impossible to imagine the Apple of 2018. But without that day, and the product that Steve Jobs unveiled on that stage, it’s hard to imagine that Apple would have ever had the chance to become what it is today.

(Hear more about the iMac in this podcast I did with Stephen Hackett, and read much more about it at the excellent 512 Pixels page about the iMac G3.)

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