By Jason Snell
September 28, 2020 9:00 AM PT
Last updated December 28, 2020
20 Macs for 2020: #12 – Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh
Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.
People who came to Apple in the 21st century don’t understand just how different 1990s Apple was. Imagine an Apple that openly shared concept designs from out of its product-design lab. Consider an Apple that would hand over pre-production models of new Macs to journalists so far in advance that they hadn’t even been given a final name!
Those were things end-stage 90s Apple did, in the fleeting moments before it bought NeXT, Steve Jobs returned to Apple, and everything changed.
In many ways, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh is the perfect product to describe 90s Apple. It was a concept car that escaped into the real world, a high-priced, limited edition (fewer than 20,000 made!) computer that originally cost $9,000. That’s $14,000 in 2020 dollars. (For the record, at that time you could buy a top-of-the-line Power Mac 9500 for less than $4,500.)
Most people working on the product knew it should never have shipped, and tried to do everything in their power to kill it. But Apple CEO Gil Amelio, desperate to leave his mark on the legendary company he led, insisted that the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh be released.
And yet, this product that was arguably an exemplar of the worst of Apple’s mid-1990s excess was also a representative of Apple’s future, just a little bit early. It was an all-in-one computer that leveraged laptop technology. It had an aggressive design, including some novel uses of aluminum. Enthusiastic young Apple designer Jonathan Ive would extoll its virtues in a promotional video.
Yes, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh was ridiculous. But at the same time, it was a preview of Apple’s decade of resurgence.
Concept in the building
In late 1996, many months before the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh would be released, I saw one for the first time. It was unboxed and assembled in the MacUser lab, just around the corner from my cubicle in our cramped new offices in downtown San Francisco.
Apple had loaned us a preproduction model to use, write about, photograph, and put on the cover of the magazine. They were still hesitant to commit to a name for the thing, too, and though it was code-named Spartacus, everyone called it “the twentieth anniversary Mac” and apparently that name stuck.
I think a lot of people assume the Twentieth Anniversary Mac was released for the 20th anniversary of the Mac, which seems logical, but it’s not true. The Mac was nearly 13 years old when the Twentieth Anniversary Mac was released. It was meant to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of Apple in April of 1976. By the time it shipped, it was about a week before Apple’s 21st anniversary.
The computer itself looked like nothing I’d ever seen before, at least in something styled as a desktop computer. With a flat screen rather than a bulky tube monitor and a keyboard with integrated trackpad, it was basically assembled from laptop parts, though its motherboard was from a Power Mac 6400.
If you didn’t like how the trackpad sat below the keyboard, laptop style, you could slide it out of the wrist rest and place it to the left or right of the keyboard. Apple even included a leather-clad piece you could slide in to fill the space vacated by the trackpad. (Yes, the wrist rest was leather. The Twentieth Anniversary Mac was the loungiest Mac of all time.)
The Twentieth Anniversary Mac’s other notable characteristic was its sound system. It was outfitted with two Bose speakers, and a subwoofer was meant to be placed on the floor nearby. The computer’s power supply was in the subwoofer and power then ran up to the computer itself, which could lead to audible buzzing in some models.
And then there was the CD drive, which was integrated right on the front of the computer. The door flipped open, and you could mount a disc upright, which was unusual for computers at the time.
From today’s vantage point, it’s clear what the concept behind this Mac was. It was an era in which laptops were increasing in popularity and driving some interesting innovations in computer tech, and this was a computer that used laptop features to build a new kind of desktop. At the same time, computers were increasingly being viewed as entertainment systems unto themselves, so the CD drive, Bose speakers, and bright LCD screen promised to make the Twentieth Anniversary Mac a home entertainment hub too.
This was clearly an idea that had been gestating at Apple for a long time. In a 1995 issue of Macworld, there’s a photo of a very upright desktop computer that looks kind of like the back of an airline seat. Another photo shows a small Mac tower with a flat-screen display mounted on the top. A 1996 issue of Macworld shows another concept that’s awfully close to Spartacus itself, an all-in-one computer with a pair of vertical planes—one for the computer and one for the LCD screen right above it.
What’s more unbelievable, that Apple would show the evolution of its conceptual designs in the press year after year, or that one of those concepts would eventually break outside of the lab and be sold as a real product?
The future, a bit too early
Here’s the thing, though: They weren’t wrong. Okay, maybe they were wrong about the leather armrests and the upright CD-ROM drive and the buzzing subwoofer. But when Steve Jobs returned to Apple mere months after this product was down the hall from my cubicle, he presumably saw all of the design work Jonathan Ive was doing on projects like the Twentieth Anniversary Mac, and it caught his attention. As we all know, that partnership began bearing fruit quickly: The Twentieth Anniversary Mac was released in 1997 and the iMac was released in 1998.
The iMac was, of course, also an all-in-one, an attempt to get back to the compact concept of the original Macintosh. While the Twentieth Anniversary Mac was hardly the “computer for the rest of us,” it was born of some of the same instincts that ended up producing the iMac. While it’s not widely known, one of the early concepts for the original iMac was a flat-screen design that would’ve been even more reminiscent of the Twentieth Anniversary Mac. Steve Jobs decided that it was a little too early (and it would’ve been too expensive), and decided that the G3 iMac would only be built around a more traditional tube display. The flat-screen all-in-one wouldn’t return until the G4 iMac in 2002.
Like the Twentieth Anniversary Mac, the iMac has traditionally integrated more laptop-based technology than a higher-end computer would. Early on, one of the knocks on the iMac was that it was a desktop computer with the limited power of a laptop. But people like laptops, and many people can get work done on them just fine. By using laptop technology, Apple has been able to fit more computer around the displays that take up the most space in any iMac design.
The foot that holds the Twentieth Anniversary Mac upright is a custom piece of aluminum. While Jonathan Ive’s designs started a trend toward translucent multicolored plastic in the late 90s, his most lasting contribution to Apple’s design philosophy is the wholehearted embrace of aluminum. The design of the Twentieth Anniversary Mac required Apple to get that custom piece from a company that was expert in the manipulation of metal. Today, Apple may be the company with the most expertise in manipulating aluminum in the entire world.
So is the Twentieth Anniversary Mac a silly emblem of the excess of 1990s Apple? Yes, it is. But it was also a foreshadowing of the much better days to come.
I’ll be back next week with number 11.
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