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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

20 Macs for 2020: #9 – iMac G4

The original iMac was defined by the shape of the CRT display at its heart. Fairly early on in the process of designing it, Apple decided to set aside an alternative version that used a laptop-style flat-panel display as being too expensive and impractical.

But four years later, flat-screen technology was finally ready to reach the mainstream, and the giant tube inside the six million iMacs Apple had sold felt like outmoded technology. The designers behind the original iMac set about reinventing the iMac for an era where the flat screen was at the forefront. What they came up with bore no resemblance to the biggest hit the Mac had ever had.

Just sticking a motherboard on the back of a flat screen? That was no good. It would ruin the thinness of the display. Optical drives couldn’t spin fast enough in an upright configuration. It would force all the ports to the sides, rather than hiding them in the back to reduce clutter. No, Apple wasn’t going to take the easy way out.

Instead, the iMac G4 was all about that flat screen, floating on air, held aloft by a chromed stainless-steel arm, kept stable by the computer hardware in its white dome of a base. It was beautiful. A triumph of industrial design. A perfect match of form and function. A creation that deserves its place in museums, truly.

Steve Jobs certainly thought so. In launching the iMac G4 at Macworld Expo in 2002, he called it “the opportunity of the decade to reshape desktop computers,” with “beauty and grace…that is going to last the next decade.”

And that’s the funny thing about the iMac G4. It’s undoubtedly, inarguably one of the best designs that the team of Jobs and Ive ever came up with. But while it wasn’t exactly a flop, it only lasted two years. It was replaced with the real design that would define the iMac for more than a decade—the very design Apple had tried to avoid.

Design by Mr. Rogers

The iMac, being itself.

The goal of the iMac G4’s design, Jobs said on stage, was to “let each element be true to itself.” That’s a statement that goes way beyond one computer: I believe it to be the core of Jonathan Ive’s design philosophy. Try to find the truth about whatever technological component is required for the product—and then allow it to be the perfect representation of what it is, rather than trying to be something it’s not.

Shakespeare’s classic line from Hamlet, “This above all—to thine own self be true,” seems to be the right reference to make here, but I grew up on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Among Fred Rogers’s teachings was a belief that we are all at our best when we are being authentic: “You’ve made this world a special day just by being you,” he said at the end of his show for decades. Or as he sang, “It’s you I like, the way down deep inside you, not the things that hide you.”

That flat panel on the iMac G4 is living its best life. It is as thin and light as possible, suspended by one of Apple’s great mechanical engineering tricks, the articulated chrome arm. The display could rotate 180 degrees, bend 90 degrees, and tilt 35 degrees, allowing Jobs to boast (rightly) about the iMac’s “superior ergonomics.” You could really move it to just about any position, in most cases with a single finger.

To make it seem even thinner—and to keep your grubby fingers off the display—Apple’s designers surrounded the display with a clear plastic halo, and this was what you were supposed to touch when you repositioned the screen.

The rest of the iMac lived in that white dome, a half a volleyball with a hard drive, optical drive, power supply, and powerful G4 processor densely packed in. If you haven’t picked up an iMac G4 lately, let me assure you that they are much heavier than you’d think, mostly because of the surprising density of the base.

The trouble with floating screens

The 20-inch iMac was pushing it.

So why didn’t the iMac G4 design stand the test of time, and set the iMac up for a decade of innovation? The most obvious answer is that LCD screens weren’t going to remain small forever. Over the iMac G4’s lifetime, Apple added 17- and 20-inch models to the original 15-inch design. The bigger the display, the more magic is required to keep it floating in mid-air and let it be adjusted with a single finger. My recollection is that some users of the larger models discovered that their iMac displays started to sag.

Clearly, at some point Apple’s designers saw the writing on the wall: Displays were going to keep getting bigger, and the engineering task to keep them floating was going to be more trouble than it was worth. Instead, they began working on a design that was pretty much the one that Jobs insulted during the iMac G4 roll-out: attaching the computer to the back of the flat screen, a design closer to the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh than to the iMac G4.

The truth is, Jobs’s insults weren’t wrong. Apple sold the iMac G5 as a design “from the people who brought you the iPod,” and compared its silhouette to an iPod sitting in a dock. But the truth is, the iMac G5—and the first few generations of Intel iMacs—were quite thick. (It would take years for Apple to make them seem even remotely like the thin and light contours of the iMac G4.) And yet, it was a design that lasted a decade, and beyond—and continues to define the iMac to this day.

A glint of hope

Sometimes I wonder if we might one day see the return of a Mac that’s reminiscent of the iMac G4 design. Today’s enormous displays would suggest that it’s not in the cards, but there’s one thing that might force a different approach from Apple, and it’s the same thing that Jobs raved about when he introduced the iMac G4: ergonomics.

Look at Microsoft’s Surface Studio. It’s essentially a 28-inch iMac that runs Windows, but with a crucial difference: its screen supports touch and pen input. And because of that, it can be pulled down out of a traditional upright configuration and into a lower, flatter orientation that’s more conducive to putting your fingers or pen on the display itself.

To do this, Microsoft has built the Surface Studio in two pieces, with a heavier base resembling a Mac mini that contains the computer itself, with the screen above, suspended by a pair of arms attached to a “zero gravity hinge.” It’s not as elegant as the iMac G4, to be sure, but it’s a closer cousin than today’s iMacs.

It’s hard to believe that Apple wouldn’t take a similar approach, should it decide to bring touch and Apple Pencil input to Mac displays in the future. I’d love an iMac in the vein of the Surface Studio—which is to say, an iMac that hearkens back a bit more to the original flat-panel iMac.

In the meantime, I’ve got my iMac Pro suspended over my desk on a monitor arm attached to a VESA mount. Inelegant, to be sure. But few computers could compete with the iMac G4 on that score.

I’ll be back next week with number eight.

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