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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

20 Macs for 2020: #7 – iBook

Among the many important elements Steve Jobs brought to Apple’s culture when he returned in the late 90s was a focus on the theater of product announcements. Unlike many of Apple’s competitors, which liked to stake out ground by pre-announcing products and vague product directions without having anything ready to ship, under Jobs Apple became focused on product secrecy, not just for competitive reasons, but because Jobs was so good at the Big Reveal.

Yes, there have been precious few Apple product-launch events in the intervening two decades that haven’t been preceded by a bunch of leaks that gave away some, if not all, of the story. And yet Apple has always retained enough mystery to gather the attention of the world’s media for its product unveilings.

Still, Apple is not above teasing us all from time to time. Tim Cook famously referred to the wrist as “interesting” a little more than a year before he stood on a stage in Cupertino and unveiled the Apple Watch.

But my favorite tease of all time was done by the master, Steve Jobs, and it was done on stage. In explaining his desperately needed simplification of the Mac product line, he drew a box divided in four. The top half were desktop computers, the bottom half were laptops. The left were consumer products, the right were Macs for professionals.

In unveiling the Blue and White Power Mac G3, Jobs showed off the box with the iMac in the upper left corner, the new Power Mac in the upper right, and the latest PowerBook G3 in the bottom right. And as for the bottom left… there was nothing there but a promise to address it later that year.

How tantalizing! A consumer laptop from Apple… what would that be? The PowerBook line was well established at this point. This tease suggested that Apple was going to make the iMac of laptops, a more affordable and crowd-pleasing device.

And that’s exactly what Apple did. It created a brightly colored polycarbonate laptop that was just as unusual as its desktop counterpart. And like the original iMac, the iBook ended up being more of an outlier than a harbinger of the future of its product category.

iMac to go

Blueberry iBook

“When we asked people what they wanted, it was an iMac to go,” Jobs said in introducing the iBook at Macworld Expo 1999 in New York. The laptop mixed semi-transparent white polycarbonate plastic with rubber color portions, initially orange or blue. Instead of being boxy, it was a curvy clamshell. The most similar Apple product to it was not a PowerBook, but the similarly weird eMate 300.

It offered a decently sized 12.1-inch display. There was even a spring-loaded plastic handle that allowed you to carry the iBook around like a handbag. And despite its $1599 price—$900 less than the PowerBook G3—it was fairly well equipped, including both a built-in modem and Ethernet port.

The iBook was also Apple’s first laptop not to have a latch to keep itself closed. Like all of Apple’s laptops today, the iBook opened and closed entirely based on the pressure from its hinge.

A magician with a Hula Hoop

The iBook isn’t notable just because of its unusual design and inauguration of a new category of Apple laptop. It was also the first Apple product to support Wi-Fi, or as Apple called it back in those days, AirPort.

Now, if you can’t imagine a world without Wi-Fi, let me explain it to you. Back in early 1999 I had a PowerBook and a home internet connection. My router was in the back bedroom of my house, and I wanted to use my PowerBook in my living room. The solution: A 50-foot-long Ethernet cable that ran from the bedroom, down the hallway, through the dining area, and into the living room. If I was on my laptop on the couch, I’d grab the Ethernet cable and plug in.

AirPort Base Station

Then came AirPort, which initially manifested as a $99 add-in card for the iBook—you flipped up the keyboard, attached an antenna plug, and slid it into a card slot—and a silver UFO-shaped base station that could either connect via Ethernet or, alternately, use a built-in telephone modem to connect to a dial-up Internet service.

I loved that weird little UFO base station, designed in an era where Apple’s hardware was all a bit more whimsical than it would become. But it was definitely an early bit of tech—it burned hot and then many of them burned out. Mine lasted less than two years. But by then I was hooked on being on the Internet anywhere in my house.

To demonstrate AirPort to a world that wasn’t familiar with the concept, Jobs grabbed a hula hoop from the side of the Macworld Expo stage and waved it over the iBook, like a magician proving that there were no wires. Apple also sent Apple employees down every aisle in the keynote hall, all of them holding iBooks and navigating to webpages, proving their ability to view the web without wires.

And, yes, Apple marketing executive Phil Schiller stood high up on a platform and jumped, leaping into off-stage padding to prove that, yes, the iBook could stream data wirelessly even when you were plunging to your death.

Consumer laptops are cheap laptops

A less interesting iBook.

In 2001, the original clamshell iBook was retired and replaced with a new iBook that was shaped more or less like every other laptop in existence. The outrageous design was gone. What remained was… just a cheaper laptop.

There were a few dynamics at work here, I suspect. One of them is just fashion: After going wild with bright colors with the iMac and iBook, Apple swung the pendulum the other way with the all-white iMac G4 and iBook alike. Apple seemed to like colored aluminum for some of its iPods, but the Mac turned monochrome and has largely remained so.

Another, though, is the entire concept of a “consumer laptop.” Apple clearly imagined that the original iBook would delight consumers and Apple’s education customers alike. And perhaps it did. But I suspect that a huge portion of the potential buyers of a consumer laptop are, in fact, just looking for a cheaper laptop. And since a laptop is the kind of device you take out in public (including potentially to business meetings), bringing in a curvy and brightly colored clamshell might stand out more than those buyers actually wanted.

In addition, it’s clear what the priorities of the laptop market really are: size, weight, and price. Style is nice, style matters—but the original iBook was more concerned with style and price than it was size and weight. The white iBook was two pounds lighter than the original, and less than half the overall volume.

Apple has never stopped selling a “consumer laptop,” if you mean a laptop that’s offered at a lower price than its higher-end professionally focused designs. But have all been defined by their price, and their lower-end features, and not on what the original iBook had in abundance: a sense of fun.

I’ll be back next week with number six.

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