By Jason Snell
December 28, 2020 9:00 AM PT
20 Macs for 2020: #1 – iMac G3
You can divide Mac history in a bunch of different ways. But perhaps the clearest line of demarcation is the mid-1998 release of the original iMac.
The first era of the Mac, begun in 1984, was ending as Steve Jobs returned to Apple. The Apple of the mid-1990s licensed the Mac to clonemakers and even allowed them to invent key technology. Its product design lab created wild and creative prototypes that occasionally escaped, but most shipping products were so beige they were begging for reinvention.
The Mac OS itself was also foundering. It needed to be replaced, and the arrival of Windows 95 had accelerated the Mac’s rapid fade into oblivion. But Apple had failed in multiple attempts to reinvent Mac OS, and ultimately had to turn to outside companies to provide it with an answer. Imagine that sad state of affairs: Apple, a company that prided itself on an expert fusion of hardware and software engineering, was talking to Microsoft about licensing the Windows NT kernel, or to former employee Jean-Louis Gasseé about buying his upstart BeOS, or (in the most unlikely and yet dramatically obvious move) founder Steve Jobs about buying his post-Apple company. Meanwhile, it was being stalked by other tech companies, with a serious report suggesting that Sun Microsystems was close to swallowing Apple whole.
In the end, as we all know, Steve Jobs returned to Apple and brought NextStep with him. That operating system became the foundation of the Mac’s renaissance and the basis of the iPhone, as well.
But Mac OS X wouldn’t ship for another two years, and it would be a painful years-long transition away from the classic Mac OS. In the meantime Apple needed to start making money again, needed that infusion of cash that would allow Jobs to turn over the Mac product line and let Mac OS X come to fruition. Sure, what it really needed was stability, but a hit wouldn’t hurt.
And a hit is exactly what Apple got.
Throw it all away
A lot of the technical pieces that would become the iMac G3 were floating around Apple for a while. You don’t invent an entirely new computer in a matter of months—and it was only ten months between Jobs replacing Gil Amelio as Apple CEO and the announcement of the iMac. (You think Steve Jobs didn’t understand the urgency of Apple’s situation?)
What Jobs did was set Jonathan Ive and the rest of the design team loose to provide a new take on the original concept of the Macintosh as an all-in-one “Computer For the Rest Of Us.” And it’s clear from the result that both Ive’s team and the engineering group were told that there were no sacred cows. Jobs expected something completely different, and was willing to question every assumption about what made a computer a Mac to get it.
Beyond the iconic and influential design, the iMac was a technical reset for the Mac. Apple Desktop Bus, the venerable connection standard that debuted on the Apple IIGS and had been on every Mac since 1987, would not make it on the iMac. Mac Serial, which debuted on the Mac Plus in 1986 and was the standard way to connect a Mac to printers and modems for a decade, would meet the same fate. SCSI, the high-speed peripheral bus that similarly had been a Mac standard since the Plus, was also a goner.
In their place was a new connection standard that had been introduced on the PC side, but not yet embraced: the Universal Serial Bus, or USB. To be fair, while Apple killed off three ports that had defined the Mac for more than a decade, it replaced them with a standard that’s still kicking more than two decades later. (Marvel for a moment about the fact that I can take an original iMac keyboard and plug it into an M1 Mac Mini and… it’ll just work!)
Jobs also canned the floppy disk, a standard on most Macs (barring a few laptop outliers) since the very beginning. The popularity of the 100MB Zip Drive showed that 1MB floppies were really a relic of a bygone era—but for reasons of compatibility and intertia, they continued kicking around. This was a shocking break, made even more shocking by the fact that a CD-ROM drive was the only removable media on the device. It meant that there was no way for the iMac to write files to a removable device without an add-on, which was a big gamble that presumed most people would either transfer files online or via an office network. In 1998 that was quite a presumption; online transfers were slow at best and sometimes you needed to hand off files to someone who wasn’t on your local network. Eventually the USB keychain drive would solve this problem, but back in those days a lot of people bought USB floppy drives or Zip Drives to get by.
The rest of the computer was the combination of a couple of ultimately failed projects. There was Columbus, a Mac “thin client” that was meant to be attached to a network and booted via the network. And there was CHRP, a reference platform built by IBM and Apple to create a standard for PowerPC-based computers including Mac clones. Apple fused the work of these projects together into a relatively low-cost Mac that could be built around the frame of a 15-inch CRT display.
Rhymes with ‘bullseye’
The iMac was wrapped in translucent plastic. Jonathan Ive had been experimenting with it in his Apple designs for a while—the Newton-based eMate laptop was made of the stuff; the ultra-beige Power Mac G3 tower had a little green plastic tab peeking out; and the iMac’s spiritual predecessor, the molar-shaped Power Mac G3 All-in-One, had a semi-transparent molded plastic top.
In an era that was populated with beige boxes, the greenish-blue iMac—colored “Bondi blue,” a shade inspired by the waters off Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach—looked like nothing else on the planet.
At least, momentarily.
People who didn’t live through it might not believe it, but the iMac took the product-design world by storm. Over the next few years, there would be very few consumer electronic products that had not offered a special, iMac-inspired translucent plastic edition. It started with USB accessories for the iMac, as printer and floppy-disk vendors quickly placed orders for translucent colored plastic pieces to replace their opaque beige ones. But it just kept going and going. Telephones. Toys. And my personal favorite, the George Foreman iGrill.
Yes, appending “i” in front of a product name is also the responsibility of the original iMac. It was a similar fad, though Apple’s lawyers slowed the spread of this one.
There’s no step three
Today, many people don’t realize that the “i” in iMac stands for Internet. The iMac didn’t become a hit just based on its looks—it had timing on its side. In the late 90s, the Web and Internet were hitting the mainstream, and the general public was feeling pressure to get online, check their email, and surf the web.
Throughout the 90s the Mac had suffered because it was not a PC, and there was a perception that if you used a PC at work, you should probably use a PC at home, for compatibility reasons. It wasn’t entirely logical—unless you were working regularly from home, did it matter? But it was just another reason for people not to buy a Mac.
The rise of the Internet gave Apple a huge opening. Surfing the web and doing email were mostly platform-neutral tasks. Apple positioned the iMac as, essentially, an appliance for connecting to the Internet and doing… Internet things. (Many of which were yet to be imagined, but coming fast.)
Perhaps Apple’s best commercial of all time is the one in which Jeff Goldblum explains how you set up an iMac to get online:
Presenting three easy steps to the Internet. Step one: Plug in. Step two: Get connected. Step three… there’s no step three.
There’s no step three!
Steve Jobs’s belief in the value of a simple, streamlined all-in-one computer, Jony Ive’s eye-catching design, and a moment in time when people wanted to explore the Internet, was all wrapped together. It was the right product at the right time. And it was a hit.
The Mac itself
The iMac wasn’t made to impress the Mac’s installed base. Hard-core Mac users criticized the lack of a floppy drive and familiar ports, but also the 233MHz PowerPC G3 processor, which was slower than other G3s. But it was $1299—it was aggressively priced for a general consumer audience. And it sold. (It would be years before the iMac would be powerful enough to appeal to the hardest-core Mac users; that’s fine, Apple sold a ton of them and expanded the Mac market accordingly.)
There were some quirks in the original model. Former Apple engineer Bruce Gee released the Stealth Serial Port, which would return a legacy port by attaching a small board to an unused portion of the iMac’s motherboard that was a vestige of when the iMac’s motherboard had still had a serial port on it. The Bondi iMac’s mysterious Mezzanine slot, a hidden slot on the back side of the motherboard, generated a few spin-off products as well.
As the iMac became a hit, Apple revised the product quickly, addressing its weaknesses while keeping it fresh. New colors continually rotated in, the G3 processor slowly got better, FireWire ports arrived for high-speed storage, and the optical drive evolved so that it could both read and write discs.
It was a good run. The original iMac survived until 2003, at which point the CRT upon which the iMac was built had become obsolete, replaced by flat-panel displays. The education market so embraced the iMac that Apple actually created a rare G4 successor, the eMac, that kicked around until 2005.
The Mac that saved Apple
At Apple’s most vulnerable moment, the iMac swooped in and saved the day. It was a hit product when Apple desperately needed a lifeline. And the success of the iMac gave Apple the momentum to finish Mac OS X and redesign the rest of the Mac product line in the iMac’s image.
The iMac also positioned Apple well for another trend in the late ’90s—digital music. The iMac swapped its CD-ROM drive for a writeable model, and Apple introduced iTunes and the ability to burn mix CDs based on your digital library. The later FireWire-based iMacs allowed for connections to early digital camcorders, leading to the creation of iMovie—and providing a high-speed data connection for peripherals, including a weird digital-music spin-off device called the iPod that also helped launch Apple’s second run of success.
And then there’s the iMac’s final legacy—the lowercase letter ‘i’. It was such a hit that Apple began sticking it in front of every product it made. Some of them survive to this day. But does the i in the iPad, iPhone, and iPod really stand for ‘Internet?’
Of course not. It stands for iMac. The product that saved Apple.
(iMac photos courtesy of Stephen Hackett.)
The 20 Macs for 2020 Series
- iMac G3
- PowerBook 140/170
- Macintosh 128K
- MacBook Air (2nd generation)
- Titanium PowerBook G4
- Macintosh SE/30
- Power Mac G4 Cube
- iMac G4
- Power Computing clones
- Macintosh Portable
- Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh
- Mac IIcx and IIci
- Mac mini
- DayStar Genesis MP
- Blue-and-White Power Mac G3
- PowerBook 500 & 5300
- PowerBook Duo
- Power Mac G5
- Video series at the 512 Pixels YouTube channel, in collaboration with Stephen Hackett.
Podcast series at Relay FM.
Thanks to Scholle McFarland for copy editing the series, and for Stephen Hackett for supplying product photography throughout. And thanks to you for reading to the end!
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