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#1 Temporal Loop - Birth of the iMac

by
May 25th, 2007

The iMac almost singlehandedly cemented Apple's redemption in the eyes of the press. Though Jobs had unveiled the brand new "Think different" marketing strategy on September 28, 1997, Apple had not released any products that were particularly different. Faster and easier to use, perhaps, but not different. Over 800,000 of the translucent all-in-one computers were sold in their first year alone, making the iMac one of the most successful computers ever released. Almost ten years after the original iMac was released, the brand is still going strong with new models and vigorous marketing from Apple.

Network Computers and Apple

In the autumn of September, 1997, rumors began to float around the technology world that Apple was completing work on its own Network Computer - essentially an internet appliance capable of storing files remotely on a file server, or NC. The device would feature a 17-inch display, a 266 MHz G3 processor, no floppy or CD-ROM drive and would retail for US$1,000. A Mac NC had actually once been in development (and was even championed by former Apple CTO Ellen Hancock and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison), but the project had been changed dramatically after Steve Jobs rearranged the Apple board of directors and took over day to day control of the company.

Network computers had long been the holy grail of workstation and server makers. It was thought that as high speed networking and internet access became more prevalent, it would be more practical to centralize computing resources that could be accessed via dumb terminals from around the world. Sun and Oracle were the two major proponents of the components, not surprising since Sun's slogan had been "The Network is the Computer" for most of the eighties and early-nineties. Sun's operating system, SunOS, later retooled and renamed Solaris, was known for making network resources easy to access, even from a GUI. This was largely accomplished from their development of the Network File System, a way of seamlessly integrating fileservers and clients on a network.

Second revision of the JavaStationSun's workstations were not network computers, though. They were among the cheapest workstations available, but that still meant they cost upwards of $10,000. Sun's first major foray into the network computer market outside of a few minor products targeted to vertical markets like healthcare was the JavaStation, a product meant not only for the traditional domain of thin clients (warehouses, retail, healthcare and education) where interconnectedness was a requirement, but to consumers and small businesses.

The JavaStation was essentially a re-badged SparcStation 4 with limited local storage, cheap peripherals and a tiny enclosure - the same used for external hard drives on Sun workstations. Introduced in 1996, the JavaStation was capable of running Java applications locally, and even it ran JavaOS. But it was primarily pitched as an internet appliance and a thin client to run applications remotely from a fileserver or database server.

Ultimately, personal computers like eMachines' sub-$500 PCs from 1998 pulled down prices to the point where they were more affordable than a network computer, especially after taking into account the cost of a server, and consumers shied away from the JavaStation. Businesses were still receptive to the concept, since network computers reduced maintenance costs and made sharing information very easy.

Larry Ellison, the CEO of database company Oracle, also was an enthusiastic supporter of the network computer concept. After championing the concept in the media for several years, he formed Network Computers to build and market a network computer to consumers, businesses and schools. The NIC, or New Internet Computer, was the first and only product the company released, and it was moderately successful. The NIC ran Linux and Netscape Navigator 4 off a CD-ROM. It had no local storage, and was not even capable of playing music CDs because the software CD could not be removed while the NIC was on.

Though consumers balked at the lack of internal storage and the requirement for a fast network connection, the NIC was deployed in vertical applications and several school districts thanks in part to a donation of 10,000 NICs to non-profits and local governments across the country. It also enjoyed some success as a consumer internet appliance, some of which were actually given away for free in exchange for long term ISP contracts. The company never proved profitable and closed its doors in 2003.

Mac NC

Ellison took advantage of the bully pulpit that Network Computers and his immense wealth gave him to promote network computers for consumers and businesses alike, and he carried that torch all the way to Apple Computer. After Steve Jobs resigned from Apple in 1985 and before he returned as part of the NeXT purchase in 1996, the two developed a close relationship which eventually resulted in Ellison getting a seat on Apple's board of directors. While there he championed the Mac NC after Apple's in-house NC evangelist, Ellen Hancock, was sacked by Jobs.

Ironically, Jobs was able to land Apple's CEO position partly due to Ellison's hostile takeover bid threats geared towards putting Jobs in charge of the company. Once there, he fired Hancock, leaving Ellison to pull for the NC on his own.

The Mac NC would be more powerful than typical network computers, sporting a 266 MHz G3 and a 17-inch CRT. It also included some local storage to allow users to store documents and cache websites and applications locally. In comparison, the NIC had a 266 MHz Cyrix processor which was primarily used in embedded applications, not desktop computers.

The enclosure for the Mac NC was the most innovative factor. It was being worked on by Danny Coster, one of a team of designers who worked in Apple's industrial design group. Instead of the relatively staid designs of Apple's current lineup (think up-market beige), it was curvy and translucent.

Steve Jobs, presumably influenced by his friend Ellison, decided not to cut the Mac NC during his aggressive cuts in 1997 where he reduced the number of R&D projects from 50 to 10. He was enthusiastic about the network computer concept, since it would help give Apple a foothold in the enterprise market, but he was especially taken by the design. He had foam prototypes made and carried them around Apple's HQ building where he used the board room as his personal office and meeting space to get a feel for the shape.

Eventually, as consumer network computers like WebTV failed to win over consumers, Steve intervened personally in the project - after working prototypes had already been built and undergone testing - and turned it into a personal computer optimized for the internet: An "Internet Macintosh" (iMac would come later). The specs were worked around into the machine that would be ultimately released. Steve gave the industrial design group, led by Jonathan Ive, much more liberty than at any other company, allowing Costner to make decisions on design that had no quantifiable impact on sales or the user experience.

iMac

In less than a year, and without any leaks to the press, the renamed iMac was ready. Steve Jobs, not unlike Jean-Louis Gassée (the man who replaced him as leader of the Macintosh division in 1985), believed in profits before mass market acceptance. Gassée had pressed for profit margins above 50 percent during the late eighties that probably cost the Macintosh market share and its position as the largest PC company in the world, but kept Apple solvent and financed huge investments in R&D that occasionally paid off big.

The price of the iMac was bumped to $1,299 and the specs were downgraded slightly, pricing the iMac almost $700 above PCs from a new joint venture, eMachines, with more RAM and a larger hard drive than the iMac. Unlike the iMac, it did not have a monitor. The 266 MHz G3 was clocked down to 233 MHz and the 17-inch CRT was reduced to 15-inches.

Shot of iMacs in Sacramento plant before official introductionThe iMac retained the unique ROM developed for the Mac NC. It was the first Mac able to boot into an operating system other than Mac OS since it stored the ROM on the hard drive instead of a custom burned chip on the logic card. The mkLinux and BeOS operating systems were both able to run on the iMac by launching as an application and then 'quitting' Mac OS.

This allowed for the iMac to be booted remotely - a feature that was first officially supported by Apple in 2000 with Mac OS X Server 1.0 - and made the logic cards cheaper to produce. The new ROMs were called New World and also included easier access to the OpenFirmware originally developed by Sun for its Sparc workstations), making development easier, too.

New World ROMs and the somewhat modest specs compared to the Power Macintosh G3 and PowerBook G3 were not the most controversial features on the iMac. Like the NeXTCube, the iMac included no floppy drive. All file transfers would occur over the network, the Internet or via an external floppy drive.

More controversially, Apple included only USB, IrDA and Ethernet. No SCSI, ADB or serial jacks, rendering many peripherals, and some anti-piracy fobs, incompatible with the iMac. The reasoning behind the shift was that although there were few USB peripherals available in 1998, most PC peripherals would be released for USB in the future, and Mac compatibility would be cheaper if all Macs used USB.

Introduction

Steve Jobs introduced the iMac on May 6, 1998, in the Flynt Auditorium at the De Anza Community College down the street from Apple's campus in Cupertino to a full house. The auditorium was plastered with giant Think Different banners.

Characteristically, Steve fastidiously prepared for his presentation. He helped create the slideshow, which ran off his ThinkPad running NeXT software, and approved every word in his speech - unlike his predecessor Gil Amelio. Steve's presentation ended on a dramatic note: He welcomed Mike Markkula, the man who helped found Apple and served as chairman from 1985 until Steve fired him, and Steve Wozniak onto the stage.

The audience was mostly filled with analysts, reporters and the team that worked on the iMac, but it felt like a pep rally, not like a product introduction for a computer company. The reaction was especially surprising since the iMac would not ship for another three months. Nonetheless, the tech and popular press wrote hundreds of articles on the iMac before its August ship date. Many of them were glowing write ups on Steve Jobs' leadership at Apple and the computer industry in general. When it was released, the iMac was Steve Jobs' first major hit after his return.

Aftermath

The iMac had a major impact on the computer industry, most notably with the adoption en masse of USB. When the iMac was introduced, the Epson 740 was the only USB printer available. By the end of 2000, almost all printers used USB, and many now use USB exclusively. The aesthetic of the iMac became a touchstone for the late nineties. Translucent peripherals to match the iMac became more popular, and translucent plastics started appearing in many appliances, including a George Foreman grill.

Steve Jobs proudly announced that Apple had sold an iMac "every 15 seconds of every hour of every day of every week" since its August ship date through December 31, 1998 (Apple Confidential, 244). In 1998 alone, Apple sold 800,000 iMacs.

In fiscal 1998, the company sold 834,000 computers, which does not take into account the Christmas season, to double its market share to 6 percent. Even better, Apple was consistently profitable again, making $309.5 million for the fiscal year of 1998 (Apple Confidential, 244). The positive financial results probably helped Steve get the top job and a new title: "iCEO" (i for interim), after serving as acting CEO for more than a year.

My images are all screenshots or press photographs. My sources are linked in the text of the article.

Thomas Hormby is an international affairs major at John Cabot University in Rome. During the summers, he teaches mountain biking just outside Nashville, and is an avid backpacker. Thomas has always taken an interest in computer history and he's especially interested in Apple and its products. He also writes for Low End Mac and other Apple and Mac sites.

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