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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger




A Retrospective Look At The iMac's Introduction
July 11th, 2000

In the field of history, the best moment to analyze an event's effect on society is long after the occurrence. For example, the best moment to write about Napoleon's reign and military campaigns is now. Why? Historians prefer to wait until the consequences of the event have no effect on them.

Why do they do that? To prevent eventual bias and to have the necessary step back that allows them to put all things into perspective. One can understand the dignity and cause of someone who went through the Stalinist horrors, for example. At the same time, the individual who suffered could not - for excellent reasons! - do a cold analysis of the whole period including the decisions made by the evil man who ruled Russia.

In this spirit, I would like to look back - say in 1998 - and analyze the consequences of the iMac's introduction by Apple. As we know, the iMac made people talk and provoked many changes in the computer industry.

Why would I do this now when I just finished uttering that we have to wait more than a 100 years to fully understand the voluminous consequences of the period we live in? Well, as you know, one year on the Internet is an eternity. What takes years to happen in real life happens in a few weeks on the Internet.

Back to 1998

On May 6 of that year, Apple made an early announcement of the iMac, which was supposedly to change the whole portrait of computing because of its evolutionary concept. Note that I do not mean revolution in computer specifications, but actually a different way to build computers.

What did the iMac do that competitors did not? Let us look at it:

  • Radical industrial design: This thing was actually prettier than probably all computers to hit the market before. Agreed, taste is highly subjective. On the other hand, we can safely say that a solid majority of those who saw the machine loved it for its attractiveness while they realized that even computers should fit with their houses' decoration schemes! It was pure eye candy for the masses and it stood strong in a world of beige PC boxes.


The iMac just looks different.

  • Tailored for consumers: The impression you had when looking at its hardware and software specifications was that the iMac would not fit the bill for demanding professionals. I recall that many columnists (especially on the PC side of the fence) complained repeatedly about it not being the absolute technology leader, but they understood why when they looked at the sales figures. We should decode the whole idea behind the iMac as this: lower specifications tailored for low-end use instead of an older tower with a slashed price. You can love or hate Apple, but you can only acknowledge that the concept worked.
  • No floppies anymore: On the Mac platform, the iMac was the beginning of the end for internal floppy drives as standard from Apple. Resistance did not take long to manifest itself, but most of us survived the storm by switching to other media or buying an external drive. I hope that not too many people bit the dust because of that!
  • A consumer machine: As I said earlier, Apple designed and engineered the product to appeal to consumers. Apple attempted a comeback after retiring itself from the lucrative consumer market (remember the pathetically failing Performa line?)
  • USB: We should not forget that the iMac was the first Macintosh to ship with a USB bus and USB ports. This was daring at the time, considering the widespread standard ADB bus and SCSI bus, and the peripherals attached to them across the platform.

The consequences

When industry freaks saw the iMac, some said that it was like 1984 all over again. Some were positive about it being the key for Apple's survival. I remember thinking that this thing would sell like hot cakes. Thankfully for the platform, this is exactly what happened.

The iMac marked the real comeback for Apple. Even after 10 months under Steve Jobs' rule, Apple did not offer anything radically new to its potential customers. Remember what the Macintosh product line was. The Power Mac G3 mini-tower, the PowerBook G3 (before its curvy design) and a G3 All-in-one for education customers.


The G3 All-in-one lived on for 6 months in 1998.

You saw those beige boxes with claims that they were faster than their competitors. The nerds and prosumers knew that the PowerPC 750 processor produced interesting results and benchmarks backed up the claim. What did all this stuff mean to the average Joe who wants a machine to access the Internet and who thinks that megahertz are reliable enough to measure performance?

Apple posted a net US$47 million profit for the first fiscal quarter of 1998. That was enough to get rid of the red ink buckets and make investors think that something could happen, but it was not yet time to wet your pants over the resurgence.

Once the iMac took the computer world by storm, it paved the way for major revisions to the other product lines and the introduction of the iBook while leading sales for Apple.

Who knows where Apple would be if it continued to sell beige Macs? Would you be able to buy a G4 now? Allow me to cast a shadow over any positive answer.

In addition to putting Apple back on the map, the iMac meant the revolution of cosmetics for computers, at least on the Mac. To put things back into perspective, I will remind all of us that other types of products featured translucent plastics previously. At the same time, I can safely assert that it helped to develop a trend.

I noticed that a LOT of consumer goods had translucent plastics shortly after the iMac's release. Such looks became cool and it is normal to see the concept reproduced elsewhere than in computers. The idea spread more than I thought, though.

Last Thursday, I visited the local Staples, the known office supplies merchant. Here is a shortened list of products I saw with translucent plastics similar to the iMac's:

  • Computer chairs
  • desks
  • pens
  • soft and rigid folders
  • binders
  • staplers
  • paper clips
  • power supplies (!)
  • etc.

I decided to head there in the first place to buy a good note pad since I loathe small note pads or just plain paper. The usual rigid cover was in translucent plastic with a color similar to bondi blue!

If I had more time to look around when I was there, I am sure that the list would be longer. While you cannot credit Apple for influencing everybody to follow the trend, you can always say that Apple's use of such plastics certainly contributed to its making.

The iMac also meant some copyright issues to face for Apple. Companies such as Future Power and eMachines tried reproducing the most important aspect of the iMac: the design. The rest is history. Apple won the lawsuits.

More importantly, the iMac meant that not everybody wants the cheapest offer available. Only rich people (or very passionate users) have deep pockets to buy the most expensive machine on the market. Consumers and other types of low-end users just want something that looks nice and inexpensive while it works well and lasts long enough to justify the investment. They just want the bridge between a G4 and the cheapest unnamed PC box.

The iMac is probably not the only answer to that since there actually are PC alternatives that work out in the circumstances.

Conclusion

As you can see, the iMac's debut meant a lot of things and rare are those who had the necessary knowledge to predict all of its consequences. A look back tells us more than the zillions of words printed between the iMac's pre-announcement and its real debut! Just as we know more about Napoleon's rule than all the words said and printed while he lived on!

While Apple was a success story for the last 3 years, the real test is ahead. Apple has not announce a substantial product change for a while. Will it satisfy the Mac industry at MACWORLD Expo in New York next week? Stay tuned!

Speaking of the Expo... if you see some guy walking around the show floor with a press pass with "Michael Munger" printed on it, it will be me. Don't be shy; get my attention for a chat! I am friendlier in person than in some of my columns :-)

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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