The Apple Trader - The iMac: A Case Study In Historical Contingency & Evolutionary Convergence
by - August 21st, 2000

Historical explanations take the form of narrative: E, the phenomenon to be explained, arose because D came before, preceded by C, B, and A. If any of these earlier stages had not occurred, or had transpired in a different way, then E would not exist (or would be present in a substantially altered form, E', requiring a different explanation). Thus, E makes sense and can be explained rigorously as the outcome of A through D. But no law of nature enjoined E; any variant E arising from an altered set of antecedents, would have been equally explicable, though massively different in form and effect.

I am not speaking of randomness (for E had to arise, as a consequence of A though D), but of the central principle of all history -- contingency. A historical explanation does not rest on direct deduction from laws of nature, but on an unpredictable sequence of antecedent states, where any major change in any step of the sequence would have altered the final result. This final result is therefore dependent, or contingent, upon everything that came before—the unerasable and determining signature of history.

Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life, The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, 1989

We want to stand at the intersection of computers and humanism. Apple was the first computer that…let people who were liberal arts majors use computers and that's part of what is in Apple's DNA …If you really want to understand our company…take some videos of your spouse and your kids, or the guy next door, or whatever, and make an iMovie, and then you will understand. It is the most emotional thing you will have ever done with a computer. You will start to get that we are very intellectual but we appeal to the creative side of things, that humanist side of things that nobody else in our industry gives a damn about and we do and we love it. We love it so! So that is what's driving us, it's not just making spreadsheets run faster but doing things like iMovie. You gotta [try iMovie] if you really care about understanding this company. It's much more important than crunching your numbers. Trust me on this… I don't have the words to tell you!

Steve Jobs, getting visionary with a group of financial analysts at the recent MacWorld.

The iMac

I wonder how many articles have been written claiming the iMac's success is due to merely cosmetic, skin deep trifles that appeal mostly to women and children. The propellerheads that usually end up as technology writers consist almost entirely of white males who would have been slugging beer and tearing engines apart a generation ago. It's not too surprising that the fundamental reasons for the iMac's success seem mere girlie fashion sense to them.

The thing that most fascinates me about the iMac is the fact that none of Apple's PC competitors has yet to come up with an adequately competitive response to the colorful all-in-one. Surely if cute multi-flavored plastics were all that was involved in the iMac's success the giant PC manufacturers would have whipped up a cosmetically competitive 'iMac killer' years ago.

In fact, the great fear among many analysts (including myself) when the iMac first became an obvious best seller in the autumn of 1998 was that the iMac's half-life would be relatively short as the PC manufacturers emulated the Bondi Blue's deceivingly easy looking success.

From the beginning the iMac defined the high end of an emerging low end consumer category forcing the PC manufacturers to adopt many of the iMac's technical features, some of which they dismissed at first as impractical or undesirable. Nevertheless, in spite of incorporating the iMac's technical features in many of today's Wintel offerings no one has been able to create a PC that cuts directly into iMac sales. Few predicted the PC manufacturers' responses would so inadequately deal with the contingency that the iMac's appearance presented the industry. Even fewer observers realized the iMac would have such resistance to mere cosmetic imitation.

Why is this? I've been scratching my head in wonder for a year now over this logical conundrum and have a working hypothesis. I certainly welcome reader feedback on this topic since I believe it reveals issues central to understanding Apple's past and future success.

Corporate cultures create their destinies.

Everyone overestimated the creative ability of the two companies that seemed most likely to come up with an iMac killer — Dell and Gateway. (I'm excluding discussion of Compaq and Sony to simplify the issue.) With perfect 20/20 hindsight it's obvious that the innovative genius behind these two immensely successful businesses is based on the creative marketing of PCs, not on design development.

As Dell proudly reminds us in their advertising, they invented the online PC store business model, which garnered them amazing operational efficiencies and great profits. In fact, the online marketing of PCs is Michael Dell's one and only claim to history. Dell has never had a single PC hardware or software creative thought in his life, but he sure knows how to run a sales outfit. Likewise, Gateway has pioneered a number of creative marketing tools above and beyond the usual and this has made their business thrive.

Dell and Gateway's business-orientated management have never envisioned their companies as anything more than marketing initiatives supported by product assembly lines. Design was a consideration only in that 'good' designs could be identified that optimized the cost effectiveness of the assembly process. Creative marketing was the name of the game since Wintel PCs were, and still are, essentially a commodity — essentially the same from one PC vendor to the next.

The advent of the iMac proved that great industrial design could inspire a boom in PC sales and capture the public's imagination. But the PC vendors were unable to rise to the occasion because they don't have corporate cultures capable of developing, implementing or even recognizing good design. They didn't build their businesses on design factors to start with and like doltish tech pundits counting MHz and PCI slots; they too dismissed the iMac's success as a fad among trendy, fickle consumers.

By mistakenly imagining that the iMac's success was skin deep, the PC vendors' own attempts to create a fashionably competitive product was doomed to fail from its misguided conception. Their efforts came off as total cheese.

Today, still hobbled by a corporate culture unable to implement innovation at the hardware level, the PC vendors are losing their focus as they desperately attempt to add value with so-called "beyond the box" strategies. Apple knows the PC business is still about making PCs and that computer devices of one sort or another are going to remain the ultimate repository of value for the consumer for some time to come. The trend among PC vendors to reinvent themselves as service organizations is really the start of a death spiral for the great US PC manufacturing era of the 1990s.

Apple Ingenuity

The central paradox of true genius is that in hindsight the innovation wrought by genius seems as plain as day. How brilliant do you have to be to realize that since computers occupy space in people's home and office environments that — visually, at least — computers qualify as furniture? Of course, it's impossible to imagine a world where furniture could ever be manufactured with the level of homogeneity found among PC designs. In the future it will be difficult to explain to children that such conformity ever existed in the early days of the PC.

But Apple's great genius extends beyond just realizing that people desire intelligent and elegant designs in their environment. Because Apple has a corporate culture that from the top down respects the power of great design to be a source of pleasure and inspiration in people's lives, the company was able to approach the design challenge with a sublimity unimaginable to the bean counting management at Dell and Gateway.

Furthermore, in fairness to the PC vendors, Apple's iMac has created a historical contingency (see definition at top of page) where almost any competitively-relevant design response to the iMac could not help but be either totally derivative or absurdly arbitrary.

Form, Function and Convergence

In evolutionary theory there is a process called convergence. Although I'm no biologist, I understand that some physical forms are so optimal for certain tasks that the animal and plant world (lacking restrictive patents) have invented them over and over again independent of each other.

One branch of dinosaurs (Pteranodons) evolved the physiology of flight, which necessarily included the apparatus of wings. Birds, really just another class of dinosaurs, achieved flight genetically independent of the earlier Pteranodon. And insects had previously mastered winged flight many millions of years before either group. Much later in Earth's history, bats - a mammalian creature - developed skin between its fingers and a body shape that roughly converged with the winged form already in use by birds and insects for flight. Obviously wings, at least on this planet, are a kind of universal design path of least resistance for organisms that evolve the habit of flight.

In a similar fashion the shark's torpedo shape is universally the best way to design a creature to ply the open seas when the evolutionary parameters call for immense speed, strength and agility.

Like the unaffected form of a wing or the chaste shape of a shark, the iMac represents the most elegant, simple solution possible to the design challenge presented by the concept of an affordable, all-in-one consumer PC using technology available to PC manufacturers circa 1997-2000.

Unlike in nature, and unfortunately for the PC manufacturers, Apple holds copyrights, which prevents the competition from evolutionarily converging on the iMac's universal form.

There is nothing cosmetic about Apple's choice of design for the iMac. Fashion sense has little to do with absolute dominance over an ecological niche. Just ask a shark - its basic 'cosmetics' have needed little evolutionary alteration in the last 250 million years.

People respond to the iMac because they instantly, if unconsciously, recognize its form is as tightly linked to its function as a shark's shape reflects its nature. Perhaps because of a million-year history of tool making, the human mind is hard wired to find such elemental merging of form with function inherently pleasing at the gut level. That is the secret to great industrial design and, ultimately, the insight that great art brings to our lives. It's why humans have always painted pictures, built cathedrals, composed songs and desired the next insanely great thing.

The iMac is not a cosmetic design that can be contrived or leapfrogged. The iMac's design is not mere plastics or ornamentation. In fact, meaningless ornamentation is exactly anathema to the iMac's form.

So you have to pity the poor design teams at Dell and Gateway and Compaq who received their marching orders to come up with an iMac Killer. How do you design a better shark? Emachines was, in their own unethical way, the cleverest of them all. They recognized early on that you couldn't design a PC to compete with the iMac's pureness of form, instead eMachine in effect claimed they had stumbled independently into an innocent evolutionary convergence with the iMac's optimal shape. Lucky them.

Other PC manufacturers were warned away from directly emulating the iMac's style by the example the US legal system made of eMachine's indiscretion. It's likely PC designers also realized cheap iMac Wintel rip-offs would merely become better advertising for the real thing than Apple could ever buy.

The iMac's Lesson

The iMac solution is so preemptively elegant that the PC manufacturers never developed effective competition. In fact, the contingency of the iMac created a history that made an effective design response from the PC vendors all but impossible.

However, this doesn't mean the iMac's design is immortal. The iMac's design is merely the best possible solution using technology available in 1998. Flat panel monitors will soon trend so low in price as to alter the balance of design factors away from the original iMac solution. Electronic component miniaturization and other technological advances continue to alter the design parameters for future PC products.

The final end to the iMac's product life cycle won't be because the so-called fad dies out, nor will it come from a clever PC response. The iMac will retire after a successful career as technology trends away from the strange attractor its design paradigm represents. The lesson of the iMac is that who ever captures the design high ground - that classic shape everyone must converge on - will control the next phase shift the PC market space

Apple's design team has repeatedly shown, with the iBook and with stunningly elegant flat panel monitors and most recently with the G4 Cube, that the company is in the business of capturing the most universally convergent forms as technology emerges to make new designs feasible. Most importantly, Apple continues to arrive at these ultimate solutions well ahead of the PC pack. With the G4 Cube Apple has usurped the most pure and simple solution for desktop PC genre using technology available now. Once again, pity the poor PC design team ordered to come up with a less contrived design.

The iMac, in the form we know and love, is within 12 to 24 months of retirement. We can be sure, however, that Apple is quietly working on what it calls the next insanely great thing — that's Apple speak for the next most natural, most graceful evolutionary step forward in personal computing.

Go Apple!

Your comments are welcomed.