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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger

The iMac's Evolution, A Plastic Hell!
August 15th, 2000

The Macintosh using community has to love the iMac, and for several understandable reasons beyond its features and its looks. Hey, this machine is responsible for a good part of Apple's resurgence in computing and this is no small feat if you remember the extreme pessimism around the platform in 1997.

Kids love it. Women love it. Even John Dvorak loves it! Now this is beyond any normal thinking person's expectations...

Retailers have mixed feelings over the iMac, though. They have to appreciate the fact that Apple's flagship machine has sold like hot cakes since August 1998, minus a few slower sales periods here and there. I know stores that owe a big part of their survival to the iMac's popularity with consumers. I also know some Canadian electronics chains (such as Future Shop) that surf on the wave by selling them and also iBook units.

On the other hand, I have the impression, after two years of hearing comments from retailers both in e-mail and in person, that the iMac does cause them their share of trouble. Judging by the most recent iMac changes at the last MACWORLD Expo in New York, it is far from over.

Let me take you back to 1998. The iMac came only in bondi blue, a blue and green translucent plastic. So far, so good. It is only one color for the entire unit, the keyboard and the mouse.

In January 1999, Apple announces its new iMac machines in 5 flavors. Stop right there. It started causing several problems to retailers and hardware makers:

Since the bondi blue parts were not in production anymore, finding a matching keyboard or mouse for the original iMac would be more difficult than just walking in a store and saying that you want one.

With several flavors available, people had to make decisions over what they wanted and the right colors were not necessarily in stock or always easy to get in a flash...

With matching keyboards and mice to go along with the main unit's flavor, it meant that a broken keyboard or a broken mouse had to be replaced with a matching one. (Do not underestimate people's obsession about cosmetics when it comes to such things.)

Bondi blue peripherals in stock were kind of outdated with all the new flavors coming on the market, except for people who did not care about colors.

Peripheral makers had to find a neutral color to fit with all the iMac colors that existed.

French Canadian retailers had to deal with another big factor: 5 flavors, 2 languages... which means 10 different units. Imagie a lady who says "I want the Lime iMac with a French Mac OS". The salesman says, "we have none left and we would have to order, which takes a while." The lady replies "I want it now! Tell me what you have." The salesman goes through the list and tells her all the varying configurations he has, and this is far from the first time he does this.

Stocking different iMac and peripheral flavors is a lot more work with part numbers and the confusion factor can be annoying.

Nice, huh? After a keynote, I know computer store employees who were happy to see new machines to sell, but a little grumpy about the color complications that they would face. Don't forget the unhappy customers who could not have the flavor they wanted when they wanted it.

The addition of the DV Special Edition in Graphite squeezed one more color in the lineup, but fortunately, the change was minor enough and the G4's presence justified having Graphite flavored peripherals. Moreover, the flavors remained the same for quite a while, which helps to keep the boat afloat.

In New York this summer, Apple made it a whole new ball game... Now, we have different flavors. Apple dropped the traditional ones to sell iMacs in Indigo, Ruby, Sage, Graphite and Snow. Oh dear!

Before we go further, I want to make something clear. I think that the iMac is lovely and the latest edition is so good looking, it hurts. The Indigo is such a nice darker blue; Ruby is simply beautiful and less girlie than the almost-pink-strawberry; Sage is definitely my favorite with its dark classy green far from fluorescence; Graphite is always nice and Snow is rather cool. Did I forget those completely transparent plastics? They are fine too. I actually like the new colors, but I am not sure if they are practical for everybody.

While you and I may have a thing for them, these new flavors will force hardware makers to adjust quickly to make sure that what they sell matches with the computers available on the market. I will repeat that even though this may seem like a superficial and pointless cosmetics issues, to not underestimate its impact on the common folks who buy the iMac and because of that, represent Apple's and peripheral makers' bread and butter.

The iMac is great, but its evolution is becoming a plastic hell for those involved in retail and the peripheral markets. Hopefully Apple will collaborate with them for color matching and maybe production strategy so that they know when to stop making a particular "flavor."

At least, the new mouse and keyboard are universal with their clear plastics. Hopefully peripheral makers will understand the example and stop trying to follow Apple's design footsteps. They have to do that for their own sake and also for the retailer's benefit. Imagine how many part numbers it takes to have 5 different iMac flavors, 5 different numbers for the same scanner just for the colors, and so on...

This issue is cosmetics at most, but it does matter to a lot of people. At least, color matching matters to me when I invite representatives of the feminine gender for a visit. Everything has to look good. Oh yeah, laugh it up...

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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