iMac Turns 5 Today: Looking Back At Launch, Effect Of iMac
August 15th, 2003

It was five years ago today, on a Saturday, when Apple was reborn. Few of us realized what the iMac was going to do for Apple, to the industry, or the impact it would have on industrial design throughout the consumer products world, but it was five years ago today that Apple released the Bondi Blue iMac. It had a 233 MHz G3 processor, a built-in 15" CRT, 32 MB of RAM, a 4 GB hard drive, 24X CD-ROM drive, a 56k modem, and 10/100 Ethernet. More importantly, the original iMac's case was made of something really bizarre, colored plastic!

Hot sales, Big speed claims

The rollout happened mainly at CompUSA stores across the country, with Micro Centers, Apple VARs, and a few other retailers also participating. The launch was held on a Saturday, and was hyped heavily in the weeks leading up to the release. Many CompUSAs had volunteer Mac users assisting with the release, and most of the stores sold out of inventory Saturday morning. It was a Big Deal™. In particular, Apple hyped both the speed of the G3 and the then low-price of the iMac, US$1,299, saying that the iMac was up to 40% faster than the fastest Pentium II processor available at the time. From a press release dated August 13th, 1998:

As thousands of iMac computers arrive at retail outlets throughout the U.S. and Canada in preparation for its debut this weekend, Apple Computer, Inc. announced that final performance results are in. As expected, iMac is 40 percent faster than the fastest PC and its processor is more than twice as fast as processors in comparable consumer PCs, based on BYTEmark testing.

"The iMac for $1,299 toasts the fastest PC money can buy at any price -- the Pentium II 400," said Steve Jobs, Apple's interim CEO.

A customer would have to pay almost twice as much for a Pentium II-based PC, which would still be 40 percent slower than iMac. Its processor performance at a price of $1,299 is faster than a Pentium II, 400 megahertz PC with a 15-inch display and an estimated street price as high as $2,400.

Going back to CompUSA

On a personal note, covering the rollout of the iMac was the first major bit of writing I did as the new editor-in-chief of what was still called Webintosh at the time (we changed the name to The Mac Observer in December of 1998).

We were invited to come in to a local CompUSA to cover the event. We found a constant crowd of people, and what ended up being much more important, an air of excitement for the Mac platform that we hadn't seen in some time, all due to the Bondi Blue Wonder. From our Feature Report on the rollout:

One thing that simply can not be overstated is how cool the iMac looks. We have been looking at pictures of the iMac since its announcements and even still we were not prepared for how attractive it is in person. The Bondi-Blue sides are now a nice matte finish and the other Bondi-Blue aspects are very shiny. These combine with the shape to make something that is almost consuming in its coolness. You just want to keep looking at it, to touch it, and more than anything, to do something on it.

We were able to talk to representatives from several companies including Apple, FileMaker, Epson, and CompUSA. All of them were very excited about Apple in general and the iMac in particular. We also spoke to some of the customers who were lining up to see and buy this incredible new computer. These customers were a curious mix of Mac users looking to upgrade, Mac fanatics wishing to cheer Apple on, PC users who were thinking of making The Switch, and the curious who were wondering what 15 other people were staring at. In fact, there was a constant crowd of 10-17 people crowding around the single demonstration unit (all other units for sale were being kept in boxes). The closest thing we have ever seen to the interest and excitement surrounding the iMac was the demonstration of a brand new Windows game such as Quake II or Unreal, and those paled in comparison.

One customer who showed up before the store opened had ordered his iMac 3 weeks ago. Marv Allen, a 60-something PC user, commented that he liked the looks of the new computer. "Mac has always had the reputation of being THE computer to use for graphics. I presume that this is going to work as well as the old ones." Marv had some questions about the upgradability of the iMac, which has no PCI slots and no drive bays, but was never the less impressed with it. His wife, who seemed somewhat more cynical, expressed some enthusiasm at the idea of being able to run her Win95 software on the iMac through Virtual PC.

[Check out our full story from August 15th, 1998, for more information on the iMac rollout.]

For some, change is hard

There are two things in particular I find very interesting from that passage. For one, note that even then "The Switch" was capitalized, some four years before Apple's Switch campaign.

Also, note the newness of the iMac's design expressed in the first paragraph. I specifically remember writing that because so many people thought the iMac was ugly, or just plain "too different" when it was announced. There were Mac users in that chorus, too. Go on, be honest: Were you one of them?

It's easy to take the all-in-one form factor for granted today, but at the time the iMac was almost a novelty in its difference. No ADB, no SCSI, built-in monitor just like in the original Mac, no floppy drive, and some newfangled thing called USB; at the time, most people, including most Mac users, were very critical of Apple choosing to go with USB-only.

It's five years later, and even toaster makers like Dell are considering dropping floppy drives, at least on some Wintel models. At the time, however, dropping the floppy was considered an insane move by Apple. Even today you can still find an occasional Wintel user who honestly thinks that Macs are useless because they don't have a floppy. For those keeping score at home, this is largely because floppies were long the only form of boot disk Windows could use, and that was a major issue for Wintel users who took for granted that computers regularly crashed. The Mac world, however, quickly forgot about this absence, and most of us have never looked back.

There were also very few USB peripherals for either the Mac or PC at the time, and almost everyone lamented the fact that this would be an almost insurmountable problem for people stuck with an iMac. This was especially so since the iMac had no PCI slots. "Without expansion," cried the masses, "what can you ever do with the darned thing?!?!"

Of course, hind sight shows us that Apple literally set the world of USB on fire, and a veritable flood of USB products began to hit the market almost immediately after the launch of the iMac. A few months after that, USB products started appearing for Windows, too. Five years later, USB is the standard for most peripherals in both the Mac and Wintel markets. Eventually, even the lack of PCI slots became a non-issue.

To everything, turn, turn, turn...

The iMac was the turning point for Apple. The rollout of the unit was a huge success, and the original G3 line of iMacs became one of the best selling computer models in history. More importantly, it reinvigorated Apple, Mac users and buyers, Mac peripheral makers, and Mac software developers. Companies that had left the Mac platform in droves, both customers and developers, began returning almost immediately, and new companies that had never before catered to the Mac suddenly started releasing Mac USB products. It was a whole new world for Apple and the Mac platform, and it happened virtually overnight.

The iMac rollout also marked the point at which we started seeing fewer "beleaguered" comments aimed at Apple from the mainstream. The critics were still there to criticize the iMac, and Apple's next major evolution, the clam-shell iBook, many of whom continued to claim that Apple was obviously about to die, but other less obtuse writers and reporters started covering Apple with a new positive light. Certainly Apple wasn't out of the woods yet, but the trees had suddenly thinned considerably.

That's not bad for a computer that many dismissed as worthless and weak when it was announced.

Did you have an iMac? Do you remember the rollout? Did you attend one of the in-store events? Chime in either in the comments below, or join our forum members who are talking about it.