Why the Mac Look Hasn’t Changed

[User Friendly Note: You may have noticed that I write two regular columns/blogs: “User Friendly View” and “User Friendly Blog.” This may have left you wondering: “What’s the difference?” We’ve been asking ourselves the same question recently. Although our original intent was to have these two columns differentiated, it has not worked out that way. As a result, we’ve decided that all future columns will be placed under the “User Friendly View” heading. For the moment, “User Friendly Blog” will remain in place, reserved only for very short entries (6 lines or so). If the “Blog” turns out to be underutilized in this role, it will eventually be removed altogether.]

January 7, 2002 was a momentous day in the history of Apple Inc. At the Macworld Expo keynote that morning, Steve Jobs introduced the first major redesign of the iMac since its inception. Gone was the familiar CRT-display-based 1998 design, replaced by an LCD flat-panel unit that would be nicknamed the gooseneck iMac.

At the time, this was considered such a major event that Time magazine put the iMac on its cover. However, in what proved to be an embarrassment for Time, as well as a major annoyance for Steve Jobs, Time’s Canadian Web site inadvertently posted the iMac article to its website the night before the keynote — giving the world a premature peek at the new machine. Can you say “Oops”?

From today’s perspective, what makes all of this worth recalling is not primarily the new iMac design itself or the Time magazine leak. Rather, it is the realization that 2002 was the last year that a redesign of a Mac made major news. In fact, after almost 20 prior years of frequent product redesigns, 2002-2003 was about the last time that we’ve seen any significant external redesign of the Mac.


The iMac did have one major evolutionary (as opposed to revolutionary) change after 2002. In August 2004, Apple introduced the flat-panel iMac G5, the one where the computer’s internal hardware sits behind a white-plastic-rimmed display rather than in the base unit. This represents how the iMac still looks today. The only subsequent design change of note has been the shift to the aluminum body iMac in 2007. Otherwise, the iMac has not altered its overall look since 2004 — six years!

Power Macs/Mac Pros

Apple’s tower Macs, the Power Macs and Mac Pros, have been even more stagnant than the iMacs. If you inspected a photo of a June 2003 Power Mac G5, you’d be hard-pressed to notice any difference (except for the second optical drive slot) from the appearance of the currently-selling 2009 Mac Pro. The Mac Pro has not changed externally in seven years!

PowerBooks/MacBook Pros

The story remains essentially the same for Apple’s main laptops, the PowerBooks and MacBook Pros. Apple introduced the Titanium PowerBook G4 in January 2001. This was replaced by the aluminum PowerBook G4 in 2003. Finally, the unibody MacBook Pro was released in March 2009. While you can visually distinguish these three basic models, their overall styles are very similar. With their lids closed, you could easily mistake one of today’s MacBook Pros for a 2003 PowerBook. There is certainly a much bigger chasm between any of these models and the PowerBooks from the 1990’s.

What does it mean?

So what does this all mean? What message, if any, should we take from these findings? I believe they reflects three truths:

External redesign is not now an emphasis for any computer manufacturer. Computers have become common commodities, much like televisions. Take a look at a plasma or LCD television from 2003. You’d be hard pressed to tell whether it is a 2003 or a 2010 model. In this respect, Apple’s computers are right in step.

To a large extent, this is because major changes to internal hardware — such as from CRT to LCD displays or from bigger to much smaller components — are a major driving force behind external design changes. We seem to be in a lull in this regard currently. 

Apple in particular does not need a design overhaul to spur sales or improve its image. Apple’s current desktop and laptop models are selling well and their designs are still considered “cool.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Much like a classic Porsche, you don’t need to reinvent a look each year to keep the product desirable. The day may come when Apple’s computers seem stale. But that day has not yet arrived.

• The Mac is not where it’s at right now. This year’s WWDC shows no sign of Mac OS X 10.7. Instead, the WWDC will be almost completely dominated by the iPhone OS. This pretty much sums up where Apple is putting its resources right now. And it’s not in the Mac. Given this, it should not be a surprise that Apple isn’t focusing on overhauling the look of its Mac hardware.

Will a new Mac ever again be considered such a big deal that it merits the cover of a national news magazine? Some might argue it’s just happened — with the iPad (recently on the cover of both Time and Newsweek). Today’s iPad may be the forerunner of tomorrow’s Macs. Perhaps. That aside, I wouldn’t take bets on a major Mac overhaul happening anytime soon.

[Thanks to EveryMac.com for providing a one-stop site for all the links to Mac models covered here.]