Why the Mac Look Hasn’t Changed

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

[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.]

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Why I will never be a tech pundit.
I would have shortened the entire article to: Because you don’t mess up a good thing.


I would argue that all those small changes DO count.  I can tell the difference between the smooth curves of the unibody case (especially on the bottom), and compared to my plastic 2008 MacBook it looks way cooler and way more solid.  The change from white plastic iMacs to aluminum was similar in improving the coolness of the machine.  These are not worthy of Time magazine, as you say, but they do keep the products fresher and cooler in the minds of consumers.


I believe Apple has deliberately chosen to follow a path championed by VW and its iconic VW Bug. Evolutionary design versus revolutionary. The Bug design changed minimally over the years with minor changes being adapted gradually over the lifespan of the Bug model. That approach created a sense that the car was timeless. The shape of the car itself became a recognizable form and a valuable brand image. Like the Bug, the look of all Mac products has become a key part of the Apple brand image and to stray too far, too quickly from the iconic brushed aluminum and distinctive forms would minimize the connection of one Apple product to another. Apple products have become as recognizable for their look and form as they have for their ease of use. It is a key component of their brand image.

Lee Dronick

We have been writing on and reading from mostly flat surfaces for thousands of years be they cave walls, clay tablets, a flat section of a scroll, a paper notebook, or an iPad. Is there a better way of doing that? Probably, but no one seems to have thought of it thus far. Sure you can write on and read from a curved or irregular surface, but it isn’t efficient to do either.

In the beginning of the PC era the flat monitor was thick because it had to accommodate the CRT and associated electronics. We have now very thin monitors on which we can also write/type/control, but the surface is still flat.

Where the hell am I going with this? Hell I don’t even know my current location. A few minutes ago the wife broke me out of flow and I need a break before I turn off external stimuli again so I read this story.


Does anyone actually *Really* think the Mac Pro Looks Cool?
From a literal sense of the word, that casing was designed to be cool - A Massive heat sinc for the G5 processors.  I remember when I first saw them I thought “The worlds most powerful computer, and it looks like a blooming Cheese Grater”
We are so used to the aluminium box design now what I think we take it for granted, but honestly, the G4’s were the arty desktops of the series.

At the end of the day though, I still prefer them to the designs of most PC cases.


“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Exactly right.

However, I do have to take a slight exception to a couple of points in this article:

1) Even from across a room I can tell a Unibody MacBook Pro from an earlier model. The difference in the surfaces of the materials are pretty obvious, as are the curves and lack of plastic edges on the Unibody MacBook/Pro.

2) Not as obvious as #1 but, along with the external drive bay, the Mac Pro does have more external Bluetooth and Firewire connectors, and the only obvious fan vent is in a different position on the Mac Pro.

Yes, #2 is really niggling, and the G5 and Mac Pro really are hard to tell apart, for most people. While I like the case design, overall, I really wish that the dang things didn’t weigh so much. I’m a pretty big guy and even I don’t like having to move those suckers around.

Gene King

I’m an owner of a 2003 Power Mac G5 and I’d like to see Apple release an “X Mac” priced between the Mini and the Mac Pro. They could feel free to make it look different from any other Mac! grin

Jon Alper

>>Does anyone actually *Really* think the Mac Pro Looks Cool?<<

I do.

I’d think it looked cooler if:

- it was rack-mount width when tipped over
- the handles removed or retracted.
- It was drilled for optional a sliding rail and ear kit.

The Mac Pro looks VERY cool because it *almost* wastes no space.


I would argue that the flat panel iMac was a major redesign.  The “sunflower” design was still a two box design with the cable connection replaced by a display support.

I had always had versions of the MacPro. Unfortunately the aluminum case radically changed its dimensions so it would not fit into my environment or any cabinet designed for a computer at the time. Rather than change furniture and my Mac I became an iMac user and I am a happy user of cheaper Macs. To bad for Apple.

And when is it good design to put handles on something that have such sharp edges you have to search up the garden gloves to pull it out? That, and a panel that had to be removed was a definite step back in ergonomics for the sake of a “look”.


Even from across a room I can tell a Unibody MacBook Pro from an earlier model.

And I can tell the difference between a 1963 and a 1964 VW Bug as it drives by. But that’s because I’m a VW enthusiast. To the general public, what they see on screen on TV or in a movie is an aluminum laptop with a big glowing Apple logo, and that is recognizable as a Mac.

If you watch a movie like “What Women Want”, you’ll see an ad agency filled with white flat panel iMacs, and it looks dated. Anything filmed in the past 5 years or so, a Mac still looks, in a cursory glance, like a current model Mac, and that’s powerful branding.

Gareth Harris

One of the things you are selling is continuity. It implies stability - a major part of perceived value.

Steve W

The 2002 iMac was a major redesign prompted by a change from Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT) to Liquid Crystal Display (LCD). The 2010 iMac still uses an LCD display.

The uni-body MacBook was a major redesign prompted by an improvement in structural integrity (the uni-body). The 2010 MacBook are still uni-body.

The next time Apple comes up with an improvement that necessitates a major redesign, there will be another redesign.


I believe Apple has deliberately chosen to follow a path championed by VW and its iconic VW Bug. Evolutionary design versus revolutionary.

I think Jay has it right. And I believe Steve Jobs had commented (maybe sometime right around the time of the Intel switch) that Apple hasn’t changed their hardware designs because they simply weren’t able to come up with better designs. Never mind the fact that at that time, they were probably hard at work developing manufacturing techniques for the upcoming unibody laptops. wink

Still, I kinda sorta miss the G3/G4 days when you could spot the year model of a tower from across the street. Having the latest and greatest was maybe a little better than bragging rights, ‘cause you could just show it off.


I think there is one point that has been missed by this article and the responses:

When Steve Jobs was asked about what was ahead for Apple for 2010, he responded that there were a lot of neat changes coming… I think he said something like “you’ll be surprised”... I will have to do some digging.

So, do not underestimate the ingenuity of Apple and the cycle of innovation that does not meet our preconceived expectations or our insistent timetable.

Just be prepared to be pleasantly surprised. I know I keep reaching to touch something on my 30” monitors but obviously, no one would consider that besides me. wink

Cheers from the land downunder.


We called the first G4 iMac “The Lamp Shade” iMacs

Not much of a name, but we’d understand what was meant in the Shop.

Yoda Mann

Over the past couple of years, we’ve had more iMacs fail in our department due to high heat frying the internal hard drive. iMac is broke and needs a fix in order to bring sufficient cooling to it’s narrow case and lack of sufficient on-board cooling.

Lee Dronick

Over the past couple of years, we?ve had more iMacs fail in our department due to high heat frying the internal hard drive. iMac is broke and needs a fix in order to bring sufficient cooling to it?s narrow case and lack of sufficient on-board cooling.

Make sure to clean the circular vent on the back, just below the support hinge.


The other interesting thing is the way they have moved towards a unified design language - i.e. back at the start of the last decade, the iPod did not really look much like any of Apple’s computers, and there was a big difference between the candy aesthetics of the consumer machines, and the Pro lines.

(I keep thinking of Legally Blond, where Reese Witherspoon turns up to a lecture with a clamshell iBook and that this is a signifier of her being a bit airheaded. These days the serious kids on the course would have MacBook Pros).

By the middle of the decade, the iMac and Mac Mini shared the same glossy white as the iPod. They looked a lot less ‘fun’, but also they looked very much like the kind of products we expected to see in the year 2001 (as in I think they intentionally echoed the visual language of films like ‘2001’, and other 60s films, that indicated the future through the use of glossy white plastics).

There’s been a definite shift even since then - it may be evolutionary, but the gloss white has almost gone, replaced by the more serious aluminum across the line.

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