April 1, 2006
iMac – 1998
This cheerful computer gave apt form to Apple’s personable interface—and forever changed our standards for technology.
It is hard to believe that today’s sleek PowerBooks and iBooks come from the same family as the first boxy Macintosh computers from the 1980s, yet there is a powerful trait they all share. They were designed to be characters engaged in a rapport with their users—a phenomenon that reached full force with the introduction of the iMac.
The first Mac saw light in 1984. Small and upright, the 128K sat prettily on a desk and already had enough personality to be greeted as an interlocutor. The proprietary graphical user interface’s little smiley icon kept welcoming true believers in subsequent versions, such as the Mac SE (1987) and Classic (1990). But there was one feature that otherwise ecstatic fans could not grapple with: even the cheerful Mac came in the same color that smudged the entire computer industry—gray. A company in Palo Alto offered custom paint jobs, from bright wood grain and polka dots to sky blue, while retailers pushed visors and other cosmetic adornments.
It took eight more years—and Steve Jobs’s foray into the world of anthracite computers with NeXT—for Apple to produce the jovial computers that evoked the loving lollipop metaphor. In 1998 the cartoonlike iMac, clad in Bondi Blue plastic, caused a stir. Five months later there were four more colors. As stunned manufacturers worldwide rushed to adopt wild hues, Apple introduced Graphite gray in 1999, and then switched to the devastatingly stylish all-white of today. The iMac’s innovative power resided not only in color but also in other subtle details that created an immediate connection with the user, including the inviting handle and eventually the mesmerizing breathing light that pulsated when the computer went to sleep—the most romantic of all Apple features and the most expressive sign of Jonathan Ive’s tenure at the helm of the Apple design group.
The design revolution initiated by the 128K and reignited by the lollipop iMacs lives on in such aesthetic and functional feats as the iMac and iPod Nano as well as utilitarian accessories like the AirPort and the iSight video camera. Apple has both elevated the public’s expectations in matters of design standards and pushed manufacturers of consumer products to take a different approach. People are no longer satisfied with good looks and ease of use. They expect all that, and an emotional connection too.