Today in Apple history: iBook ushers in a Wi-Fi revolution


An iBook in the Blueberry color.
The "clamshell" iBook was a major step forward for Apple.
Photo: Apple

July 21: Today in Apple history: Apple unseats Nokia as top smartphone vendor July 21, 1999: The iBook, Apple’s colorful clamshell laptop that’s a hybrid of the iMac and the PowerBook, arrives and launches a Wi-Fi revolution.

Apple’s new AirPort networking card is the key component that delivers cable-free internet access to the masses for the first time.

Apple iBook brings Wi-Fi to the laptop party

Visually, the iBook resembled a continuation of the “lickable” aesthetic of the colorful iMac G3, which launched a year earlier. The iMac G3 came in a range of bright, translucent colors, with a curvy design and a rubberized texture that made people want to reach out and touch it.

In the same way that the iMac appeared slightly gelatinous and biological, the iBook took its inspiration from nature with a “clamshell” design that looked a bit like an undersea creature. Apple initially released the iBook in Blueberry and Tangerine colors. Later, it added Indigo, Graphite and Key Lime (a bright green color available exclusively from the Apple Online Store).

A clamshell design and a wide range of colors

An Apple iBook ad with copy that reads, "iMac to Go. Introducing iBook," along with the company's "Think different" slogan. from the late 1990s.
The iBook was clearly marketed as the iMac of the laptop world.
Photo: Apple

Apple cemented the iMac comparison with advertisements that called the iBook an “iMac to go.” Like the iMac, the iBook boasted a PowerPC G3 CPU, an optical drive and standard USB, Ethernet and modem ports.

Also like the iMac, it ditched the floppy drive. To take advantage of the AirPort card, the iBook included a custom internal slot and built-in antennas. In addition, it was Apple’s first Mac to use the company’s “Unified Logic Board Architecture”, which compressed the machine’s core features into two chips, alongside AGP and Ultra DMA support.

The iBook boasted the then-novel touch of a latchless lid that “woke up” the laptop when opened. Although this conceit is used by virtually every laptop-maker today, it was new at the time. And, like the best Apple innovations, it offered a subtle reminder that the iBook was easy to use for novices.

iBook becomes a hit for Apple

An iBook ad that says "Black tie optional," with the Apple slogan "Think different."
Apple’s advertising played up the iBook’s fun design.
Photo: Apple

The $1,599 iBook became a big hit with consumers immediately. Apple’s laptop line had been a mess for much of the 1990s, with Performa, Quadra, LC, Power Macintosh and PowerBook models offering a bewildering number of options for new customers.

The iBook changed all that. Its fun aesthetic and affordable pricing made it instantly clear who Apple built the machine for. The laptop became a smash with consumers, and many retailers took preorders ahead of its launch.

The colorful clamshell design (dubbed “Barbie’s toilet seat” by some critics at the time) was superseded by the more serious-looking white polycarbonate iBook in 2001. However, the colorful laptop marked an important step in Apple’s development. Its design served as a great piece of marketing for Cupertino. And its whimsical design made Apple — still thought of as a niche computer company at the time — look welcoming and friendly.

iBook’s AirPort card fueled the Wi-Fi revolution

The iBook’s focus on Wi-Fi — thanks to Apple’s new AirPort card —  showcased the company’s ability to innovate technologically. But it also helped usher in the kind of connectivity that would make features like iTunes such a success in the decade that followed.

It didn’t hurt anything that Apple exec Phil Schiller took a death-defying 20-foot leap — live onstage during the iBook’s unveiling — to demonstrate the power of wireless networking.

Did you own a 1999-era iBook? What was the first Apple laptop you did own? Leave your comments and reminiscences below.


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