Today in Apple history: Twentieth Anniversary Mac lands with a thud

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TAM
The Twentieth Anniversary Mac launched twenty years ago today.
Photo: Apple

Mar20March 20, 1997: Apple launches its Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, a futuristic special edition Mac that’s ahead of its time in every way.

Not part of any established Mac line, with a look (and price!) unlike anything available in 1997, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh unfortunately bombs at the marketplace. Today, it’s a collector’s piece.

The twentieth anniversary… sort of

Somewhat confusingly, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh didn’t actually represent the twentieth anniversary of the Mac, which took place in 2004 to very little fanfare from Apple. Instead, it represented twenty years since the 1977 incorporation of Apple as a company.

With the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, Apple could easily have looked to the past and built a Mac that paid tribute to the look of the original Macintosh 128K. In some ways, this would have made perfect sense in the “bad old days” of the 1990s, when Apple was effectively selling to a small devoted group of Mac addicts.

Instead, it boldly did the opposite: building a computer that looked like it had come from the future. The Twentieth Anniversary Mac was the first flatscreen Mac in history, with a design that massively pre-dated today’s flatscreen iMacs.

As with the flatscreen monitor, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh embraced the future by aiming to be a full multimedia machine. It boasted an integrated TV/FM radio system, S-video input, and custom sound system designed by Bose.

From a visual perspective, the weirdest thing about the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh is its CD drive. Unlike the almost invisible CD slots of later Macs — eventually leading to them being phased out altogether — the CD drive on the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh is a front-on vertical square which dominates the front of the machine.

Mac
The Twentieth Anniversary Mac looked like no Mac before.
Photo: Apple

In keeping with the theme of looking to the future, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh also signaled a change inside Apple. Blaming the dysfunctional Apple culture, head designer Robert Brunner quit Apple shortly before the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh came to market. In doing so, it paved the way for Jony Ive — who worked as a designer on the project — to rise through the ranks.

The Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh turned out to be significant because it was one of the first Apple computers to get started within Apple’s design group, rather than its engineering department. Given Jony Ive’s position within Apple today, this is standard practice, but it certainly wasn’t in the mid-1990s.

It arrived at a time when Apple was going through enormous changes, with former CEO Gil Amelio stepping down and Steve Jobs rejoining Apple as part of its NeXT acquisition. Steve Wozniak came back as an advisor too, which meant that for a short period of time 1997 really was like 1977 again — with Jobs and Woz playing a bigger role in Apple than they had in years.

(To this end, the first two Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh units were actually given to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Woz loved the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh and described it as the perfect computer for a college student with, “computer, TV, radio, CD player and more … all in one sleek machine.)

A marketplace failure

Unfortunately, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (like another of my favorite Macs, the Power Mac G4 Cube) was a big failure at the box office. When it launched, it carried a price of $9,000 ($13,600 today) that make it totally unaffordable to the average consumer. In the end, Apple sold just a few thousand units.

Like the battles between Jef Raskin and Steve Jobs over the original Mac, there was disagreement over whether this should be a regular computer priced for the masses, or a pricey special edition — which is what the marketing department wanted. They won out, and the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh floundered as a result.

Mac
“What is the deal with the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh?”
Photo: Seinfeld

For what it’s worth, if you did buy an early Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, you were treated to a delivery service like no other. Forget waiting in line at the Apple store; the Twentieth Anniversary Macs were delivered to your home via limo, where a man in a tuxedo would set it up for you.

The Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh eventually had its price chopped to just $2,000, before being discontinued in March 1998. It never caught on with consumers, although it did win design awards — and notably showed up as the Mac in Jerry’s apartment in the final season of Seinfeld. It was also Alfred Pennyworth’s computer in the terrible 1997 movie Batman & Robin.

If you’re looking for a Mac that bridges the gap between the doomed experimentalism of Apple in the 1990s and the company Apple eventually morphed into, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh is a great, unique machine. Just don’t expect to easily find one going cheap on eBay.

 

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