When the first iMac debuted 20 years ago, it shook the tech world with its completely unorthodox appearance. The blobby, curvaceous and colorful computer looked, in Steve Jobs’ words, good enough to lick.
It was a statement computer, both for those who owned it and for those who made it.
However, with the iMac not having had a substantial redesign since 2012, Apple’s all-in-one desktop is getting a bit long in the tooth. It’s time for Apple to give it an overhaul with a new iMac design that would get the world excited about Macs again — and prove Apple remains committed to innovative computing.
A brief history of the iMac design
The first iMac debuted 20 years ago this week. Its unique design perfectly summed up the “think different” mantra that was key to being an Apple fan at the time.
The original iMac looked friendly, making it nonthreatening for newbies shopping for their first internet computer. It looked cool, which made it stand out at a time when most computers were beige boxes.
The iMac’s revolutionary design re-established Steve Jobs as a visionary leader. It also introduced the world to a budding Apple designer named Jony Ive.
This totally approachable computer simply screamed “follow that!” to rivals. And they tried. But few, if any, got close to the iMac’s instant, undeniable appeal.
Still, the iMac G3 wasn’t perfect. It came with a terrible “hockey puck” mouse. And some iMac color options — like “Flower Power” and “Dalmatian Blue” — probably still cause Ive to wake up in a cold sweat. But it also didn’t hang around for long.
The iMac’s early evolution
Technological advances meant that, pretty soon, a bulky CRT computer was no longer cutting-edge. Just four years later, the iMac G4 brought us a thinner screen and a sunflower-inspired design. To this day, the iMac G4 remains my favorite iMac.
Not long after that, the iMac changed again. This time it was made of white plastic so that it resembled a giant iPod. That made perfect sense — at the time, the iPod was Apple’s best-selling product.
Two years after that, in 2007, the iMac went aluminum — and Apple never looked back. Sure, the design went unibody widescreen in 2009 and got a bit slimmer in 2012. But since then, the iMac has only changed in tiny ways. The biggest alterations came when Apple introduced a 5K monitor, and when it went space gray for the premium iMac Pro.
The goal of design
Apple’s forward-looking aluminum iMac design was no doubt brilliantly judged. It’s difficult to imagine a computer made in 1988 still looking modern in 1998, when the iMac G3 debuted. Or a computer from 1997 looking modern in 2007, when the first aluminum iMac shipped. And yet the current iMac design does just that, looking current nearly a decade after its debut.
But is a change due? In my view, absolutely.
Admittedly, part of this comes down to how you perceive design, whether you see design as a constant evolution or a journey with a set end-point. That may sound a bit pretentious, but it’s the difference between a design that constantly changes because, well, that’s what design does and finding an approach that “just works” and saying, “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
I’ve never been as much of a fan of Apple’s aluminum chamfered edges design language as some folks. While it’s definitely more attractive than what you get with most PCs, it lacks the character of some of Apple’s previous machines.
Of all the iMac designs, the current generation’s sleek, but cold, modernity is the one I’ve warmed to the least. Add to that the fact that all Apple products — the Macs, the MacBooks, the iPads, the iPhones — all broadly resemble each other, and you end up with a lack of individuality.
The iMac: A computer and a fashion accessory
Steve Jobs was fond of saying that design isn’t just about how something looks, but how it works. That’s true. However, Jobs also insisted that the insides of his NeXT Computers were painted black, despite the fact nobody would ever get a glimpse at their guts. Apple, meanwhile, built its new Apple Park campus out of giant panes of glass, despite the fact that this immediately resulted in Apple employees injuring themselves walking into them. Clearly, how something looks is at least a bit important to Apple.
It’s certainly important to some of Apple’s customers, too. There will always be the “it’s a computer, not a fashion accessory” crowd. However, Apple showed that you could do both by making computers that work brilliantly and look good.
Right from the start, Apple realized that peddling computers as luxury goods tapped into an irrational part of consumers’ decision-making process. But when can you honestly say you were last blown away by the sight of a new iMac? When did you last feel the excitement of those early years, when Apple constantly modified how the iMac looked and worked?
The truth is that, as beautifully timeless a design as the current iMac is, it’s now very much the “traditional” look for a slick desktop computer. It works, but — visually at least — the iMac design doesn’t wow.
It doesn’t take any risks, and Apple seems unwilling to make even tiny changes. For example, the iMac Pro is Apple’s most expensive computer in a long while, but all Apple was willing to do was to offer a space gray color palette. Is that really the best it can manage?
A next-gen iMac design?
Arguing about this topic with a friend, I faced the accusation that I’m just complaining about the iMac due to its familiarity. Is it possible that, simply by virtue of being the computer of choice for so many people, I’m just overfamiliar with it?
It’s quite possible — although I don’t think that there is anything necessarily wrong with liking the idea of new design purely on aesthetic grounds.
For me, though, the iMac’s lack of change speaks to how Apple perceives it in the pecking order of its product lines. Sure, the iMac Pro addresses some concerns on the part of the Mac community, but there’s no doubting that this is an “also ran” product for Apple these days.
Apple’s stock price may not be quite as reliant on the iPhone anymore, but that’s definitely where the company’s focus is.
Other computer companies are innovating
Other computer-makers, meanwhile, have spotted this lack of focus on Apple’s part, and are trying to capitalize. They’re doing new things. While not all of them work, some of the experimentation proves interesting.
HP’s Envy Curved All-in-One 34 sounds more like a shampoo than a computer, but it’s a stunning machine. Its 34-inch ultrawide curved display looks beautiful and feels immersive, with the user sitting in the perfect sweet spot to enjoy a display that curves around them.
Even more of a major rethink is Microsoft’s 28-inch Surface Studio, which converts from an iMac-style desktop into a touchscreen drafting table for designers. No, it’s not for everyone, but everyone who sees it surely comes away impressed.
A design challenge for Apple
The problem with both of these machines is that they’re Windows PCs, which remains a big turn-off. But they still show a verve, vitality and willingness to push computing forward that Apple no longer seems to possess.
The MacBook’s Touch Bar was something of a half-assed experiment, but it could have been a whole lot more. So where’s the stand-alone Touch Bar keyboard for the iMac? Where are the gestural interfaces Apple has been working on for years, but never debuted? Or how about a Surface Studio-style iMac, which adds a touchscreen display?
I’d love a refreshingly new iMac to sit on my desk. I crave the excitement about Macs that I felt when the first iMac debuted in 1998. But most of all, I want to feel like Apple’s excited about them!