Mac to the future: Apple’s new designs embrace the past like never before


Apple's going back to the past.
Photo: ColorWare

Something weird is brewing in Apple land. The company, which for years wasn’t big on embracing its past, has gone retro.

While the innovations — ranging from the first 5G iPhones to the exciting new Macs powered by Apple’s proprietary processors — keep coming, Cupertino is reportedly revisiting some of its past designs for its next generation of products.

And you know what? I like it.

Late last year, an iMore post about the iPhone 12 referred to the “retro future of Apple design.” Writer Rene Ritchie was commenting, as plenty of people were at the time, about how Apple’s latest smartphone lineup took a (welcome) step back through time by embracing some design elements of the iPhone 4 and 5.

The iPhone 5's square edges clearly influenced the iPhone 12 lineup.
The iPhone 5’s square edges clearly influenced the iPhone 12 lineup.
Photo: Apple

A trip down memory lane

Specifically, Apple ditched the curved edges that graced every iPhone since 2014’s iPhone 6, reverting to the squared-off edges of previous devices. That was perfectly OK with me: The iPhone 5 remains probably my favorite iPhone design in history. By borrowing (you can’t exactly steal your own designs) some of that classic phone’s design elements, and then offering some truly up-to-date tech in the form of all-display OLED screens, 5G, and A14 chips, Apple merged old and new in a compelling package.

But that’s not the end of Apple’s newfound willingness to reference what worked in the past. Apple’s next MacBook Pro apparently will take a backward leap to move forward. Rumors indicate the laptop will revive the beloved MagSafe charger. And it reportedly will restore ports like HDMI and an SD card reader that disappeared half a decade ago.

Also with this year’s update, Apple reportedly will get rid of the Touch Bar, which never really caught on. And the company already eliminated the hated butterfly keyboard, which seemingly existed only to shave millimeters off the thickness of MacBooks.

In other words, Apple apparently will reverse course on many of the changes made to the MacBook lineup since 2016.

Then, on Wednesday, we heard another indication that this new retro nostalgia is simmering in Apple’s design department. The long-awaited redesign of the iMac supposedly will bring back color options for the desktop computer for the first time since the iMac G3 in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, Apple is said to be working on a “Mac Pro mini” that will borrow its design from the Power Mac G4 Cube. That beautiful bit of industrial design from 2000 suffered from engineering failures and failed to catch on with a generally indifferent public. In the near future, Apple could make good on that score with a small, powerful Mac built in its image.

Apple's next-gen iMac could bring a nod to the 1998 iMac G3
Apple’s next-gen iMac could bring a nod to 1998’s iMac G3.
Photo: Jon Prosser/FrontPageTech

What’s causing all this?

What’s leading this turn to the retro on Apple’s part? It’s hard to know exactly. Certainly, Apple CEO Tim Cook seems more prone to celebrate the company’s history than his predecessor, Steve Jobs. But Cook has been running Apple for a decade, and this trend is recent.

More likely, we are now firmly in the post-Jony Ive era at Apple. The former design chief’s obsession with making products ever thinner and closer to some Platonic ideal of minimalism marked the second half of his tenure at Apple. But Ive left Apple in 2019.

Today, the two people most responsible for Apple design are Evans Hankey, Apple’s first female VP of industrial design, and Alan Dye, its VP of human interface design.

It’s still too early to get a sense of exactly what their vision for Apple industrial design will be. But if it means a slightly more fun, joyful direction for Apple design, I’m all for it. Is there anything more joy-inducing than the satisfying snap of a MagSafe charger attaching to a vintage Mac?

Nostalgia sells in music, movies and just about every other medium going. Why can’t it help to sell phones and computers, too? So long as it’s balanced with genuine innovation, that sounds like the perfect blend. Heck, maybe Apple execs could bring back the rainbow logo while they’re at it!

What do you think?

What do you think of Apple’s newfound journey into retro design? Are there any past Apple design flourishes or features you’d like the company to bring back? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.


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