During the 1990s, personal computers were often dull and complicated, lacking the allure of an exciting encounter. Companies like Compaq and IBM dominated the market with their uniform and boxy monitors, keyboards, and modems.
However, in August 1998, a surprising transformation occurred after Steve Jobs, a co-founder of Apple, returned to the struggling company. A groundbreaking new design was introduced, altering our relationship with technology. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the iMac G3 desktops, a line characterized by vibrant jewel tones, egg-like shapes, and a translucent plastic casing that revealed its hardware intricacies.
One of its print advertisements declared, “Chic. Not Geek.” The initial iMac lineup aimed to offer user-friendliness in a time when home computers primarily targeted businesses and tech enthusiasts. The machines were not only easy to use, but visually appealing. In TV commercials, the iMac elegantly revolved, portrayed as an object of desire.
“The iMac G3 was all about the candy colors. It was all about creating desire,” explained Paola Antonelli, senior curator of design and architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which includes the G3 in its permanent collection. “The campaign and packaging were all part of Jobs’ brilliance.”
In our current era, we are accustomed to using our devices to express style and status – be it with prominent desktops, sleek smartphones, or vibrant gaming setups. However, the iMac G3 was arguably the pioneer of fashionable computers, establishing itself as a staple of the late ’90s and Y2K periods, with approximately 6.5 million units sold before its retirement in 2003. It embedded itself in pop culture, appearing in movies such as “Men in Black,” “Mean Girls,” and, notably, “Zoolander” (“The files are IN the computer!”).
Jony Ive, the designer of the iMac, played a significant role in shaping our personal devices during his tenure at Apple, which ended in 2019 when he founded his own design firm. Influenced by Dieter Rams, a German designer who prioritized clarity and simplicity of form, Ive – with input from Jobs – created clean and striking silhouettes.
Ive’s designs for Apple gradually evolved into pristine white plastic computers and then grayscale aluminum, reserving bursts of color for small devices like iPod Minis. However, the iMac G3, followed by its derivatives, the Clamshell iBook laptop and Power Mac G3 tower, reigned as a visual icon of ’90s technology, a period that saw everything from gaming consoles to point-and-shoot cameras adopt vivid hues.
“(Apple) recognized the importance of fashion, design, and aesthetics at a time when the industry largely overlooked these aspects,” noted Leander Kahney, editor and publisher of the Cult of Mac blog. “The funny thing is, I think (the G3) looks really dated today – it’s like, ‘Oh my God, look at that late ’90s computer.”
(Despite this, when asked if he owned one, Kahney responded enthusiastically, “Oh hell yeah” – a 1999 Blueberry edition.)
Yet, the iconic iMac G3 design was almost not realized.
Although Apple had a triumph with the original Macintosh computer’s launch in 1984, it faced setbacks with other failures – such as the $10,000 Lisa computer – and struggled to compete against IBM’s dominance in the ’90s. Jobs had been ousted from the company he co-founded in 1985 due to conflicts with then-CEO John Sculley and only returned over a decade later, having founded the startup NeXT in the interim.
Upon his return in 1997, initially as a temporary CEO, Jobs embarked on a long battle to reshape Apple’s corporate culture. Kahney, a biographer of both Jobs and Ive, stated that they transformed the company from being “engineering- and marketing-driven” to being “design-driven.”
Internally, the iMac was codenamed “Columbus,” signifying the start of a new era. However, as Kahney wrote in his biography of Ive, Jobs initially rejected the egg-shaped model. Over time, he grew fond of its playfulness, and Ive persisted in designing the transparent exterior to make the computer inviting to consumers, even incorporating a handle on top (later also seen in the much lighter iBook laptop).
“The handle was there ostensibly to allow you to lift it and move it around… even though the thing weighed 40 pounds – no one was going to lift an iMac,” Kahney noted. “However, the handle gave people permission to touch the machine. It was a stroke of genius… Ive’s designs are always very tactile, designed to be held and touched.”
Jobs’ commitment to simplicity led to some risky decisions, such as eliminating the floppy drive and opting for USB connections, a burgeoning technology at the time, over other standard ports.
Yet, one of the most crucial aspects of its simplicity contributed to its success: easy Internet access (thus the ‘i’ in iMac). As one of its iconic commercials promised: “Step one: Plug in. Step two: Get connected. Step three: There is no step three.” The iMac came equipped with everything necessary for computer use and online connectivity, including an internal modem, stereo speakers, a mouse, and a keyboard.
Jens Muller, the author of the book “The Computer,” which traces the visual evolution of computing technology, explained that other computers during that time required users to make a laundry list of decisions. He noted that the timing was impeccable when the Internet gained popularity among end consumers in the latter half of the 1990s. The iMac emerged as a ready-to-use computer that also provided Internet access. Muller pointed out, “Apple simplified it to just one choice: Choose a color.”
Following the initial announcement of the iMac in May 1998, anticipation grew. Apple’s stock price surged prior to the iMac’s launch, and even critiques about the absence of a floppy drive and its $1,299 price tag (equivalent to roughly $2,400 today) couldn’t halt the momentum.
With a $100 million budget allocated solely for iMac marketing, the influential campaigns from that era remain firmly etched in collective memory. A year prior to the iMac’s debut, “Think Different” was introduced as a powerful response to IBM’s slogan “Think,” celebrating historical mavericks to enhance the allure of the Apple brand. Subsequently, a wave of ads highlighting the iMac’s elegance and simplicity flooded the scene. Paola Antonelli of MoMA particularly emphasizes the impact of a “beautiful” ad that showcased the computers from above, arranged like flower petals, positioning the iMac as a remedy for the mundane world of PCs.
Antonelli elucidates that the “magic” of Apple products has consistently revolved around persuading consumers that it’s worthwhile to pay more for that level of quality. She clarifies, “Not just quality, but that kind of interaction design.”
Antonelli, who has extensively explored the realm of communication with technology, underscores the idea of companionship with objects. In the digital age, our relationship with objects has evolved to encompass more of a dialogue or companionship, rather than mere presence. She attributes the introduction of this concept of companionship with objects to Apple.
The release of Apple’s first Macintosh computer in 1984, resembling a simple box reminiscent of a robot’s head, initiated a sense of having a pet-like companion at home. With the advent of the initial iMacs, Apple created a “delightful and cuddly shape,” drawing comparisons to the beloved and personable “Star Wars” droid R2-D2. Subsequently, the company introduced a new, palm-sized musical companion, setting the stage for an era in which its products consistently fostered a close connection with users.
Although the visual aesthetics of the iMac G3 may have faded over the years – today’s iMacs have more in common with the sleek G4 – its legacy of vibrant colors has resurfaced in iPhones and iMacs, albeit in pastel shades rather than fruit-inspired hues, as seen in 2021. While rumors of colorful MacBook Airs circulated last year, they have yet to materialize. Nonetheless, with Y2K aesthetics making a comeback, younger generations embracing vintage tech, and new product lines beginning to feel repetitive, it might be the perfect time for the delightful uniqueness of the G3 to once again spark inspiration.