20 years ago, the iMac changed the world

Sunday is the birthday for the first major consumer product of the second Steve Jobs era, one which changed the trajectory of Apple forever.

On May 6, 1998 —20 years ago Sunday —Steve Jobs unveiled the first iMac. The introduction took place at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, ahead of the product’s release that August. The release came the week before that year’s Worldwide Developers Conference.

“Today, I’m incredibly pleased to introduce iMac, our consumer product,” Jobs said on stage that day. “iMac comes from the marriage of the excitement of the Internet with the simplicity of Macintosh. Even though this is a full-blooded Macintosh, we are targeting this for the #1 use consumers tell us they want a computer for, which is to get on the Internet, simply and fast.” Jobs went on to tout the product, which was released right before the start of the following school year, to the education market.

“We think iMac’s gonna be a really big deal”

In the presentation, Jobs compared the iMac to the other computer products on the market at the time, which he derided as slow, with “crummy displays,” and a lack of networking. “And,” he said, “these things are ug-ly.” Referring to the iMac, Jobs went on to state that “the back of this thing looks better than the front of the other guys’.”

Jobs even brought out Phil Schiller for a “showdown” between the iMac and the “hot new Compaq Presario 4540,” which the Apple product won decisively.

Selling the iMac

The connectivity, ease of use, and look at the product were the subject of a series of TV commercials for the product, starring actor Jeff Goldblum:

The first iMac was priced at $1,299. It sported a G3 233-MHz processor, a 15-inch display and- perhaps most significantly- a colorful, curvy, translucent, all-in-one look that was hugely unconventional at the time. It was the first major project for Jony Ive, after he became Senior Vice President of Industrial Design in 1997.

“This one is incredibly sweet. This $1,299 product is faster than the fastest Pentium II you can buy. The market’s never had a consumer computer this powerful and cool-looking,” Jobs said in an interview the week of the launch with Lou Dobbs of the financial news network CNNFN. “We have been working hard on fashion, which is very important in the consumer market.”

That sales job worked. The iMac was the best-selling computer of the 1998 holiday season.

Jobs also said in that Dobbs interview that “Apple will be working on strengthening its brand name,” and compared Apple to Nike, Disney and Sony. And it appears to have worked: In 2017, Interbrand named Apple the year’s most valuable brand, for the fifth year in a row.

Moving forward

The iMac design changed various times in the ensuing years. In 1999, Apple began offering the iMac in different colors. The G4 arrived in 2002, with a unique “dome” design, with the G3 discontinued that year.

The G5 followed in 2004 with yet another form factor —a single slab with a chin.

The next big change to the line came with the arrival of the first Intel-based iMacs in 2006 that retained the form of the iMac G5. The first aluminum iMacs hit the market in 2007.

To this day, the name “iMac” is used by Apple for its thin, unibody desktop computers. The most recent innovations in the line have included the 5k iMac, which debuted in 2014, and the iMac Pro, which arrived last December.

At the movies

The keynote at which the iMac was introduced was dramatized in the 2015 movie “Steve Jobs,” written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Danny Boyle, and adapted from Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Jobs.

However, that scene, like most of that film, took a significant amount of dramatic license, as enumerated at the time by Fast Company: Jobs did not reconcile with his daughter Lisa on the day of the iMac launch, nor did he get into a shouting match that day with Steve Wozniak, nor was Jobs a “multi-billionaire” as of 1998.

The Significance of the iMac

The iMac was, in many ways, the logical evolution of the original compact Macintosh that arrived in 1984. While somewhat radical in its design, the iMac represented something of a step forward design-wise.

In between, Apple had tried quite a few all-in-one Mac computers during Jobs’ years away, including the 500 Series Performa line, and the ill-fated Macintosh TV. But the company wouldn’t put it all together until the arrival of the iMac.

The iMac’s introduction is an important moment in Apple history. It came a year after Jobs returned to Apple following the company’s purchase of his company NeXT; at the time of the keynote he was still interim CEO. The computer’s success helped reverse of a decade of struggles for the company, leading into the the company’s huge run of growth after the turn of the millennium.

It also helped set a template for a long run of products, designed by Ive’s team, that caught the eye with beautiful design. Apple touted the intro event as “Back on Track,” and it certainly was, even though it would take several years for Apple to return to major profitability.

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