The iMac Turns Three

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Not many three-year-olds can claim to have won critical acclaim, to have helped revive a company's fiscal outlook, and to have ushered in a new era of design. Then again, the iMac isn't like many other three-year-olds.

The iMac celebrated its third birthday on August 15. Since the translucent, multicolored computer debuted as a 233MHz Bondi blue machine in 1998, Apple has sold more than five million of them.

How important has the iMac been to Apple's fortunes? Consider the state of the company leading up to the iMac launch: Apple had just scrapped development of the Newton; Steve Jobs was serving as CEO on an interim basis after Gil Ameilio's ouster the previous summer; and while the company's financial picture was beginning to improve, Apple was still coming off a 1997 fiscal year in which it lost $1 billion and saw sales tumble 28 percent to $7.1 billion. Some pundits even wondered whether Apple was not long for this world.

It would be overly simplistic and inaccurate to say that the iMac single-handedly turned things around for Apple. But it certainly did its part -- consumers bought 278,000 iMacs in the computer's first six weeks of availability. Even as recently as the three-month period ended June 30, 2001, Apple sold 306,000 iMacs -- more than any other computer in its product line.

As early as its the May 6, 1998, unveiling, the iMac was seen as a major milestone in Apple's history. (The August 15 "birthday" marks the date the computer first became available to consumers.) While many observers marveled at the iMac's translucent, curved casing, Macworld 's Andy Gore looked beneath the surface and hailed the iMac as a technological wonder -- a machine that offered IrDA-compliant infrared networking, 100BaseT Ethernet, a built-in modem, and a G3 processor. What's more, the new computer also was the first Mac to support USB; it ditched the standard serial, SCSI, and ADB ports. Initial reviews of the iMac were glowing. While the iMac was knocked for its lack of expandability, the computer won overall raves for delivering solid performance at a low $1,299 price tag.

Apple soon broadened its iMac offerings, adding a rainbow of colors. The iMac's bold appearance even began to influence the look and feel of other Apple hardware. But, in a pattern that would repeat itself with future upgrades, the iMac's design got most of the attention while the real advances were being made under its hood.

Apple continued to boost processor speeds and add new models. But the iMac's greatest feature, and perhaps the one thing most responsible for its success, has remained unchanged since the day Apple first introduced the computer -- its simplicity.

"Simplicity has more than emotional payoffs," wrote David Pogue ( Desktop Critic , February 1999). "It also confers terrific technological benefits. The iMac has no SCSI jack -- iMac owners will never have to experience the headaches of termination, SCSI IDs, and cable math. (Indeed, no cables at all snake out from behind the machine -- the phone and keyboard cables are the only ones that protrude, and they come out of the much more accessible side of the iMac. Why did it take the computer industry 20 years to think of that?)"

Few of Apple's competitors fully understood that. They saw the colorful iMac being snapped up by shoppers and figured the distinctive design was the reason. How else to explain the spate of iMac look-alikes that flooded the PC market in 1999? So successful was the iMac's look that it was soon being imitated by alarm clocks, coffee makers, and even grills. But nothing could really match the iMac for ease of use. Even 3Com's attempt at making an iMac-like Internet device dubbed Audrey failed to match the iMac's triple offering of simplicity, functionality, and affordability.

Apple has suffered a few missteps along the way with the iMac. The July 2000 upgrades introduced four configurations and five colors. The additional models made it possible to buy eight brand-new iMacs without ever getting the same one twice -- and made the product line needlessly confusing. The February 2001 models added CD-RW drives and the distinctive Blue Dalmatian and Flower Power designs. But the evidence suggests that as many users found the new look jarring as those who considered it eye-catching; Apple dropped Blue Dalmatian and Flower Power in July 2001, less than six months after the colors were introduced.

Even the most-recent update, which introduced the fastest iMac yet at 700MHz, caused some grumbling among Mac fanatics who expected a revolutionary new iMac design to debut at Macworld Expo New York. Still, it's hard to find fault with any product line reshuffling that gives you a 500MHz machine for less than $1,000 and a 600MHz, 256MB iMac for the same price as the 233MHz, 32MB original.

You won't find many three-year-olds who've undergone that dramatic a growth spurt.

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