‘A real stroke of genius.’ How Apple’s iMac G3 became an object of desire

Beige, boring and a bit too complicated — in the 1990s, personal computers had about as much charisma as an underwhelming date. Compaq and IBM dominated the market, churning out homogenous boxy monitors, keyboards and modems.

But, out of the (Bondi) blue in August 1998, soon after its cofounder Steve Jobs had returned to a company in crisis, Apple introduced a bold new design that drastically shifted our relationship with technology. Twenty-five years ago today, the unusual jewel-toned line of iMac G3 desktops came onto the tech scene; shaped like an egg and with a 15-inch CRT display, the intricacies of its hardware visible beneath a translucent plastic shell.

“Chic. Not Geek,” one of its print ads proclaimed. Not only was the first line of iMacs meant to be easy to use at a time when home computers were still largely marketed to businesses and tech enthusiasts, the computers were easy on the eyes, too. In television commercials, the iMac slowly spun around — presented as an object to be objectified.

Feb. 19, 1999 - Cupertino, California, U.S. - Apple founder and current chief STEVE JOBS, cross legged and smiling as he holds the iMac that has become the hottest-selling computer on the market. The computer now comes in five fruit-inspired colors including blueberry and strawberry. Shown is the original Bondi Blue color.

Steve Jobs with the iMac G3 in 1999, following the release of the computer in five new colors. 

“It was the first machine that was pitched to ordinary people, ordinary consumers, to put in their homes,” said Leander Kahney, editor and publisher of the blog Cult of Mac. “And it looked like something from outer space, from ‘The Jetsons’… Very futuristic, very exciting design.”

“The iMac G3 was all about the candy colors. It was all about having this desire,” explained Paola Antonelli, senior curator of design and architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which has the G3 in its permanent collection. “You would not get disappointed when you got the object. From the campaign to the packaging, that was Jobs’ genius.”

Today, we’re well accustomed to signaling style and status with our devices. Centerpiece desktops; luminescent, ever-thinner smart phones; technicolor gaming setups. But the iMac G3 was arguably the first fashionable computer, becoming a late ’90s and Y2K staple, with around 6.5 million units sold before it was retired in 2003. It became entrenched in pop culture, with cameos in movies like “Men in Black,” “Mean Girls,” and, of course, a supporting role in “Zoolander.” (“The files are IN the computer!”)

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Mean Girls,  Tina Fey,  Lindsay Lohan
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The iMac G3 became a fixture in ’90s and ’00s visual culture, including an appearance in “Mean Girls” in 2004, the year after it was discontinued. 

The iMac’s designer, Jony Ive, was a key figure in the curation of our personal devices during his tenure at Apple, which he left in 2019 to start his own design firm. Influenced by Dieter Rams, the German designer who prized clarity and simplicity of form, Ive — with input from Jobs — developed clean, striking silhouettes.

Ive’s designs for Apple later evolved to spotless white plastic computers, then grayscale aluminum, leaving bursts of color to small devices like iPod Minis. But the iMac G3 — followed by its offshoots, the Clamshell iBook laptop and Power Mac G3 tower — ruled as a visual icon of ’90s tech, which saw everything from gaming consoles to point-and-shoot cameras become vividly hued exhibitionists.

“(Apple) recognized that fashion and design and aesthetics were some of the most important factors when the whole industry was ignoring those things,” Kahney said. “The funny thing is, I think (the G3) looks really dated today — it’s like, ‘Oh my God, look at that late ’90s computer.”

(Still, when asked if he owned one, Kahney replied enthusiastically, “Oh hell yeah” — a Blueberry edition from 1999.)

Playful new designs

The iMac G3 as we know it, however, nearly wasn’t made.

Though Apple had been buoyed by the release of the original Macintosh computer in 1984, it was hindered by other flops — like the $10,000 Lisa computer — and was barely cracking at behemoth IBM’s market share into the ’90s. Jobs was ousted from the company he co-founded in 1985 over boardroom drama with then-CEO John Sculley, and didn’t return for over a decade, launching the startup NeXT in the interim.

When he came back to lead in 1997, at first as a temporary CEO, “it was the beginning of a long battle at Apple to change the culture of the company,” said Kahney, who has authored biographies on both Jobs and Ive. They took it from “an engineering- and marketing-driven company… to a design-driven company.”

The iMac was originally code-named “Columbus” internally, because it was the start of a new world, according to Kahney. Still, as he wrote in his biography on Ive, Jobs at first rejected the egg-shaped model. But he warmed to its playfulness over time, and Ive continued down the path, designing its see-through exterior to make it feel accessible to consumers, as well as adding a handle on top (a detail later carried through for the much-lighter iBook laptop).

“The handle was ostensibly so that you could pick it up and carry it around… the thing weighed 40 pounds — no one was picking up an iMac,” Kahney said. “But the handle gave people permission to touch the machine. And it was a real stroke of genius… (Ive’s) designs are all very tactile. They’re designed to be held and touched.”

Jobs’ decisions in the name of simplicity included some gambles in the machine’s specs, from controversially ditching a floppy drive to relying on USB connections — then a nascent technology — over other standard ports.

apple g3 imac factbox

But one of its biggest simplifications was key to its success: the ease of Internet access (hence the ‘i’ in the name iMac). As another of its famous commercials promised: “Step one: Plug in. Step two: Get connected. Step three: There is no step three.” The iMac came with everything a user needed to use the computer and get online, including an internal modem and stereo speakers, as well as a mouse and keyboard.

Other computers required a laundry list of choices, according to Jens Muller, author of the book “The Computer,” which traces a visual history of computing technology.

“When the Internet became popular and widely available for end consumers in the second half of the ’90s, it was just perfect timing. It was a ready-to-use-computer, and it came with the Internet,” he said. “Apple brought it down to one decision: Pick a color.”

Unexpected companionship

After the iMac was first announced in May 1998, excitement mounted. Apple’s stock soared just ahead of the iMac’s release, and not even critical reviews about the lack of a floppy drive and its $1,299 price tag (roughly $2,400 today) halted momentum.

Having budgeted $100 million just to market the iMac, the company’s influential campaigns of the era are burned into collective memory. Launched a year before the iMac’s debut, “Think Different,” a potent response to IBM’s tagline “Think,” celebrated renegade figures of history to drum up the appeal of the Apple brand. Then came the wave of ads celebrating the iMac’s elegance and ease — the MoMA’s Paola Antonelli draws attention in particular to one of the “beautiful” ads showing the computers from above, arranged like flower petals — positioning it as the panacea for the drab world of PCs.

FILE - This March 19, 1999 file photo shows Jonathan Ive, left, Apple Computer's vice president of design, and Jon Rubinstein, Apple's senior vice president of engineering, posing behind five iMac personal computers at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. On Thursday, June 27, 2019, Apple said that Ive, chief design officer, will be leaving after more than two decades at the company to start his own firm. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan, file)

Jony Ive and Jon Rubinstein, who led design and engineering, respectively, at Apple, in a March 1999 portrait. The iMac G3 was a monumental example of the “clear craze” that made tech transparent. 

The “magic” of Apple products, according to Antonelli, has always been “convincing you that it was worth it to pay more to get that type of quality. But not only quality, that type of interaction design,” she explained.

How we communicate with our technology is a topic Antonelli has long explored, particularly through the 2011 MoMA exhibition “Talk to Me,” which explored our evolving personal relationship with tech, and how devices like computers can cultivate emotional connections with their owners.

“In the digital age, we’ve always had a rapport with objects… we’ve come to also expect more of a dialogue or more of a companionship, rather than just a presence,” Antonelli said. “That idea of companionship with objects was (introduced) by Apple.”

Evan Knapp (L) and Morgan McGovern (R) play at children's iMac workstations at the first Apple retail store at Tyson's Corner Mall in McLean, Virginai, May 15, 2001, during an announcement ceremony. [Earlier, Apple CEO Steve Jobs] announced the opening of Apple's first retail store during a news conference. [Jobs said that Apple hopes to eventually open 25 retail stores in the U.S. and that the first two stores will open this weekend. ]

Ive’s futuristic design for the iMac G3 was also meant to be accessible and tactile, welcoming in a new generation of computer-users. 

When Apple released its first Macintosh computer — a simple box that evoked a robot’s head — in 1984, “it was almost like a pet that you could have at home,” she explained. With the introduction of the first iMacs, Apple had created “a delightful and cuddly shape” — drawing comparisons in the press at the time to the beloved and personable “Star Wars” droid R2-D2. And three years later, the company rolled out a new, palm-sized musical friend, starting an era in which its products have never been far from reach.

Though, over the years, the visual language of the iMac G3 may have faded — today’s iMacs are closer descendants of the long-necked, streamlined G4 — its legacy of vibrant colors have resurfaced in iPhones and iMacs, the latter in pastels, rather than fruit hues, in 2021. Rumors of colorful MacBook Airs also circulated last year, but have, as yet, failed to materialize. Still, with Y2K aesthetics back in the mix, younger generations becoming devotees of vintage tech, and new product lines feeling, well, repetitive, perhaps it’s time for the wonderful weirdness of the G3 to inspire once again.https://nutriapel.com

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