In 2023, Apple is at the top of the world. Sometimes ranked as the most valuable company out there, its influence in technology and media – and even some realms beyond – surpasses almost every other single company. But it wasn’t always that way, and much of where the company is today can be attributed to a product released 25 years ago: the original iMac.
I vividly remember the first time I saw a picture of that machine: Sitting in my high school library just a few days before graduation, I leafed through my copy of this publication (in classic dead-tree format) , the cover story about this weird new computer that, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, would set the course for Apple for years to come.
As an ardent Apple fan in the darkest period of the 1990s, it was hard to deny that the iMac generated excitement. Here was something new, something different from everything else on the market, something that perfectly illustrated the company’s then-newly adopted slogan, which, though only a few years in use, became its most iconic motto: Think Different.
Add a little color
On the surface, the original iMac was a rebuttal to the PC market as it was in the late 1990s: unapologetically colorful in a sea of beige, sans legacy connections, with an undeniably playful spirit. The iMac made a statement that computers didn’t have to be boring.
In doing so, it echoed the announcement of the original Macintosh in 1984, up to its May 6, 1998 unveiling by recently returned Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
As much as it was mocked for being a substandard toy, the iMac’s influence on the industry was undeniable. When I left for college that fall, you didn’t have to look far to find a freshman wearing one of the many new PCs with little colorful plastic accent pieces—almost always in blue.
Likewise, the iMac ushered in the era of USB, a new protocol that was just gaining a foothold at the time. Gone were Apple’s legacy serial and Apple Desktop Bus ports, replaced by this strange new rectangular connector that would become as ubiquitous as a standard electrical outlet in the next two decades. And while the iMac may not have single-handedly brought about that adoption, there’s no question that it accelerated the process and transformed the computing industry in the process.
What goes around
While the development of the computer market has clearly shifted in favor of laptops over the past decade, the iMac has remained Apple’s standard bearer in many ways. It’s the only name of the Mac model that has remained unchanged since the company’s resurgence under Jobs, and while it itself has evolved in that time, the product’s core identity, as a powerful yet easy-to-use all-in-one desktop, has remained unchanged.
Outwardly, of course, there were many changes. The iMac went from a colorful gumdrop-shaped desktop to a floating flat screen, from plastic to polycarbonate to aluminum, and while there was a long journey through the land of monochromatic white and silver (except for a brief flirtation with black in one off iMac Pro) – the current M1 iMac has finally returned the device to its roots as a whimsical, colorful machine. (And it makes me smile to see that the default color depicted on the product’s tech spec page is, yes, blue.)
Likewise, while those original USB ports gave way in the mid-to-late 2000s to a host of different options (FireWire in various flavors, video output, audio input), connectivity has also been pared down to the bare essentials recently, with only the latest flavor of USB on the base models. The product has come full circle in some ways, the purest distillation of the iMac identity since that original version. Heck, the M1 iMac even starts at $1299 – the exact same price point as its predecessor a quarter of a century ago.
The iMac goes on forever?
But in a world where most people prefer laptops to desktops, and rely far more on mobile devices such as tablets or smartphones, where does the future of the venerable iMac lie?
For example, I’m not ready to calculate it yet; the fact that not only did the iMac make it through a major operating system transition, but two changes in the architecture of the processor clearly cement it as a survivor, in it for the long haul.
Will a future tech product like a headset eventually knock the iMac off its pedestal? Maybe. After all, nothing lasts forever. But Apple has offered desktop Macs continuously since the product line debuted nearly 40 years ago, and while they may be less common than ever, they’re hardly antiques anymore. As long as it stays that way, I foresee the iMac sticking around, quietly enjoying the fruits of the world it’s rebuilt.