Steve Jobs reignited interest in technology 24 years ago

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In 1998, the first iMac was unlike any other computer on the market.

image credits: busniessinsider

Tech may be seductive, thanks in large part to Steve Jobs and the iMac, which was introduced 24 years ago this week.

In 1998, your alternatives for home and workplace computing were becoming increasingly limited. The personal computing landscape was dominated by so-called white-box PCs. They were always white or beige rectangles with many replaceable storage slots, a grill to allow air to circulate around the enormous motherboards, and massive CRT monitors sitting on top. The keyboard and mouse were rote attempts that accomplished the task.

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The iMac’s unique design was born out of a desperate need to not just shake things up in a drab industry, but also to save Apple from extinction.

Steve Jobs returned to Apple a year or so before the first iMac was shown. According to Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, the idea was to produce “a complete package that includes a keyboard, monitor, and computer that is ready to use right out of the box It needed to be different and make a brand statement.”

The iMac achieved all of this and more with its curving, no-sharp-corners design, candy-colored translucent back, forward-facing stereo speakers, compact keyboard, and perfectly round mouse.

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While practically any brand computer in the Windows PC market could be identified out of a lineup in 1998, the iMac could not be mistaken for anything other than an Apple device.

The iMac was more than just a unique product; it was a declaration of intent. Apple would Think Different, as it had nearly fifteen years earlier, eschewing the familiar and comfortable in favour of the intriguing, eye-catching, and unique.

To Apple’s credit, the initial iMac wasn’t just a pretty box; Apple also took chances with the components. It had a PowerPC processor (built in collaboration with IBM and Motorola), but no floppy drive. A 3.5-inch floppy drive was standard on every desktop PC (and many laptops) at the time. Apple got rid of it and replaced it with a CD-ROM drive. The iMac was the first Apple product to feature the still-relatively-new USB port (no previous Mac had one).

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Apple also pushed the boundaries of connectivity with the introduction of the 56K V.90 modem, a connectivity option so novel that many ISPs were hesitant to connect to it. The iMac even had a handle to help you carry the fairly hefty computer around, a homage to the original Macintosh.

Jobs intended the new iMac to be a consumer device (it came in five distinct candy-colored variants, another first in the PC industry). However, sales were quick, and I recall seeing them all over offices in 1999. In fact, a design team with whom I worked at the time insisted on only receiving new iMacs.

Few items had ever turned on a generation of technology users like the iMac. It gave us permission to be enthralled not only by what technology could accomplish, but also by how it might look and feel. Apple, unlike most of its competitors, was quick to get the message.

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Apple would go on to release one classic product and design after another in the years to come. We’d see echoes of the iMac’s inspiration in the iBook, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Not all of the items resembled the iMac. They didn’t succeed. In reality, the following iMac, which had an LCD panel, didn’t look anything like the first, but the DNA of that approach, of putting emotion-eliciting design first, was obvious.

Apple backed off letting form to completely override function. Apple’s current designs are distinguished by their simplicity and elegance. Where the original iMac was criticised for its excessive design, a Mac Studio might be argued to have almost no design.

However, this is not the case. Every Apple product, in my opinion, is still meant to provoke a response, similar to a car driving down the road. You can’t touch it as it whizzes by at 70 miles per hour, but you saw it, remember it, and have an opinion on it.

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Our laptops would still be ugly, boxy extensions of their desktop counterparts if not for the original iMac. Square edges are possible on tablets. Instead of smooth, glossy slabs, our phones may appear to be more like phones.

Every piece of technology we use is inspired by the first consumer electronics design to break the mould since the introduction of the Mac. Few seemed to learn from that 1984 product, but by 1998, the industry had gotten the message, and nothing has been the same since.

Although it has the same nostalgic appeal, our iMac (24-inch) review is worth reading.

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