A Quarter Century Of The IMac

Growing older as an engineer turns out to be a succession of moments in which technologies and devices which you somehow still imagine to be cool or exciting, reveal themselves in fact to be obsolete, indeed, old. Such a moment comes today, with the25th anniversary of the most iconic of 1990s computers, Apple’s iMac. The translucent all-in-one machine was and remains more than simply yet another shiny Mac, it’s probably the single most influential home computer ever. A bold statement to be sure, but take a look at the computer you’re reading this on, indeed at all your electronic devices here in 2023, before you dismiss it.

Any colour you want, as long as it's beige
Any colour you want, as long as it’s beige. Leon Brooks, Public domain.

Computers in the 1990s were beige and boring. Breathtakingly so, a festival of the generic. If you had a PC it came in the same beige box as every single other PC, the only thing breaking the monotony being one of those LED 7-segment fake-MHz displays. Apple computers took the beige and ran with it, their PowerMac range being merely a smoother-fronted version of all those beige-box PCs. This was the period following the departure of Steve Jobs during which the company famously lost its way, and the Bondi blue Jonny Ive-designed iMac was the signature product of his triumphant return.

That’s enough pretending to have drunk the Apple Kool-Aid for one article, so  why are we marking this anniversary? The answer lies not in the iMac’s hardware, though its 233MHz PowerPC G3 and ATI graphics driving a 15″ CRT were no slouch for the day, nor even in its forsaking of all their previous proprietary interfaces for USB. Instead it’s the design influence of this machine, as it ushered in a new era of technological devices whose ethos lay around how they might be used rather than in simply showering the interface with features. At the time the iMac spawned a brief fashion for translucent blue in everything from peripherals to steam irons, but in the quarter century since your devices have changed immeasurably in its wake. We still don’t like that weird round mouse though.

Header image: Rama, CC BY-SA 4.0.

39 thoughts on “A Quarter Century Of The IMac

  1. I miss boring PCs.

    Boring size/shape means parts are physically replaceable, swapable and re-usable.

    One boring color means you can throw any-old parts you can get your hands on without looking like Dr. Frankenstein’s laptop. Even just the two-color black/beige choice is a PITA when you have one of that missing peripheral you need but it’s the opposite color. You don’t want to waste money on something so shallow but also want that PC full of parts you spent your money on, worked to get going together to look good as a representation of your quality as the builder.

    Sure… you can still buy a beige box and the parts that go with it. But the pieces lying in closets are more likely to be miniaturized, non-matching colors. If anyone even bothers stuffing their old stuff in a closet rather than a landfill anymore.

    1. Not wrong, but it’s not as if there was no case-modding in the 90s.
      It already happend in the 80s, with kids spraying their C64s and Amigas (thinking of A500).

      I do also remember old PC magazines from before 1995 having contests which involved winning “special editions” of certain PC models.
      At least one featured an airbrushed PC, too.

      1. I had a DEC LA-36 I picked up for 50 bucks. Case was beige with nicotine stains. I cleaned it and spray painted it silver/gray to match my TRS-80 Mod I. (A new 80-column dot matrix printer from Radio shack was nearly $2000 bucks at that time, if I remember correctly.)

  2. “Computers in the 1990s were beige and boring.”
    In the USA, I assume. Here in little Germany we had those black Escom PCs, ca. 1994. And then there were those PCs in Colani design that were either being loved or hated (there was no in-between). 😂

    1. Yeah, my family’s first PC had a black case and we purchased it in 1991. The whole thing was black, actually, until we had to replace that damn mouse.

      I think people forget that Apple introduced the beige case, and was heralded as an innovator for doing so.

  3. I concur. That mouse was awful.

    I don’t recall the company but someone made a clip on attachment to make that mouse have a normal shape and made it livable. Whoever designed ‘that’ needs more recognition than Johnny Ives for that #%@#$ mouse (IMHO)

    1. Apple had a bunch of well known geniuses over seeing everything, but crap always slipped through. Almost like they are a normal company that doesn’t really make perfect products. Most of my problems have been with the operating system over the years.

      1. “Most of my problems have been with the operating system over the years.”

        That’s interesting, because macOS is the only part that still interests me.
        As a tinkerer, I’m fine with clobbering together the hardware I use. But the software is the problem.

        Mac OS used to be the only popular alternative to people who weren’t happy in Windows world or Linux world.

        Partly, because it’s an in-between of them both.
        Mac OS X uses Unix as a foundation and supports X11, while simultaneously supporting pre-compiled applications.

        Mac OS even has support for multiple binary code in the application format/container.

        There were FAT Binaries and Universal Binaries. In the past, a single file could contain M68k code and PPC code (OS9 and before). Or PPC code and x86/intel code (OS X). Or x86 and x64 (OS X Tiger and up) etc.

        It was also possible to have Carbon applications, which could run modified under both OS 8/9 and X..

        In short, it wasn’t needed to compile everything from scratch every time, users could use commercial binary applications without being annoyed. Users didn’t require to constantly compile their own Linux kernel, either.

        Of course, things changed over time. The system got more and more restricted. System extensions can no longer be installed they traditional way.

        Programs not originating from the package manager, err, app store, must be manually allowed. Then, 32-Bit support was removed. Old Rosetta was removed from 10.7 onwards (PPC support) et cetera pp. 😔

        And that’s not all, even. The recent versions scan the private folders for certain things, like pictures. Pity those who have naively have stored their old family photos on the drive.

        1. My biggest gripe with the OS is all the undocumented changes they make. In my previous job we used Mac’s and had them joined to a FreeIPA server. I know this isn’t a “supported” environment, but after some trial and error and info from others we eventually got it working acceptably.

          But then a new release, even a point release, would come along and authentication would stop working. Sometimes just had to re-run our scripts, but many times there would be some low-level change to kerberos or permissions or some other low-level (But very important) service that wasn’t documented. So I would spend days trying random things, until usually someone would find the change and post it to a forum or blog.

          The annoying part is they are pretty good with listing changes that are more user-facing, but if they ever wanted to be in more corporate/business deployments they really need to address this aspect. But I get it, they have their niche and it’s their wont to do.

          1. Apple has a long history of deliberately breaking things to not be compatible with other operating systems, and 3rd party software that dares to do something better than Apple.

            I’ve always assumed their dual fork method of storing files was chosen specifically to make cross-platform file sharing (by physical media or network) difficult to impossible. That’s especially so since Apple did have the “Apple Single” method that packed the resource and data together, but never actually used it.

            For networking, Apple had the AppleShare IP client for Windows 3.1x and shortly before the release of Windows 95, Apple announced ASIP for Windows 95… and that’s the last anyone heard of it. To get Apple nyetwerking converted to networking, one had to spend big $ on software like Thursby DAVE. Or you had to be running a server version of Windows with Services For Macintiosh installed, but that was mostly to allow Macs to store files on a Windows server, and pollute the filesystem with .trashes and .desktop folders and various little hidden files.

            For one of the “Break it again, Sam” sagas there was Apple VS Jump Development’s RAM Charger. That extension managed RAM far better in System / Mac OS so much better than Apple’s method. It dynamically adjusted the memory available to programs (except for a small number that wouldn’t tolerate it) and continuously remapped all available free RAM into a single piece so stupid “not enough memory” errors from fragmented memory were effectively eliminated.

            One would think Apple would go “Oh hey. That’s great! Can we license a version of it to include with Macintosh computers?”, as they had with things like Super Clock, Control Strip, Extensions Manager and more.

            Nope. Every update from the version after the earliest one RAM Charger was made for included some change that required Jump Dev to update RAM Charger to make it work again. It works with 9.1 but 9.2.x broke some of the non-essential things, the core memory management function of it still worked so Jump decided not to do one final update to fix everything.

            In contrast, Apple *did not* repeatedly do things to break the much better virtual memory function of Connectix RAM Doubler. I always ran RAM Charger and RAM Doubler, with RAM compression off. There was no need for compression when every Beige Mac I had always had the maximum memory it could take.

            RAM Doubler’s virtual memory used less hard drive space and was faster than Apple’s. I’ve no idea why Apple didn’t simply buy out Connectix or license the virtual memory function.

  4. My first pc back in 1996 was an amazingly black perforated and curvy Acer Aspire.
    Not all pcs were boring beige and Apple was not the only company pushing deaign on their products.

  5. Remember that super desirable power mac pro that some PC user won. Don’t remember the specific case, Apple had so many bad ideas back then…

    He publicly said: ‘Not into macs, but the case is kinda neat.’ So gutted it and installed PC hardware. Posted build project page. Got death threats.

    Innocent years of ‘beat-up an Emo kid day’. Good times.

    1. Thats what Jonathan ive Made. He ist a Designer worked in London at tangerine which designed sanitary products. His Patents was influenced by Bauhaus Design, they have a bauhaus Table in their living room. Many products Work the Same ITS the plus or Story whats makes the difference.

  6. I once had a job interview, DB in a Mac shop and I said “I’ve got the one that looks like a TV”. Got the job.

    Wish I still had it, it was a beautiful machine.

  7. Wasn’t that also roughly the same time period when the apple logo went from colorful to gray?
    And remember when one could change the titlebar and scrollbar colors?
    I think they did away with all that right around that same time.

  8. Surely, the takeaway lesson is that the IBM PC industry has always had a monumentally boring attitude towards design and the iMac in all its incarnations: Jetson TV, Luxo-lamp, LCD TV only looked so radical by comparison.

    In the 1970s and 80s, computers came in all shapes, designs and colours. Consider the Apple ][, Cromemco C-10 (featured recently on Hackaday); Commodore PET/VIC-20/C64, Sinclair ZX80/81/Spectrum, Sinclair QL, Atari 400/800, BBC Micro, Oric-1 & Atmos, Newbury NewBrain, Thompson T07, MSX, Tandy Colour computer, Dragon 32, TI-99/4a, Victor-9000 / Sirius One, Sage 2. Even the Atari ST and Amiga eras had a flair for design unmatched by the vast majority of PCs (except for Alienware style PC casings, which were still constrained very much by the form factor).

    Even the original Altair 8080 was wonderfully colourful in comparison! Even blinkenlight minicomputers from the 1970s had colourful designs!

    Sadly, all this was lost when the beige-box took over.

  9. I bought one immediately and got great use out of it. I do remember feeling a little duped because it was still just a Mac. Little did I realize that everything would become a Mac of sorts. Windows is not different, other than a brief and interesting experiment with tiles during the early Surface and Windows Phone era. Chrome OS is different, in a Mosaic kind of way. So everything became Mac or Mosaic.

  10. I did an inventory and found that I had about 4 motherboards dating from the late 90s – and two of those beige computer cases (both are housing working boards now).

    So it turns out to be a fun hobby to mess around with these boards – acquire CPUs, graphics cards, power supplies (and connector cable adapters), storage devices, sound cards, networking cards, etc., etc. to try and trick them out into fully working systems.

    Among these boards there are some different standards for graphics cards, AGP or PCI-Express. One of the boards has 16-bit ISA slots in addition to PCI slots – I happen to have a Sound Blaster card for the old ISA bus standard. And I have a PCI bus sound card that has support for special connector to the motherboard to where it can still support the interrupt model of early MS-DOS software from the late 80s/90s that interacted with sound cards on the ISA bus. A couple of the boards support dual CPUs – what else from back in the day, besides Windows NT, could potentially support both CPUs? There are the usual vintage OSs to install such as Win95 or Win98 – or even Win2000 or WinXP. But I have my eye on installing the modern incarnation of BeOS – the Haiku operating system. And maybe I’ll try to install Serenity OS directly on bare metal real hardware.

    Well, there is a lot to tinker with here. I’m in the midst of such a project now.

    Oh, and there are really nice, slick cases that I could buy to house them in that are not boring beige – they have clear Plexiglas panels, and there are nice bling lighting kits to outfit their interiors. (The trick is to find a modern case that still supports drive bays for floppy disk drives and CD/DVD drives.)

  11. A school district I worked for bought a bunch of these, but they were incredibly unreliable and were quickly left with a bunch of dead, unfixable e- waste. The district went back to Borge, boring, serviceable pc clones.

  12. If you can make Apple’s rapacious in-built obsolescence work for you they are OK… my daily driver is a 27″ one from 2013 – i7 chipset, 32Gb RAM, so hardly ready for the scrap pile – made useless to most by Apple no longer issuing security updates & blocking it from running a later version of their OS. I paid £120 and installed Ubuntu on it, which worked straight out of the box. I hope to get a good few years out of it, especially as I gather Apple’s new models can’t have Linux installed on them?

    1. Im thinking a wile about buying Chromebooks or turning some Macs into Chromebooks. Simply good running thing For elderly. Something that my grandparents can use without deleting the Internet.

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