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The iMac's ancestors

The iMac shows how far the trend-setting Macintosh has come.

Apple Computer's new iMac marks the latest chapter in the company's long history of designing trend-setting computers for the consumer market, while comparison with its ancestors highlights how far the Macintosh has come.

Of the many, many computers Apple has introduced over the years, a few stand out as progenitors of the iMac.

The most notable of its forebears is, of course, the original Macintosh. See special report:
Apple's Gambit Introduced in 1984 during the early part of CEO John Sculley's tenure, the original Mac was an all-in-one design housing a 9-inch black-and-white monitor and (at that time) a "speedy" 8-MHz Motorola 68000 processor, 128 kilobytes of memory, and 400 kilobytes of disk storage.

The system was originally priced at $2,495, which was relatively affordable compared to the competition. In the same year, IBM introduced the PC AT, which offered a 6-MHz 80286 processor from Intel, a 5.25-inch floppy drive and 256 kilobytes of memory for around $4,000.

By comparison, today's all-in-one iMac houses a high-resolution color 15-inch

iMac timeline
Sources: Apple, Glen Sanford
monitor, a 233-MHz PowerPC processor, 32MB of memory (about 250 times the memory capacity of the original Macintosh), and 4 gigabytes of hard disk storage (about 10,000 times the original floppy drive capacity).

Another interesting contrast is the floppy drive. Though the original Macintosh had a floppy--it was the first computer to adopt the 3.5-inch drive--the iMac doesn't. This is the first new desktop computer in many years to forgo this, posing questions for consumers who wish to transfer files from older systems to the iMac.

But intriguing comparisons aside, what really set the original Macintosh in a class by itself was the graphical user interface (GUI), the first successful commercial computer to use this. (The original Macintosh was, in turn, based on the Apple Lisa. The Lisa, unlike the Mac, was not a commercial success in part due to its high price: around $10,000 initially.)

Ironically, Apple's most successful product launch ever--to date, that is--was the Power Macintosh G3 systems for the business market. Launched in November of 1997, Apple said it sold 133,000 units in 51 days.

After variations on the original Macintosh theme, Apple introduced another reasonably successful series of computers for the consumer market in 1990. Called the Mac LC (for low cost), it followed in Apple's tradition of experimenting with packaging. Unlike most other computers of its time (and since), the LC's electronics were ensconced in a thin, pizza-box sized case which weighed less than 10 pounds.

Then came a well-publicized onslaught of problems that eroded the company's profitability, its market share, and customer confidence.

"The Mac was going strong until about 1992 or 1993. It was still being considered in corporate buys, and their lead in the education market was unquestioned," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. But by then, vendors such as Packard Bell were making inroads into the consumer market by selling inexpensive PC clones at retail stores such as Sears.

Apple responded with its Performa line of computers. Initial models, basically just Mac Classics with different software bundles, were priced starting at $1,900. Later models came in a traditional desktop case. It was during the twilight of Sculley's run as head of Apple that the company began the practice of offering a bewildering number of models with variations on software bundles and other minor features, sometimes with different models offered exclusively at one particular store.

"Clearly a big issue was that they had too many models. They just confused the customer," said Bajarin of Apple's stumble.

Apple's long slide in the consumer market continued through 1996 with other corporate-wide problems such as continually poor forecasting of demand and quality control problems when CEO and president Michael Spindler was at the helm. The last new models in the Performa line were introduced in 1996.

Apple eventually pared down its offerings with its most recent major offering of consumer systems in April 1997 under the watch of president and CEO Gil Amelio, which were known as the Power Macintosh 6500s. The move was not enough to reverse Apple's fortunes in the consumer market, however, as customers began snapping up sub-$1,000 PCs, not $2,000-$3,000 Macintoshes.

The eventual consequence of its missteps in both the business and consumer markets was a slide from around 13 percent market share in the U.S. in 1994 to its current level of around four percent, according to figures from Dataquest.

The new iMac may not open up whole new markets, but it should at least focus attention on Apple again as a trend-setter in the computer industry.  

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