New iMac "less shocking" than original

In shaping the new flat-panel iMac, Apple's designers knew they had a lot to live up to. The question now is whether the public will gravitate toward it.

5 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Apple worked on the new iMac for two years, but the designers at the company acknowledge that sequels are never easy.

After all, the original iMac spurred Apple back to profitability, endured for three years--eons in the computer world--and became synonymous with the name Macintosh.

"The iMac has come to mean so much," said Apple design guru Jonathan Ive, who helped shape the original iMac as well as more recent PowerBooks, iBooks and the iPod.

The question now is whether the public will gravitate toward the new model. The Power Mac G4 Cube, for example, also offered a unique design but lived a short, undistinguished life. And so far, the public is displaying a range of reactions to the new flat-panel iMac.

"At first blush it comes off (as) a bit weird, to put it gently," said Mark Rolston, vice president at industrial design firm Frog Design. "I think it's one of those designs that takes at least a few days to get used to."

Ive noted that although Apple eventually sold roughly six million of the original iMacs, the all-in-one machines were initially met with skepticism.

"At best, people thought it was rather odd," Ive said in an interview after the introduction of the new iMac on Monday at the Macworld Expo here. "I actually think this is less shocking than the (original) iMac was."

The new machine features a 15-inch flat-panel monitor attached to a white dome via a pivoting arm. The dome measures 10.5 inches in diameter.

iMac Apple isn't the first to come up with an all-in-one, flat-panel PC. IBM and Gateway already sell such computers, although sales have been relatively sparse.

With the new iMac, Apple had several goals, both practical and aesthetic.

On the aesthetic side, the company wanted to incorporate a flat panel into the body of the computer in a way that would capture the imagination of the public.

On the practical side, Apple worked to ensure that the arm on the new iMac could withstand the tortures of daily life, that the internal guts of the computer could be easily accessed and that all of the body parts could fit into one package. One complaint about the doomed G4 Cube was that the power supply, which was about the size of a small brick, was separate.

One note of practicality comes in the inclusion of a part that recent iMacs lacked--a fan. The new machine runs a faster processor and is housed in a smaller enclosure. Thus, Apple had to include something to cool the air.

Phil Schiller, Apple's vice president of worldwide marketing, said that designers also worked hard to ensure that the fan is no louder than the sound of a hard drive when it is spinning.

Even more so than its predecessor, the new iMac is not designed for internal expansion. The bottom of the machine unscrews to allow people to add more memory or an AirPort wireless networking card, but that's about it as far as expansion within the iMac itself. The unit does have two FireWire and three USB ports to connect to other add-ons such as digital cameras, music players and external drives.

Jon Rubinstein, Apple's senior vice president of hardware engineering, said people who want expansion ports to add graphics cards or a new monitor are better suited for a Power Mac G4 tower.

Pale by comparison
Aesthetically, the new iMac eschews its colorful heritage in favor of white, making it more similar in hue to the iBook and iPod. The computer's predecessor came out in a number of single colors and once sported polka dots and a tie-dyed look known as Flower Power. Some of these colors and patterns struck a chord with the public. Others quickly faded from view.

imac "We're about innovation, which means moving on," Ive said, regarding color. However, it takes a lot of effort to make white appealing, he said, noting that the new iMac's case is somewhat translucent on its top layer and has a matte finish, before reaching the ultimate opaque white that coats the case. And while other PCs sport cheaper plastics, much of the iMac is made of more durable polycarbonate.

From a financial perspective, Apple wasn't looking to create a new market, as it did with the G4 Cube. Instead the company wanted to build a machine that will appeal broadly to consumers and prompt existing iMac owners to buy a new one. That meant offering the computer at $1,299, the same price of the first iMac when it was announced in May 1998.

Even at that price, Apple concedes it is too expensive for some buyers, particularly in the education market. As a result, Apple plans to keep two versions of its older iMac design: a bare-bones model at $799 and a more robust one for $999 to keep it in the sub-$1,000 sector.

As is often the case with Apple's computers, the design team spent tremendous energy on some of the little details, such as how to access the dome case to add memory. At first the engineers considered a pop-open hatch. However, Rubinstein was worried such a door might be tricky to open, depending on which way the iMac was picked up.

Instead, the entire bottom of the base comes off with four small screws. The spring-loaded screws are easily loosened but remain attached to the part of the iMac that pops off, lest the screws fall to the floor.

In addition, the main circuit board is round to accommodate the machine's shape and is blue rather than the traditional green.

Apple has been working on the new iMac for at least two years.

However, the new iMac didn't always have the look of a desk lamp. Early designs had the monitor and computer parts together. But Apple CEO Steve Jobs wanted to keep the flat screen flat and encouraged the designers to let each element--computer and screen--be true unto themselves.

The new design began taking shape about a year ago, Ive said.

Rubinstein said such evolutionary design is part of Apple's process.

"Where you end up is a lot different from where you started, but it's better," he said.