iMac: iLove it or iHate it

Is Apple's new blue bombshell a hit or a dud? A debate.


Scott RosenbergJanelle Brown
August 27, 1998 3:25PM (UTC)

"Hello (again)," announces the oversize iMac-shaped blimp that hovers over CompuTown in downtown San Francisco. The line is double-edged: It tells us that the new iMac is intended to be as innovative as the original 128K Macintosh was in 1984. But it also reminds the world just how near death Apple has been, and how much Apple is counting on the iMac to restore the luster of its youth.

Die-hard iMac fans are already calling it "The computer that changed everything" and setting up Web rings of fan sites. Will the iMac save Apple -- or is it just a translucent flash in the pan? 21st staffers Janelle Brown and Scott Rosenberg trade looks at the iMac from opposite sides of the fence.

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JANELLE BROWN: Beige is dead -- long live Bondi blue. I've been waiting for years for a computer that looked like this -- something cool, something that I could just sit and look at, something that might actually enliven the room instead of simply being an eyesore. The iMac is the first computer I've ever seen worth gushing over.

For years, computer manufacturers have let form follow function -- which has meant a preponderance of rectangular CPUs. The only exceptions have been products not aimed at the mass market, like the SGI Octane or the 20th Anniversary Mac. With the iMac, function follows form: Even the circuit boards, which are visible through that translucent blue plastic, were redesigned to be more aesthetically pleasing and approachable.

And it works. This is a soft computer: From the handle in the back (which allows users to easily pick it up and carry it) to the ridged decorative vents on top, the smooth egg shape and tactile plastic, the iMac is a computer that's designed to be felt. It's translucent enough to give it a space-age appeal, without actually resembling one of those tacky see-through phones. It's pleasingly symmetrical -- right down to the perfectly round, white-and-blue translucent mouse. And blessedly, it's not cluttered by the tangles of cords and ports usually found at the back of a PC. (These have been replaced by one plug, one modem line and a hidden compartment that neatly organizes any other cords.)

Like the new Volkswagen Beetle, those primary-color Nokia cell phones and wedgie platforms, the iMac is decidedly an accessory, not just a functional tool. Of course, that particular kind of cool isn't going to appeal to everyone, and perhaps will look dated after five years -- but who's thinking that far down the line? This is something that young adults will want now. This is the computer that your son will beg for when going off to college, because it will impress his friends. And hooking young computer newbies is exactly what Apple needs to do.

Apple is still pushing the boundaries of computer design like no other company. The iMac harks back to the days before plastic, when ordinary household objects were designed to be beautiful instead of simply functional. If I never have to see a boxy nondescript computer again, I could die happy.

SCOTT ROSENBERG: The iMac "harks back to the days before plastic"? It's interesting that you should say that -- because my first reaction to seeing an iMac in the flesh was a pang of revulsion at its cheesy plastic shell. It looks flimsy and feels cheap -- like it wouldn't survive a drop off a desk. As the first generation of iMacs gets battered in the push and tussle of everyday life, I'm curious to see how well their cases weather -- and what kind of options Apple has provided for repairing or replacing the ugly cracks in their shells that look inevitable.

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For some time now, of course, computer manufacturers have been steadily trading in metal for plastic in computer casings; but the iMac is the first computer that revels in its adoption of a 100 percent plastic box. Certainly, there is a place in the world for such a use of materials -- in inexpensive, throwaway products like, say, the Walkman. The iMac looks like the Walkman of personal computing. Too bad it isn't priced that way.

Far from returning us to an era of sound, substantial design, the iMac truly does look forward, to a future in which the computer is a disposable commodity. Now, it's true enough that, thanks to Moore's Law and the rapid pace of development in the technology industry, personal computers are indeed becoming such a commodity. Still, the iMac isn't a $25 Swatch watch, or even a $500 "network computer"; and for my $1,300 I'd like to feel like I've purchased an object with some solidity, some durability and -- dare I say it? -- some class.

Certainly, the boring state of physical design in the computer industry is a shame, and I will gladly congratulate Apple for breaking the mold. I just wish they'd broken it more tastefully and given us a better alternative to the old beige box. Macintoshes have always looked better than PCs -- sleeker and sharper -- but in an understated manner that wouldn't grow wearisome during the five to eight years you could expect to use the computer. I still think the old Mac II and Quadra boxes are things of beauty -- especially compared to the 386 and 486 PC clones they were competing with. Even if I liked the iMac's egglike curves and teal transparency today, I can't imagine living with them for long without yearning for something more timeless. I don't think of purchasing a computer as being like purchasing an "accessory"; it's more like buying a sofa. You want something you won't get sick of in six months.

"Function follows form" sounds nice, but isn't it really just another way of saying that the iMac is all surface? Certainly, Steve Jobs has fired up a buzz around Apple with this new product, and that's a marketing coup to be applauded by all of us who wish to see Apple survive and prosper as an alternative to the Microsoft/Intel universe. But this is a triumph of style over substance -- a victory for colorful packaging. I think we have a right to expect more from Apple.

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JANELLE BROWN: In fact, that "flimsy" plastic you deride is polycarbonate -- the same stuff used to make bulletproof glass -- and I bet it's at least as tough as your beloved old Quadra box.

So is the iMac, as you say, "a victory for colorful packaging"? Well, yes -- and what's wrong with that? Let's keep in mind what the average consumer of this machine is going to want.

I think that part of the bias against the iMac comes from the perception that the computer is a Serious Machine intended to perform Difficult Tasks. The iMac, don't forget, is designed as a computer for newbies. Do you expect the latest technological advances from a $1,299 computer designed for someone who's buying it primarily so they can surf the Net?

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The fact is that, despite the price tag, most consumers will use their computer partly as basic utilitarian tool, partly as toy. They'll use it to type letters and college papers, to keep track of recipes and finances and Great Aunt Melba's address; they'll use it to send e-mail; they'll use it to play video games. It doesn't need to be a daunting machine.

This, I think, is what the iMac successfully achieves: It is a simple, stripped-down machine that is perfectly capable of performing necessary tasks without any of the fancy bells and whistles that bog down more expensive, complex machines. It's approachable, not scary. The genius of the Macintosh has always been its simplicity -- an intuitive user interface, logical organization, friendly naming systems -- and this is all still here, along with a speedy processor, a nice monitor and elementary connectivity. Exactly what's needed, nothing more.

So yes, if you're used to a hot rod computer with endless peripherals and capabilities, this isn't going to be the technological advance -- the "substance" -- that you're looking for. This is, instead, the consumer product that lives between a PC and a WebTV.

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Note, for example, the simplified Universal Serial Bus system for connecting peripheral devices. Apple is, of course, gambling that USB is the future (and yes, a low-end consumer machine may not be the place to gamble on technological futures, especially since the iMac currently offers few options for the printer ports and floppy drive). But USB is overall a streamlined system that is going to be more user-friendly than the maze of ports and cords you find behind your PC or even the Mac's own older SCSI system.

And if USB truly is the future standard, then iMac is doing consumers a favor by giving them a machine with longevity. When was the last time you really used a floppy, anyway?

SCOTT ROSENBERG: Actually, just this morning. I use floppies to move files from one computer to another, and between home and work. Sure, they're not good for much else. But if the iMac is truly intended to be a consumer machine for newbies typing letters and storing recipes, then it's hard to understand why Apple chose to leave out the floppy yet put in a fast Ethernet connection. How many newbie users have an Ethernet network in their homes?

First-time computer buyers rely on floppies, just as they like to print stuff out, because they haven't migrated entirely into a networked existence like the more enthusiastic early adopters of the Internet. Novices trust physical objects. So it's unfathomable that Apple built a machine for them and then left out the floppy disk drive and the serial port, making it awfully tough to hook up a printer to it. (That will presumably change over time as more USB printers become available.)

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Apple's ads are making a big fuss about how easy to set up the iMac is compared to a PC -- how wonderful it is that there are so few cables. That's certainly a plus. But no one should mistake the iMac for an "information appliance." This is still a personal computer, a Macintosh, and that means it has more than enough problems and bugs and glitches to go around. Most important, that means it's built around the Mac operating system -- which still sports the most easy-to-use interface in the business but that has become badly dated in many other ways (like memory management and sluggish disk access). If Apple had kept its operating system more up-to-date and less crash-prone over the past five years, it wouldn't have had to depend so heavily on see-through color cases to win new customers.

The easiness of the iMac is a relative thing -- saying that "it's easier to use than a Windows PC" isn't much more than saying, "It's a Mac." The "i" supposedly stands for Internet, yet it seems that if you want to use the iMac to connect to any Internet service provider other than Apple's partner, Earthlink, you may find yourself in a jam. And if you buy the one printer that's ready to work with the iMac's USB ports, from Epson, you may need to follow these instructions in order to make it work:

"Have the printer connected to the USB ports located on the monitor. Power off the printer and the iMac. Disconnect the USB adapter from the iMac. Power the iMac back on. After fully booted, turn the printer back on. Then plug the cable back into the USB port, then reselect in the Chooser. This should resolve it."

That doesn't sound much better than a PC to me.

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In so many ways, the iMac sacrifices functionality for aesthetics. The keyboard is snazzy looking but its typing feel is atrocious compared to the good old solid Apple keyboards (like the "Extended Keyboard II"). The round mouse is cute -- but it's actually both less ergonomic than a traditional oblong mouse and a lot less intuitive to use. (The shape doesn't signal to you which direction is "forward.") And that nifty handle on the top of the iMac box? Try lifting the computer's 40 pounds by it -- since the monitor's in front, the whole shebang tilts awkwardly forward.

Apple used to know how to integrate good looks and great technology into a unified product. What happened?

JANELLE BROWN: Yes, Apple needs to address some of the minor bugs and glitches in the OS, and I hope that they'll achieve that with the next big operating-system overhaul, OS X, due next year. But that's for seasoned computer users to debate. What Apple needs most of all right now is newbies.

Apple must rebuild its market share -- to bounce back from selling a paltry 4 percent of all PCs -- or it's doomed to be a specialty machine that only graphic artists and die-hard fans use. Apple needs to stop the defection of Mac users to Windows, which it seems to be trying with the G3 line; but more important, it has to entice first-time computer buyers. Regardless of debatable complaints about the feel of the mouse and the keyboard, the iMac is a computer that gets noticed, not just by the jaded PC media market, but by consumers. And that is crucial.

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Maybe I'm partial to Apple because I'm a longtime Mac user and my boyfriend happens to work for the company. But like it or not, a good portion of the consumer market buys major products because of those "aesthetics": from cars and stereos to residences and computers. Young consumers especially are willing to overlook bugs if they can feel passionate about a product -- and the iMac is a product whose looks inspire passion.

Here, the analogy to the Volkswagen Beetle is especially relevant. The revamped Beetle may be a cramped car with spotty engineering (in fact, it had to be recalled because of engine fires). But because of its unique design and warm-fuzzy factor, it has sold like wildfire and helped put Volkswagen back on the automotive map with a new, young demographic.

The iMac, I believe, could have the same impact. Talk all you want about improving memory management and such, but a first-time computer buyer is less likely to think about or understand these things. They probably don't know much about whether one machine is more crash-prone than another. What they do understand is perceived simplicity and approachability, the two things that Apple is pushing with the iMac, and those (wisely) ubiquitous ads.

Additionally, the audiences Apple really needs to capture are young adults, college students and families with kids: to ingrain the MacOS early and often in these consumers as they embark on a life of PC purchases. These demographics are also the groups most likely to find the iMac design appealing.

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And so far, if you believe the reports, the strategy seems to be working. Apple has filled 150,000 advance orders, and analyst estimates are putting year-end sales at a strong 800,000. But more important, a survey by ComputerWare (a Mac-only computer store) showed that 13 percent of iMac purchasers were switching over from Windows; 15 percent were first-time computer buyers.

It remains to be seen if those numbers pan out across all computer retailers, or if sales will continue to be strong after the initial buzz wears off. But in the vast wash of the computer store, the iMac stands out. And that, in itself, is likely to sell this machine.

SCOTT ROSENBERG: Yes, the iMac stands out (to me, like a sore, Bondi Blue thumb). I agree that Apple is marketing it with gusto. And its initial splash and sales numbers have heartened the Apple faithful and the market's confidence in the company. If Apple sells enough iMac boxes, it means that the Mac has a new lease on life, and Mac users are more likely to continue to find new Mac software on store shelves. Fine and dandy. I don't begrudge Apple all the iMac razzmatazz, as long as we recognize it for what it is.

But does anyone seriously believe the iMac will make any kind of dent in the Wintel world? For one thing, though the iMac's price tag is low for Apple, if all you want to do is write letters and browse the Web you can still buy an adequate Windows machine for several hundred dollars less -- and that means at least as much to the first-time buyer as an eye-catching box.

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Say Apple sells tons of iMacs and doubles its share. And say, for the hell of it, that Linux starts to make inroads on the general marketplace as well. That still leaves Windows with more than four-fifths of the market. Apple, alas, has already lost this war.

I write that in sorrow, as a longtime Mac devotee who wishes history had unfolded differently. But I fear that a lot of Mac lovers are engaging in an orgy of wishful thinking as they imagine the iMac winning over droves of Windows users. As a survival move, the iMac may be savvy, but it's not going to turn the world upside down.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Janelle Brown

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