Mac Musings

The iMac Legacy: A Focus on Essentials

Dan Knight - 2004.05.06 - Tip Jar

Six years ago, Steve Jobs unveiled the original Bondi blue iMac, the first completely new Mac design since he became Apple's interim CEO.

Although the iMac didn't reach dealers until August 15, Apple was treated to over three months of free media exposure. A lot of people wondered what Jobs was thinking by offering such a colorful computer. A lot of pundits predicted the failure of any computer without a floppy drive. And a lot of Mac users worried about incompatibility with their old hardware.

But mostly there was a lot of excitement. As I wrote the following day, "With iMac, Apple has recaptured something of the original Macintosh, the one that didn't even need a model number."

No Floppy

It's not a well known fact, but the motherboard in that iMac had everything necessary to support a floppy drive except for the port to plug the cable into. That means that somewhere along the line the iMac plan included a floppy. And a lot of us thought it was a big mistake to leave it out.

The iMacI wondered how Mac users would install floppy-based software, since USB floppy drives didn't yet exist. Remember, this was 1998 and a lot of programs still shipped on floppy disks.

To make things worse, when USB floppies shipped, none of them supported the 800K Mac format, only the 1.4 MB one. That said, Apple had been using 1.4 MB floppies since 1988, but for compatibility with the oldest Macs, some programs still shipped on 800K disks.

In retrospect, leaving out the floppy was brilliant. That's not because the floppy wasn't and isn't still a useful low-capacity storage device, but because it gave the computer press something to buzz about. After the styling, the best known and most debated fact about the iMac was its lack of a floppy.

No SCSI or ADB

For Mac users, another drawback was the lack of any SCSI or ADB expansion. Apple had been using SCSI drives since the Mac Plus, and the iMac was the first new model since 1987 to have no SCSI support at all. That meant no way to connect existing scanners, hard drives, or other SCSI devices to the iMac. That meant buying new peripherals, something most of us prefer to avoid unless necessary.

The same goes for abandoning the ADB port, which Apple had been using for over a decade to connect mice and keyboards to Macs. A lot of us had nice keyboards and/or third-party mice that we really liked, but until someone came up with an adapter, there was no way to connect them to the iMac.

What's USB?

When the iMac was introduced, Mac users didn't know much about USB. Neither did Windows users, although a lot of PCs of that era included USB ports. The ports existed, but nobody was really using them for anything - until the iMac forced the issue.

USB was ideal for mice, keyboards, 4x and slower CD burners, and printers. It wasn't bad for scanners. But it was miserably slow for hard drives, and bandwidth limitations kept maximum CD burning speed somewhere in the 5x range. (USB 1.1 may be rated at 12 Mbps total throughput, but no channel can use more than 8 Mbps, which is nominally 5.3x.)

For the first time in Apple's history, they adopted an existing standard already used (but unappreciated) on Windows PCs and made it the de facto standard for connecting printers, scanners, flash memory drives, Bluetooth adapters, and other peripherals to both Macs and PCs. Apple's adoption of USB sounded the death knell for traditional serial and parallel devices on the PC side.

Networking

The original iMac included 10/100 ethernet, something that wouldn't become a stock item on Windows PCs for a while yet. But it lacked Apple's traditional RS-422 serial port, which supported StyleWriters, external Mac modems, and LocalTalk networking.

Although most current LaserWriters included ethernet ports, I thought Apple was making a mistake by leaving out LocalTalk. After all, there were a lot of ancient LaserWriter II series printers still in use. iMac owners would have to invest in an ethernet-LocalTalk bridge to use their old printers.

iMac Mistakes

What was Jobs thinking by making a 33.6kbps modem standard on the iMac when the whole world had embraced 56k modems? Although the original iMac shipped with a v.90 modem, when it was announced in May 1998, it only had a 33.6 modem. It's nice to see that Apple was listening.

The keyboard was a compromise, especially for those used to Apple's legendary Extended Keyboard. The feel of the keys wasn't bad, but the arrow keys were half-size, as were the function keys. And, as I pointed out in iMac's Keyboard: The Missing Keys, there were five keys found on an extended keyboard that simply didn't exist on the iMac keyboard.

At the time there were no alternative USB keyboards, although independents soon came to the rescue. But Apple was so wed to this compact keyboard and their new mouse that they were even supplied with the business-oriented Blue & White Power Mac G3 introduced in January 1999.

Speaking of the mouse, although it has a few fans, the round puck-shaped mouse was generally regarded as a disaster. Some people loved 'em, but a lot of people either bought third-party mice or shells that clipped over them to give the mouse a traditional shape.

Apple eventually improved the mouse by adding a dimple to the mouse button, giving tactile feedback that you weren't holding it at some odd angle, but they eventually saw the light and went back to a non-round mouse - and to the extended keyboard design.

The remaining iMac mistake may have been an issue of timing, but it would have been great to see Apple include their own FireWire bus in the new computer, giving it an opportunity to become established before the January 1999 introduction of the b&w G3. That might also have provided the leverage FireWire needed to stave off USB 2.0 and become the dominant high-speed expansion port on Macs and PCs.

Then again, hindsight is generally 20/20.

iMac Influence

The most obvious iMac influence was the adoption of various ways to colorize the formerly beige boxes of the Windows world. In short order everyone seemed to be offering one or more models with iMac-inspired colors. That trend has fallen by the wayside, and for the most part today's personal computers are less garish than those of 1999-2000.

eOneThen there were the copycat computers, particularly the eMachines eOne, which was obviously inspired by the iMac's appearance - enough so to merit a lawsuit from Apple.

Oddly enough, all-in-one computers never really caught on in the PC world. Not to say that there aren't any, but they are a small niche product in a world dominated by modular computers. Apple remains the only computer company to successfully make all-in-one models a significant part of their product mix.

(One has to wonder is Macs might be more attractive to PC users if there were a modular consumer Mac, but I suspect we'll never know. Apple seems more interested in offering niche products than really expanding the user base. I sometimes wonder if Apple is afraid of success.)

We've already mentioned how USB became the norm for printers, scanners, and other types of peripherals.

And then there are floppy drives, which are now optional on a lot of Windows PCs. It took them a long time to follow Apple's lead, but floppy drives are no longer considered essential to a computer's success.

iMac Evolution

Except for processor speed, improved video, and new colors, the 333 MHz Revision D iMac wasn't a lot different from the 233 MHz original. Then came Kihei, Apple's code name for the slot-loading iMac design.

Work on Kihei began the day after the first iMacs shipped, and it was improved in almost every respect. The slot-loading iMac was a bit smaller and lighter, and it used a 100 MHz system bus (up from 66 MHz on the tray-loading models). New to the iMac was room for an AirPort card.

The motherboard incorporated ATI RAGE 128 graphics with 8 MB of video memory, a 4x DVD-ROM drive was standard on the 400 MHz and 450 MHz models, and the faster models also had FireWire ports. (The base 350 MHz model included a CD-ROM drive instead, had no FireWire ports, and doesn't have an AirPort slot.) Apple supported memory to 512 MB, another improvement over the original iMac.

One more thing - the slot-loading iMacs were whisper quiet. The fan-free design meant that the only noise coming from your computer came from the hard drive, optical drive (and then only when you accessed it), and the speakers.

From an OS X perspective, the slot-loading iMacs have one huge advantage over earlier models - you don't have to partition the hard drive. On tray-loading iMacs, if the drive is over 8 GB in size, it must be partitioned, the first partition must be smaller than 8 GB, and OS X can only boot from the first partition. With the slot-loaders, that headache is eliminated.

Unfortunately for Apple, while they were adding DVD drives to the iMac, the rest of the world was burning CDs - and the iMac had no CD-RW option. Apple addressed that with the February 2001 iMacs, where all but the 400 MHz base model included a CD-RW drive and ATI RAGE Ultra 128 video with 16 MB of video memory. (For those using OS X, that's just enough memory to support Quartz Extreme. These models also supported 1 GB of RAM, which can also be very nice with OS X.)

The CRT iMac peaked with a 700 MHz model introduced in July 2001, and by this time Apple had left behind Bondi, blueberry, strawberry, sage, ruby, and all the other colors, limiting themselves to indigo for the entry-level model and snow or graphite on faster iMacs.

The G3 iMac was never offered with a Combo drive, never had more than 16 MB of VRAM, and was a bit limited by its 15" display, but within those limitations it offered a lot of computer for the money, and today the slot-loading models can be excellent OS X platforms.

For a larger display, better video, and Combo drives and SuperDrives, the 17" eMac is a worthy successor to the multimillion selling CRT iMac.

The iMac Legacy

As the iMac became the most popular personal computer on the market, Apple demonstrated that an integrated machine with limited expandability was something consumers wanted. Apple has gone forward with that concept in the flat-panel G4 iMac, the eMac, the iBook, and the 12" PowerBook G4. No expansion slots, no room for a second drive, no way to upgrade video or change the display. You can boost memory, add AirPort, and that's about the extent of it.

Apple's biggest mistake was using the iMac name on their Cube-meets-Cinema-Display flat-panel iMac with its white half-volleyball base. They took the name of a very successful consumer model and put it on an upscale machine, one that has never come close to matching the success of the old CRT iMac.

The eMac is the true successor to the G3 iMac with it's CRT display (a very nice 17"), swoopy design, integrated stereo speakers, and - best of all - very consumer-friendly price. While I always considered the 15" iMac a bit small in the display department, I'm very happy with my eMac. (I'd be happier with a modular model that let me choose my own monitor, but that's another story. My next desktop Mac will probably be an eMac.)

The G3 iMac proved that Apple was here to stay, and that Apple knew how to build a more popular consumer machine than Dell, Gateway, Compaq, or any of the others. By putting the emphasis on what users needed and eliminating the expandability that so few would ever use, the CRT iMac and today's eMac form a line of excellent choices for the typical consumer who doesn't need a huge monitor, multiple internal drives, or a lot of the other things hardware geeks tend to view as essential in a personal computer.

With the iMac, Apple reintroduced us to the computer for the rest of us.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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