I Was Wrong about the iMac

1999: In all the excitement over the iMac, I got a bit carried away. I wrote editorials calling for a headless iMac (The Tiny iMac), a headless iMac with a DVD player and TV output (iMac TV), a behemoth 17″ iMac, a drive bay iMac, an expansion slot iMac, and more (see iMac: First of a Family).

Looking back, I was wrong. I didn’t understand the iMac.

iMac Hello AgainYes, the iMac was the first of a family of affordable Macs, but not in the way I envisioned it. By its nature, the iMac is not only colorful, compact, and cute, but also simple.

The iMac wasn’t designed for users who need a larger screen, FireWire, SCSI drives, and PCI cards. It’s the plug-and-play computer with a single plug-and-play bus, USB.

Much as geeks like me loved the mezzanine slot – the ability to port video to a larger external screen, the option of a SCSI or serial/LocalTalk card, and more – what we wanted wasn’t an iMac.

The VolksMac

Comparisons between the iMac and Volkswagen Beetle, new and old, were inevitable. But just as the VW wasn’t about design, so the swoopy iMac is about well packaged, affordable functionality.

Need a 400 horsepower V8? Four wheel drive? Something to pull a huge camping trailer?

Then don’t buy a Beetle – it isn’t the car for you.

Need 400 MHz? An internal Zip drive? FireWire?

Then don’t buy an iMac – it isn’t the computer for you.

Blue and White Power Mac G3For geeks, techies, and graphics gurus, Apple makes the almost equally swoopy (but far more geeky) Blue and White Power Mac G3. Accelerated graphics, faster and faster CPUs, drive bays, expansion slots, FireWire, and more.

iMac for the Masses

Steve Jobs called for a computer that would appeal to the masses, one that would offer unprecedented value under the Apple logo.

We got the iMac, which lived up to that goal – and five months later we have a faster iMac with better video and a larger hard drive for an even lower price.

VIC-20 ad with William Shatner

Commodore marketed the VIC-20 as “the wonder computer of the 80s.” The iMac could easily be called the wonder computer of the 21st century.

Where Next?

As I’ve noted several times, Apple’s greatest problem is its success. Apple is still operating its plants at near capacity. Where it had been producing 625,000 to 650,000 Macs per quarter, during the past quarter Apple shipped 944,000 Power Macs, iMacs, and PowerBooks.

At that rate, Apple could conceivably build and sell 3.8 million computers this year, up from about 2.7 million last year. With the entire personal computer market estimated at 30 million, Apple could surpass the 10% mark, possibly reaching as high as 13% without building new factories or outsourcing production. (See Apple unit shipments at AAPL Investors for more details.)

I don’t know if Apple can continue to sell 500,000 iMacs per quarter, but it has other tricks up its sleeve.

For instance, there’s the long-awaited Consumer Portable [the original iBook], which may share iMac styling and pricing. Rumors are that there may be a version selling at under $1,000.

Then there’s the next generation PowerBook. Faster is a foregone conclusion, as is a larger hard drive. Maybe we’ll even see the 1280 x 1024 screen I’m dreaming about.

And although the Power Mac G3 represents a lot of computer for $1,599 and up, I’m not enamored of mini towers. How about a desktop machine housing the same compact motherboard?

And what I’d really like to see is something positioned for the upgrade market, a modular Mac that supports ADB, LocalTalk, SCSI, and old monitors. This would be something that the Mac LC owner, the Centris owner, the Performa owner, and the Power Mac 6100 owner could buy without leaving their legacy peripherals behind.

Maybe I’m just dreaming, but if Apple doesn’t want to do it, it sure would be nice if they licensed someone else to produce a niche upgrade machine for the tens of millions of Mac owners out there who’d like a Power Mac but find it difficult (whether financially or for sentimental reasons) to retire their older Macs. (See my musings on a Legacy Power Mac.)

Of course, none of these would be iMacs. Each would have its own identity as part of the Macintosh family, but only the all-in-one desktops should bear the iMac name.