Apple released the first iMac on August 15, 1998—that makes this week the 20th anniversary of the often-divisive, always-popular, and ever-iconic all-in-one. That first iMac was a revolution in terms of design—an important part of the history of not just Macs but personal computing generally. But some of the choices Apple made haven’t aged that well and were controversial even at the time.
It all began with the iMac G3, which was the first product created under the watchful eye of a returning Steve Jobs. Jobs resigned from Apple in the wake of a reorganization by then-CEO John Sculley in the ’80s, but he returned to the company in the late ’90s and oversaw the iMac and other subsequent successes like the iPod and iPhone. Jobs unveiled the iMac in 1998. His presentation is included below; the iMac reveal begins 16 minutes into the video.
Also notable, of course, were the commercials—in the past, Apple was known for its exceptional advertising campaigns. (Lately, not as much.) The iMac was introduced to the world in a series of TV ads featuring ‘s Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum shot several of them, which you can find on YouTube, but the most well known was probably the one titled “Step 3,” embedded below.
Jobs and the advertisements positioned the iMac as a friendlier alternative to a sea of boring yet intimidating (and oh-so-beige) PCs. They weren’t wrong; taking design and normal human friendliness seriously was a big deal at the time. We take that for granted now.
And because some things never change, Apple was yanking users back and forth on ports even then—the iMac G3 used the then-new USB, in contrast to prior Macs. It was also widely mocked for dropping support for the floppy drive. The design was praised by many (not all), but those choices left some users out in the cold. Sound familiar?
Several redesigns followed, and, over the years, most user complaints have been addressed, except for the use of discrete graphics and a lack of upgradeability. Now, one of the most notable things about the iMac has been how little it has changed in the past six years. The basic chassis design has remained mostly the same since 2012, but Apple has upgraded the display, ports, cooling systems, and internals.
The all-in-one form factor remains divisive today. It’s popular with creative types and executives who care a great deal about ease of use and aesthetics. But it’s not so popular with some others who lament that Macs have become increasingly difficult to service, upgrade, and modify over the years.
The frustration among some Mac desktop users culminated in 2013, when Apple revealed the infamous trash can Mac Pro. The company replaced its last traditional desktop with a radical design that bet on an architecture that simply didn’t catch on. Desktop Mac power users were frustrated. To answer that frustration, Apple released the iMac Pro last year. It brought workstation components and performance to the line of consumer all-in-ones—but, again, the exterior design remained the same. (A revised Mac Pro is expected next year.)
All of this is to say that the iMac has always been controversial and mostly for the same reasons these past 20 years. But it has also been extremely popular. As I hang out with and work with creative types in California, there are long stretches of time when it is the only desktop computer I ever see outside of the Windows gaming PC in my own home. That’s not true everywhere, but the lack of change in the basic chassis can largely be attributed to the fact that those users love what the iMac already is.
At Ars, though, we’ve always sought to go deeper than aesthetics when talking about the iMac.
Ars iMac reviews over the years
Ars Technica first launched only a few months after the original iMac. We’ve covered the machine over the years in news, reviews, and analysis as it has evolved into numerous forms. The mantle of Apple computer reviewer has passed from person to person over the years—Eric Bangeman, Jacqui Cheng, Lee Hutchinson, Andrew Cunningham, myself, and others interspersed. Just like you, we’ve all had different takes on Apple’s priorities.
For a trip down memory lane, we’ve dug up a selection of reviews and photos from those reviews, ranging from the introduction of aluminum in 2007 to last year’s iMac Pro.
We’re not sure where the iMac is headed yet, but a 30th anniversary doesn’t seem outside of the question, and you can bet we’re looking forward to running future reviews and reading lots of passionate comments from Ars readers.