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24 years ago, Steve Jobs made tech sexy again

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Tech is sexy, or at least it can be, and that’s mostly thanks to Steve Jobs and the iMac, which was unveiled 24 years ago this week.

Your options for home and office computing in 1998 were getting more and more boring. White-box PCs dominated the personal computing landscape. They were invariably white or tan rectangles, with several removable storage slots, a grille to let some air in on the large motherboards, and giant CRT monitors balanced above them. The keyboard and mouse were rote efforts that got the job done.

The unusual design of the iMac was born out of absolute necessity, not just to shake things up in a boring industry like dishwater, but to save Apple from the trash.

Steve Jobs joined Apple just about a year before unveiling the first iMac. The plan, as Walter Isaacson explained in his biography of Steve Jobs, was to build “an all-in-one product with a keyboard, monitor, and computer ready to go right out of the box. It should have a distinctive design that would make a brand statement.”

With its curved design and no sharp corners, translucent candy-colored back, front-facing stereo speakers, small keyboard, and perfectly round mouse, the iMac accomplished all that and more.

While nearly every brand name computer in the entire Windows PC industry in 1998 could hardly be picked from a lineup, there was no doubt that the iMac was anything other than an Apple product.

1998 Classic PC

It was the pinnacle of PC design in 1998 before the iMac. (Image credit: Getty Images)

The iMac wasn’t just a distinctive product, it was a statement of intent. Apple, as it had nearly fifteen years before, would think differently, abandoning the known and the comfortable for the exciting, the eye-catching and the special.

To Apple and Job’s credit, the first iMac wasn’t just a sexy package, Apple took a risk on the component side as well. It had a PowerPC processor (co-developed with IBM and Motorola), but had no floppy disk drive. At the time, every desktop-worthy PC (and many laptops) had a 3.5-inch floppy drive. Apple got rid of it and only included a CD-ROM drive inside. The iMac introduced the still relatively new USB port to the Apple public (no previous Mac had one).

Apple also pushed the boundaries of connectivity by introducing the 56K V.90 modem, a connectivity option so new that many ISPs weren’t ready to hook up to it. And in a nod to the original Macintosh, the iMac even had a handle that let you carry the somewhat bulky computer.

Jobs wanted the new iMac (which came in five different candy-colored options – another first in the PC space) to be a consumer device. But sales were quick and I remember them popping up in every office in 1999. In fact, a design team I worked with at the time insisted that we only buy from them new iMacs.

The iMac appealed to a generation of tech consumers like few products before. It got us excited about not just what the technology could do, but also how it looked and felt. Most competitors have been slow to get the message, but not Apple.

In the years that followed, Apple would unveil one iconic product and one product design after another. In the iBook, iPod, iPhone, and iPad, we would see echoes of the iMac’s inspiration. Not that all products looked like the iMac. They did not do it. In fact, the next iMac, which featured an LCD screen, looked nothing like that first design, but the DNA of that approach, of emotion-first design, was clear.

TONY LI, MARKETING DIRECTOR OF APPLE HK, WITH THE NEW IMAC COMPUTER.  (Photo by MARK RALSTON/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

From 1998: Tony Li, Apple’s marketing director in Hong Kong, with an iMac (Photo by MARK RALSTON/South China Morning Post via Getty Images) (Image credit: Getty Images)

Apple has somewhat given up on allowing form to totally replace function. Today’s Apple designs are now marked by both simplicity and beauty. Where the original iMac might have been accused of overdesign, one could say that a Mac Studio has almost no design at all.

That wouldn’t be true, however. In my opinion, every Apple product is always designed to elicit a response, much like a car you see driving down the road. You can’t touch it because it goes 70 mph, but you’ve seen it, remember it and have an opinion on it.

Without the original iMac, our laptops would still be ugly, boxy extensions of their desktop counterparts. Shelves can have square edges. Our phones might look more like phones rather than smooth, shiny slabs.

Every piece of technology we touch is built in the shadow of the first consumer electronics technology design to break the mold since the original Mac. Few seemed to learn from this 1984 product, but the industry got the message in 1998 and thankfully nothing has been the same since then.