Apple’s influential, iconic iMac turns 20

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There are few individual computer models that have left a lasting mark on the industry, but you can definitely put the iMac on that list. Apple introduced its signature all-in-one desktop at a special event on May 6th, 1998, and it’s safe to say the system has had a lasting impact on technology at large. At the same time, the iMac has also been a symbol of the cultural zeitgeist, including for Apple itself — it shows how the company evolved from an underdog in a Windows world to a behemoth focused more on phones than PCs. The iMac has had a long journey, but it’s worth following to see just how much the industry has changed in the past 20 years.

The very first iMac may seem quaint today with its 15-inch CRT screen, tiny 4GB hard drive and decidedly late ’90s translucent styilng, but at the time it was a minor revolution in… well, just about everything. This was a departure from the beige boxes that defined most PC designs, and it was designed from the ground up for internet access at a time when the feature was still far from ubiquitous — that’s primarily where the “i” in iMac comes from. It also helped usher in the USB era. While USB was certainly available before the iMac, Apple’s complete shift away from legacy ports (combined with Microsoft’s improved USB support in Windows 98) prompted many companies to build USB peripherals and jumpstart adoption of the universal connector.

And it’s no secret that the iMac was instrumental to Apple’s comeback. Its commercial success revitalized Apple after years of business blunders, giving it the financial runway to expand as well as a clear focus: Apple would be focused on ease of use, simplicity and design from here on out. It was also instrumental to the career of legendary designer Jonathan Ive — it was the project that cemented his reputation for minimalist yet memorable products.

Apple faced a difficult problem as the original iMac line reached its twilight. How do you follow up on an iconic computer when its defining feature, the tube display, was outdated? For Apple, it was simple: design something even more radical than its predecessor. The 2002-era iMac G4 took its inspiration from a sunflower, putting its then-impressive 15-inch LCD (later models would jump to 17 and 20 inches) on a neck that let the display tilt and swivel while preserving Apple’s all-in-one design.

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