What's Really Wrong with the G5 iMac
New iMac Falls Short by Standing Too Tall
by David Lang (Posted: 9/13/04)
[Please Note: As with all Bully Pulpit articles, the views expressed in this opinion piece are completely my own, and are not necessarily representative of CMUG.]
Change is Good
It's been two weeks since Phil Schiller introduced the third-generation iMac at Apple Expo in Paris, and by now, nearly everyone has weighed in with their opinions of it. Some have criticized it for being evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Others have praised it for its elegant minimalism. Some have made much of Apple's iPod-iMac comparisons, seeing it as one more indication that the Mac is taking a backseat to the music player. Heck, there's probably some PC pundit out there who will whine about its lack of a floppy drive! The one thing everyone is in agreement on is that it was high time for Apple to do something with the iMac line.
Any evaluation of the latest iMac must necessarily take into account the previous iMac designs. Here we see the three major incarnations of the iMac side by side.
The first-generation iMac design was cute, colorful, and playful, in sharp contrast to the boring beige boxes which were so prevalent at that time. People loved it, and unless I'm mistaken, it remains the single best-selling computer model ever made. It was the perfect product at the perfect time: radically different from everything else out there, immediately recognizable, appealing on an emotional level, and relatively inexpensive. Apple extended iMac's playful appeal with fruity colors and even the too avant-garde blue dalmatian and flower-power patterns, but like all fashion statements, the gumdrop iMac eventually became old hat.
In many ways, the desk lamp-shaped iMac G4 was an even more radical design shift. While not as cuddly and playful as the original iMac, its fully-adjustible "face" gave it a kind of personalitya personality clearly reminiscent of Pixar animation's bouncing lamp named Luxo. The commercial where a G4 iMac in a storefront window mimics the movements and facial expressions of a man passing by captured this sense of personality perfectly. Of the three iMac designs, I think the G4 iMac looked the least like a computer. It looks more like some friendly robotic personal assistant. The G4 iMac also possesses a kind of sophisticated styling that makes it look "richer" and more classy than the original iMac. The original iMac had a kind of unpretentious approachability, but the G4 iMac has a decidedly more yuppie air.
Once again, the G4 iMac proved to be radically different from everything else out there, but by this time the beige box PC had given way to black or gray CPUs with a modicum of style, typically accompanied by cheap, matching flat-panel displays. Also by this time, PC prices (at least those of the bare-bones PCs which computer manufacturers use as a "hook") had plummeted to a point where the all-in-one iMac seemed much more expensive by comparison. The introduction of the eMac was an attempt by Apple to offer a low-cost alternative to the iMac, but it also seems to have eroded the iMac's identity as an affordable, entry-level Mac. Given all of these factors, it is not surprising that while successful, the G4 iMac could not match the success or longevity of the original iMac design.
So what about the new G5 iMac? Of the three, this iMac strikes me as having the least amount of "personality." Though stylishly understated, the new iMac has a decidedly practical feel. The original iMac looks like it belongs in the home or the classroom. The G4 iMac could reside quite happily on the desk of a corporate executive. But the G5 iMac looks like it belongs in the cubicle of every business employee. This latest incarnation of the iMac is no longer playful, whimsical, or countercultural; it's just a good, solid, practical, space-saving design. Yet that may actually broaden its appeal. While Apple's "insanely great" designs have appealed strongly to its existing customer base, most people don't necessarily want to be that different. I think perhaps that Apple has learned from the iPod that a good, practical design which is different enough to be noticed without being so different as to raise eyebrows can have incredibly broad appeal, inspiring passion among those who don't necessarily want to be seen as avant garde.
Whether this new approach can garner higher sales than previous iMac models remains to be seen, but it represents a pretty significant shift in strategy for Apple. Rather than trying to swim upstream as it always has, Apple seems to have joined the mainstream with this new iMac design. But that doesn't mean that Apple has become indistinguishable from other computer manufacturers. Quite the contrary. If Apple has joined the mainstream with this latest design, it has managed to paddle out in front of its competition. It has created a smart-looking, practical, largely user-serviceable, and completely unpretentious computer. Apple can no longer be accused of favoring form over function, since this new iMac's functional advantages are so immediately obvious.
So What's Wrong With It?
Alright, so the new iMac is a brilliant feat of practical engineering. It's stylish, but not in a way that will be offputting to those who don't get misty-eyed whenever they hear, "Here's to the crazy ones." It sends a message to every iPod user that Apple can offer them a computer which is just as well-designed and easy to use as their "pod." So what's wrong with it?
Apart from the fact that I personally liked the "personality" and counter-cultural appeal of the previous two iMacs, my only complaint about the new iMac is that it no longer bows. Aside from deciding to marry my wife, Lisa, one of the few real moments of genius in my life was when I created the Christian Mac Users Group's current logo: an image of a G4 iMac bowing down before the cross of Christ. I mean, what better way to show that this is a group for Christian Mac users than with an image of a "Christian" Mac?
Alas, the new iMac cannot bow before the cross. At best, it can only give a downward nod or an upward look, and that would just communicate half-hearted politeness rather than an attitude of worship. Sure I can stick with the current logo, but eventually, it's going to start looking hopelessly dated. Ah well, I suppose that, like Apple, I can't expect the brilliant designs of the past to carry me into the future.
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