Apple Finds Its Design Footing Again With iMac

Looking for unmistakable evidence that Apple has awoken from its long slumber to reclaim its identity? The most striking sign I've seen is the industrial design of the iMac, the new machine for the consumer and education market, due out in August.

Innovative industrial design--a term that refers to how a machine's parts fit together but primarily denotes the look and feel of a device--has historically been one of the Mac's trademarks. When the original Macintosh introduced itself in 1984 with a then-advanced text-to-voice "hello," Apple demonstrated the first approachable computer-- unlike the bland PC boxes from scores of vendors that preceded or followed it. The first Mac was the first PC with personality. It was the first, and maybe the only, PC that people fell in love with.

Apple's designers for the original PowerBooks also understood this. And PowerBooks instantly became the hottest-selling notebook computers.

This was partly because the PowerBook was vastly superior to PC notebooks of the time. The two most important innovations were industrial design changes that have been copied by virtually every notebook computer maker since: a centrally located pointing device and a keyboard recessed toward the screen, creating a more comfortable fit for hands and wrists on a class of device that's dangerously prone to cause repetitive stress injuries.

But the main reason the original PowerBooks created a sensation had to do with their stylish look and graceful lines that put other notebooks of the era to shame. For years, whenever a movie or TV show needed an icon of yuppie sophistication, a PowerBook was chosen.

So what's the underlying theme? Macs have usually been easier to manage and more reliable than other PCs because of superior integration. By controlling both the operating system and the hardware design, Apple could enforce a consistency that reduced the breakdowns and annoyances of Wintel PCs.

Integration finds its ultimate exponent in all-in-one machines like the original Mac, the Mac Classic, the SE/30, many of the PowerBooks and now the iMac. For a combination of elegance, value and sheer pizazz, these have been Apple's greatest hardware accomplishments.

In an industrial design sense, Apple lost its way on standard desktop Macs from the original Mac II on up--just more bland boxes. I'm not taking anything away from the intrinsic quality of, say, the original Power Macs or today's G3s, which are fast machines and good values. Just not much to feel passionate about.

What went wrong with Apple's desktop designs? "The products you ship reflect a culture, a set of priorities and a process," said Jonathan Ive, vice president for industrial design. He didn't mince words on what happened when that process went awry: "We've shipped some bankrupt, banal products from a design perspective."

So what changed with the iMac? I recently spent some time with Ive to find out. He credits Steve Jobs for both the iMac concept--the first new machine Jobs has steered from its genesis. Jobs also drew the design team into the center of Apple's product planning, "close to the heartbeat of the company," Ive said, and gave them license to do something that has been in short supply for Apple's industrial design in recent years--"to innovate and not be risk-averse."

The charge was clear: Create something different and compelling. "When you can't pigeonhole or categorize something easily, it sticks in your mind," Ive said. "We wanted this object to be both comforting and futuristic."

So it's no accident that the "Jetsons" cartoon theme has been encouraged in Apple's descriptions of the iMac--a vaguely reminiscent, friendly retro-futurism that people seem to crave.

And they wanted the iMac to be as compact as possible to serve as an antidote to the big, ungainly boxes that proliferate in "an industry that's only concerned with speeds and feeds," as Ive put it. "It's hard to go up to the iMac and just say, 'How fast does this thing go?' "

Of course, the iMac is a far cry from the original Macintosh. It doesn't break much ground that will steer the direction of all of computing or introduce fundamental design changes that competitors will have to copy to survive.

But it is different and exciting. It makes me eager to get a look at Apple's new low-cost portable device, promised for the first half of next year, and curious about what surprises may be in store for the next generation of desktop Macs. And these days, more pleasant surprises are exactly what Mac users crave and Apple needs.


Times staff writer Charles Piller can be reached via e-mail at

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