For a generation of students, the iMac was a gateway to the future


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Jun 28, 2023

For a generation of students, the iMac was a gateway to the future

By Alex Cranz, managing editor and co-host of The Vergecast. She oversaw consumer tech coverage at Gizmodo for five years. Her work has also appeared in the WSJ and Wired. It was 11PM at night, and I

By Alex Cranz, managing editor and co-host of The Vergecast. She oversaw consumer tech coverage at Gizmodo for five years. Her work has also appeared in the WSJ and Wired.

It was 11PM at night, and I was taking a shower so I could sleep in before class the next morning. Then, there was a tentative knock on the bathroom door. Another student in my dorm needed my services as our dorm’s official residential computer consultant. (This was a real job!) While a lot of my time was spent fixing porn adware and virus-infested Windows machines, this student was using a bondi blue iMac she’d recently brought from home and was struggling to connect to the internet.

Fortunately, the fix was easy. I took the phone cord she’d jammed into the ethernet port out, plugged in an ethernet cable, and explained to her the difference between the two. She, like a lot of students, was unfamiliar with ethernet. It was 2002, and Wi-Fi was still a novelty. According to Pew Research Center, only 11 percent of adults had broadband access at home and only 38 percent of adults were using dial-up. So the few kids coming to school with internet experience had that experience over a phone line.

On August 15th, 1998, the iMac hit store shelves. In the 25 years since then, the iMac has been a core product in Apple’s lineup and influenced many other products, both inside and outside the company.

Today, we’re celebrating the iMac’s silver anniversary with a series of pieces exploring its design, influence, and future.

Most students in my dorm had either a clunky Dell laptop that sounded like it was launching into space when you loaded Microsoft Word, or they had an iMac. And those iMacs, with their ethernet and USB ports, were on the cutting edge of connectivity. Even a then-four-year-old iMac felt like the future sitting next to the contemporary Dell Inspirons of the world.

When I think of college now, I don’t just think of the time I “drank Texas” or the many lasting friendships I formed. I think of the iMac. For a whole generation of students, it was a gateway into the future — effectively taking us out of the dial-up and SCSI era and into the ethernet and USB era that’s still with us today.

And this isn’t just my fuzzy warm memories of college talking. This was part of Apple’s plan at the time. When it launched the iMac, it also launched a then exorbitantly pricey marketing campaign focused not just on traditional Mac owners but also students. “Being the first computer truly owned by a student entering college gives a company like Apple tremendous brand leverage over future computer loyalties,” Laine Nooney, a computer historian, professor at New York University, and author of The Apple II Age: How the Computer Became Personal, told me over the phone. “That marketing isn’t just paying for a couple of years of sales... it’s helping create a generation of users.”

The iMac became the de facto alternative to TV / VCR combos in dorms

According to Apple, the goal of the campaign was to “signal that Apple is back in the consumer marketplace with an absolute vengeance.” That was what then senior director of worldwide marketing communications Allen Olivo told SFGate in 1998. “We were the first computer marketed to consumers and... we’re coming back to claim that stake.”

And the company did! The iMac was an enormous success, heralding changes in computer design and helping to popularize both the internet and the DVD. When my dad eventually broke and bought us a blueberry iMac G3 in 1999, it came with a DVD copy of A Bug’s Life that my brother proceeded to play on repeat for days.

I will never forgive Apple for that experience.

Thankfully, in college, the iMac was adopted as an alternative to the TVs with built-in VCRs and DVD players. It wasn’t quite as popular as those TV sets or even a TV and a Sony PlayStation 2 (which had a much larger role in DVD adoption), but looking back, you can see glimpses of our present there. Decades before students eschewed the TV in favor of streaming Netflix on their laptops, students were eschewing the TV in favor of the iMac’s built-in DVD player. With the stereo speakers and big, beautiful 15-inch CRT display, iMacs felt like a glimpse of a future where TV and work were blended in perfect harmony.

The USB port was another product of wonder in the iMac. As it slowly became ubiquitous, you didn’t have to work as hard to find accessories that would work with a Mac. Instead, if the mouse or keyboard had a USB plug, then it would probably work with a Mac regardless of what its packaging said. That promise that has now made the iPhone the dominant phone brand on the market was present in every one of those candy-colored computers. It just worked.

About the only part of those iMacs that didn’t work was the mouse. It was a horrible little puck of a device that required you to contort your hand into a claw to manipulate it. It also had a super short cord that was never long enough — even on a cramped dorm desk. In 2000, Macworld called it “Apple’s most maligned product since the Newton,” and I cannot overstate how true that was on my own college campus two years later. Even though the puck was discontinued before I even started college, I was still bringing the much prettier and more ergonomically pleasing Apple Pro Mouse to every call just in case I encountered that miserable hockey puck.

Fortunately, most of my iMac calls were about explaining the difference between the ethernet’s RJ45 connector and a phone line’s RJ11 connector or between FireWire and USB. I didn’t have to exorcise porn-summoned viruses from most iMacs. I never had to explain that the open disk drive wasn’t to be used as a cup holder. I just got to join the iMac in ushering students into a world where information was available with just a click. It was so rewarding, I wasn’t even mad when I’d get pulled out of the shower to do it.

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