When Apple recently launched the refreshed M1 iMacs, it embraced a new style of design language. Some called the new iMac a homage to the original iMac, while others called it a fusion of classical and modern design styles. The truth is every new generation of Apple products, especially high-profile ones, adopts a design language that is coherent across the entire lineup.
For those following Apple from its earlier days, the journey of Macs can be divided into different design eras. It all started with Hartmut Esslinger, founder of Frog Design, the company credited for creating the ‘Snow White’ design of Apple computers in the 1980s, involving all-white exteriors with vertical and horizontal stripes and curved edges to make the devices appear smaller. The involvement of Esslinger in Apple products introduced a new design perspective to Mac computers, which helped Cupertino put a greater emphasis on design and that hasn’t really changed since then.
The return of Steve Jobs to Apple in 1997 and Jony Ive being helmed at the product design further pushed the idea of transforming the then struggling tech company to design company. With the launch of the original iMac in 1998, Ive and his world-class industrial design team injected a new design ethos to Apple products, bringing minimalism and simplicity in design. The iMac G3’s translucent Bondi blue plastic housing was distinctly Apple, a dramatic shift from beige-boxed PCs. Apple’s translucent industrial design, although started with the eMate 300 in 1996, brought to many products later, including Power Mac G3 and Studio Display 15-inch.
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But while many of you are already familiar with the semi-translucent multicolored iBook G3, a lot less is known about Apple’s fascination for transparent designs. The use of clear and transparent plastics on Apple products, although short-lived and replaced by anodized aluminum enclosure, was part of the design language that made products more beautiful and natural.
In this week’s tech flashback, we take a look back at the history of transparent Apple design and the products that used crystal-clear enclosures as the primary design language and in some cases, the clear plastic portion was intended to accentuate the sexiness of the device.
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Apple Power Mac G4 (QuickSilver): Apple had been using clear plastic handles and side doors that let people easily access all of the internal components of the machine with the Power Mac G4 line. However, the launch of the Power Mac G4 (QuickSilver), introduced a new case design. Introduced in July 2001, the QuickSilver G4 featured a matte silver accent that looks fresh to this day. When you look at any Apple product, especially a Mac, you will realise that the core design philosophy of the company hasn’t really changed. The QuickSilver G4 had sophisticated looks, highlighting the demography it intended to cater to: professionals. The handles were completely transparent, and the front panel sported a large speaker. The Quicksilver not only had a classy design language but also introduced substantial improvements from within. This desktop Mac was made available in 733 MHz, 867 MHz, and Dual 800 MHz models, with the cheapest model (without the SuperDrive built-in) starting at $1699. The Power Mac G4 lineup served its purpose well through its lifetime. The G4 towers were primarily aimed at professional video editors and graphic designers.
Apple iMac G4: No surprises here. This iMac G4 is so classic and simple, that to this day it is one of the best-designed Apple products. Its design feels almost divine, while its ‘lamp shade’ shape will pretty much guarantee to give you goosebumps. Unlike the funky iMac G3 which had a vibrant and colourful translucent plastic casing, Ive took a much more subdued approach with the design language. The machine used a thin flat panel display floating on air, held by a chromed stainless-steel arm. With a single touch, one could adjust its height or angle. Instead of using translucent multicoloured plastic casing, Ive settled for crystal plastic and carefully used it around the display of the iMac G4, highlighting the need for a simplistic and practical approach in design. This approach to design was different from what Ive chose to implement with the original iMac and iBook G3. The use of crystal plastic was only there to add a little design touch, instead of becoming the lead design element that Ive wanted to highlight with the iMac G4. The launch of the iMac G4 in 2002 was the beginning of a new chapter in Apple’s design philosophy. It was less of a computer and more of a fashion-cum-lifestyle device. The iMac G4 used a PowerPC G4 processor, a 60GB hard drive, and 768 MB of RAM. It started at $1399 for the 15-inch model, with the 17-inch variant costing $2000. The all-in-one computer shipped with the matching keyboard and mouse, covered with crystal clear plastic.
Apple eMac G4: Although discontinued four years after its debut, Apple’s eMac G4- formally known as the “education-Mac” well represented the time it was introduced. Designed primarily for the classroom, the $999 desktop computer featured a 17-inch CRT display and used the G4 chipset. Even though it wasn’t a flagship Mac, its simplistic design appeared in sync with what Apple wanted to highlight during that point in time. The eMac’s all-in-one design was inspired by the original iMac G3. However, the eMac was anti-iMac G3. The colorful translucent back of the iMac G3 was replaced by an all-white plastic design. A bit boring by Apple’s standards but since the machine catered to the educational market, the unglamorous look did make a lot of sense. That said, Ive’s design sensibilities were clearly on display and so was the use of crystal clear plastics meticulously blended to add a character to the design language. By the way, that crystal clear plastic wasn’t there to add glamour. As it turned out, the machine had a fan on the back of the case to cool down the eMac – and the incorporation of a ring-shaped transparent plastic was not only functional but also aesthetically pleasing. Apple also sold an optional $59 clear plastic stand that helped raise the height of the eMac by 4-inches, allowing you to tilt and rotate the display. The minimalist appearance of the eMac can be seen in Apple’s other Macs, including the iBook G4 and iMac G5. It’s a pity that the eMac didn’t get the appreciation it deserved.
Apple Power Mac G4 Cube: Arguably the greatest industrial design of any Apple computer, and is as iconic as it is ergonomic, the Power G4 Cube deserves a special mention. Announced in 2000, the machine was an 8-inch cube seemingly suspended in an acrylic glass enclosure to give the impression that it was floating. Every component — a G4 processor, hard drive, RAM, video card, a vertical slot-loading optical drive and connectivity ports– was packed in that 8-inch cube. One could access the Cube’s internals by inverting the machine and using its convenient pop-out handle. Although abruptly ’suspended’ one year after it went on sale, the G4 Cube wasn’t a commercial success. It had its fair share of design challenges, plus its $1799 price was much higher than the Power Mac G4 with the same internals. It also lacked a monitor and speakers. Still, it raised the bar for computer designs. Years after its release, it is impossible to get a hands-on G4 Cube due to the limited availability of the device.
Apple Cinema Display: Between 1999 and 2004, Apple introduced back-to-back breakthrough products but not many remember the Cinema Display, the company’s first widescreen monitor. The Cinema display was part of the transparent Apple design era that started to establish Ive’s footprints across Apple products. With the top-of-the-line monitor costing $3999, the Cinema Displays were encased in a transparent enclosure that made it appear as if the panel was floating in the air. Not to mention, the LCD monitor display used the Apple Display Connector– which carries analog and digital video signals, USB data, and power in the same cable. The idea was to simplify the process of connecting a new monitor to a Mac and reduce cable clutter. The high-end Cinema Display was intended to work with the Power Mac G4 desktop line and the G4 Cube.
Apple iSub speaker: In case you didn’t notice, the Jony Ive designed Apple iSub speakers reside in MoMA’s permanent design collection. Designed by Apple and developed by Harman/Kardon, the iSub was a USB-only subwoofer. Its rounded, transparent design feels classier and timeless. Available in 1999, the iSub featured a 6-inch woofer and was designed to use with the slot-loading iMac G3 and PowerPC Macs. The iSub retailed for $99. Later, the SoundSticks was announced, a three-piece speaker system featuring a subwoofer similar to the iSub. Harman Kardon worked closely with Apple on the debut of the Soundsticks. The transparent, dome-shaped subwoofer, with a donut-shaped stand and blue LED, was an instant hit among Apple fans. The Soundsticks carried a price of $199.
Apple Pro speakers: Another Jony Ive design with his signature style, Apple Pro speakers were initially introduced with the Power Mac G4 but shipped with the iMac G4. Nicknamed ‘eyeball’, they were designed to work with select Macs with a higher output signal. The Apple Pro had a see-through transparent plastic design and an excellent audio output – and what speakers they were. While Apple handled the design, it was Harmon/Kardon that took the responsibility to make the drivers for the speakers.