No One Expects The Apple iMac

Apple's media event on Tuesday included many pieces of hardware, and with two whole new iPads to talk about it could be mistaken for a tablet news day. But among the releases, Apple showed its new iMac. It's easy to overlook what this machine may mean.

Back in 1998 Apple debuted the original iMac. It was bold, it was surprising, it was very future-facing. Its colorful exterior and curved body was a huge contrast to chunky beige-box desktop PCs. By suggesting it was the first "legacy free" PC, because it ditched a 3.5-inch floppy drive and older IO systems for a DVD drive (quickly updated to a futuristic slot-loading version) and a USB connection, Apple distanced it from nearly all its peers. The "i," later used and abused for other Apple products, meant "Internet" and "Individual" in an era when the Net was unknown to many, and PCs were fiddly, tricky systems that on the whole couldn't rival the iMac's out-of-the-box simplicity.

Over the next 13 years Apple took that idea of simplicity even further, marking the iMac as perhaps Apple's most avant garde design. Each generation was in some way simpler, with unnecessary features carved out.

This opened Apple up to much criticism, with many an argument that Apple was putting design ahead of sense or technology--you couldn't even get into more recent iMacs to boost the CPU or change out the graphics card. But it worked, and many of Apple's peers copied the iMac's ethic, even with more powerful workstation PC design. And it sold by the boatload: As of January this year, iMacs--a single class of PC from a single maker--constituted one in three of all all-in-one PCs sold. And all-in-one PC sales began to soar a while back, and continue to do so this year...even as the overall PC market slumps.

Which brings us to today's iMac. And, possibly, a full stop.

That's because Apple's carved out almost everything extraneous from this machine. As we've long suspected, Apple's ditched the internal DVD drive because it's deemed this storage medium is at an end. This choice allowed the design team to make the machine thinner still. More thinness came from a screen technology rethink that led to a highly laminated design which eliminated air gaps between the LCD and glass.

The new hybrid "Fusion" storage is a blend of SSD and HDD and is a hint at the end of spinning hard disks, which also take up much space inside PCs. The entire chassis has been engineered to be thin, tapering to such a carefully calculated thin edge that from some angles it probably looks like the iMac is just floating in the air (and even in its circuitry-covering bulge it's still very slender). There's no ugly vents, no stickers, few holes, no breaks in its exterior. Even the manufacturing processes, full of tech phrases like plasma deposition and friction stir welding, are all about making the iMac chassis seamless and thin.

And don't confuse these moves with a design decision. They are an engineering decision, borne of careful consideration of what tomorrow's iMac's users want in terms of tech, that have enabled some design decisions. What the iMac isn't is a Personal Computer. It's almost a new thing--a Personal Screen.

Critics will fire some accurate arguments against the new iMac. They'll say the lack of DVD drive is a slap in the face of many computer users. They'll suggest the inability to crack the elegant case open and swap out almost any component is a terrible idea. They'll bristle that for some businesses that try to eke out more life from expensive IT systems by upgrading CPUs or graphics cards the iMac is a terrible purchase. They may complain about its lack of repairability, possibly on environmental grounds.

And they'll be right. In many ways, the new iMac isn't for today's average user, used to fiddly PCs and slotting in new graphics cards and wrestling with device drivers, either at home or in the workplace.

But just as we've argued the MacBook Air is a sign of the end of the mobile laptop paradigm, it can be said the new iMac is the end of a certain type of desktop computer. Of course powerful workstations will remain in their desktop towers for years to come, and boxy desktop machines will remain vital for power users who need to upgrade CPUs or graphics cards regularly.

You can say Apple's wrong, but don't dismiss this argument as naive. In the same way all-in-one desktop PC makers have copied the iMac (with even HP workstations in the mix), and then the iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air, they'll squeeze their future desktop PCs into molds that look a lot like the iMac.

But the new iMac is the end of the road. The only place it can go in 2013/2014 is thinner still, with cleverer screen tech and user interfaces, plus fewer wired connections. Which hints that the next innovation will turn iMac into a 27-inch super-powerful iPad. That's very much the next paradigm in desktop computing.

[Images: Apple]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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52 Comments

  • Opinionated_Alchemist

    Oh my goodness! There might be a lot of Apple haters around.
    But let me say this: it is not arrogant of Apple, to design products, how they think it makes sense.
    I almost regret, that I bought a MacBook Pro 13" and not a MacBook Air - I thought I need the DVD drive. I was wrong. I can't recall, when was the last time, when I used it - and a really cheap external DVD burner is definitely enough, to use now and then [rather never].

    The connections at the back? Yes there is a point. But again - you don't need to buy an iMac - you just can buy a PC.

    Steve Jobs was smart - very smart. He understood, that for the most consumers, technical products are not about specs or about performance; not even about practicality. It is all about design, the brand, the usual usability. Most people don't use often periphery, or CDs or DVDs. Most people don't want to change the CPU, GPU or whatsoever [with current Windows anti piracy hooks, it is even difficult to change anything in a PC and not to buy a new copy of the OS - isn't it?].
    It is analogue to other products: e.g. cars- engines become more and more complex and more and more difficult to repair yourself - nobody cares, because nobody repair themselves...

    The only thing, which I am pissed off is, that the adapters, the power cables, data cables etc. are really expensive of Apple products. If they introduce Thunderbolt - fine - but a cable should not as expensive!

    But again - don't always complain - if you don't like the decisions, what Apple does- just buy a HP, Sony or Samsung PC.

  • Dan Shannon

    The next real evolution in computer usage has to come in the form of how we interact with them. The only thing that has hardly evolved hardware-wise is the mouse and keyboard. They reached their natural potential years ago. Mice are awful devices, requiring a tiring and unnatural combination of major and minor motor functions. Keyboards are still laid out as they were on Typewriters (notice that the keys aren't lined up - that's because each key had a bar running out of it on a typewriter, and as such they had to be offset). I predict a complete overhaul of how we interact with desktop hardware in the next generation of iMacs. Apple have probably already developed prototypes. Expect something mind-blowing next year.

  • KP1976

    The
    background of “friction-stir welding” is intriguing for anyone interested in
    production or manufacturing. This form of welding was
    improved and enhanced by EADS for aerospace, and it is now being applied as the
    DeltaN FS® technology to other industrial applications.  Rather than the melting process of
    traditional welding, friction-stir welding intermixes metal in the areas to be
    joined by softening up material for fusing with mechanical pressure. 

     

    There’s more information about DeltaN FS® technology on EADS’
    technology licensing website:

     

    http://www.technology-licensin...

  • Pagolami

    "Which hints that the next innovation will turn iMac into a 27-inch super-powerful iPad. That's very much the next paradigm in desktop computing"

    And as usual, Apple will be credited with creating that paradigm shift....check out Dell's newest lineup, there's already a 27" touch screen computer with a stunning interface (Win8)...no matter how many of these babies sell. Apple will always be considered the "frist" to do it right (not matter how deserved that honor would be)

  • shoottheman

    Sometimes it seems as if Steve Jobs' told his staff that "thin & light are generally good design principles", and upon his passing, they reinterpreted what he said to be  "thin & light are the only design principles that matter".

  • TonyWicks

    Kit, interesting article but some of the things you say, just really don't stack up. The "seamless and thin", the "no breaks holes or ugly vents" - that's not a design decision? Of course it is. There's no engineering reason why the USB ports should be round the back and not in the front - the only reason for that is to make the front look streamlined and sleek. Which from a design viewpoint works wonderfully. For useability though, it stinks - whenever I want to plug in a flashdrive I have to get up, pull the machine forward, twist it, and poke my head round behind to find the slot. That's really, really user-unfriendly  - like a lot of what Apple do. And no DVD drive?!! To save a half-inch of empty air behind the screen? For God's sake! Crazy, arrogant decision by Apple, and I hope they get punished for it by poor sales.

    And as for your parting shot, about a "super-powerful iPad" being "very much the new paradigm in desktop computing", well I can't see it myself. Working with a mouse and keyboard means you can work away for hours with your arms resting nicely on the desk. Now, honestly, if you had to put your hands up to the screen all the time to do stuff...Come on, it's not going to work, is it. Try it for half an hour, see how tired your arm gets.

  • MacsAre1

    wireless keyboards (Apple's default option) have no USB ports. And I'll avoid calling you a name even though you deserve it more than tonywicks.

  • mmontferd

    What's arrogant is one Apple user supposing that he knows what every other Apple user desires and needs in a computer. I don't want or need a DVD drive; be done with it and give me something lighter. And I'd MUCH prefer to simply rotate my ultra-thin desktop computer 45º to access its USB port than to stare at the ugly gaping hole all day long.

  • Dan Shannon

    I agree with Mmontferd in principle. It isn't about slapping a DVD drive on there simply because it can fit and it might be useful to some people. It's about driving tech forwards. Remember, Apple is a business like any other — iTunes, their media platform, works via downloading not only mp3s and videos, but also software — and as such, it makes sense from a business standpoint to try and 'convert' people to downloading from that source via the new iMac/MBP/Other computer if they haven't already switched.

    Spiderpig, you could argue that your iPad could fit a DVD drive on the back. The point is that it doesn't need it, because media is no longer consumed that way. Omitting the DVD drive makes the iMac lighter, which results in easier handling, less material used in it's manufacture, lower price points, and lower carbon emissions in transit and in use. Design to look forward, not back.

  • Guest

     I've hundreds of CD's and I continue to scour and rescue obscure titles that are not available anywhere.  These must be imported.  I also don't import all titles from the CD's I currently have and often later go back and pick a few I'd like to add and at the bit rate I want right there and then.  To hell with iTunes and Big Brother knowing everything I purchase. It used to be called "choice".  Likewise if I run Bootcamp I have CD's and DVD's of products that need to be installed.  The product doesn't just jump off the disc on its own now.  And when I want to burn a CD to play music on my CD player or a DVD of my last movie with the kids...what now? Grandma doesn't have a clue and it's enough to get her to play what we gave her before.  She's not into "downloading" anything dammit!  So what this does, as with the dumping of firewire, is force us to buy an external device for the purposes where before it was internal.  Where the desk was clean of dangling cables, and that used to be the sales pitch, now we have to screw around with plugging and unplugging every time we want to do a task that didn't require it before.  For what?  To brag about how "svelte and sexy" it looks now?  Who the hell cares about a scant inch or so in the iMacs depth!  I'm not carrying the damn thing under my arm or plastering it to the wall for giggles. As a IT professional with twenty odd years this is a seriously effed up decision and I have bought countless Apple products.  End of the road?  Could very well be.

  • Lexluthor1772

    Oh man, buy $35 external DVD drive and get over it! Or simply SHARE THE DVD DRIVE --wirelessly-- from one of the "twenty odd years" of countless Mac products you have around! Didn't we have this convo a couple years ago when the AIR was released?

  • P Gustaf

    While I agree with you (I own about 2000 CDs, most of which I haven't yet ripped to iTunes), the same argument was made with the original iMac losing the floppy drive. I thought that was a mistake at the time (and it did create a sizable third party market in USB connected external floppy drives). 

  • InnerCynic

     I've hundreds of CD's and I continue to scour and rescue obscure titles
    that are not available anywhere.  These must be imported.  I also don't
    import all titles from the CD's I currently have and often later go
    back and pick a few I'd like to add and at the bit rate I want right
    there and then.  To hell with iTunes and Big Brother knowing everything I
    purchase. It used to be called "choice".  Likewise if I run Bootcamp I
    have CD's and DVD's of products that need to be installed.  The product
    doesn't just jump off the disc on its own now.  And when I want to burn a
    CD to play music on my CD player or a DVD of my last movie with the
    kids...what now? Grandma doesn't have a clue and it's enough to get her
    to play what we gave her before.  She's not into "downloading" anything
    dammit!  So what this does, as with the dumping of firewire, is force us
    to buy an external device for the purposes where before it was
    internal.  Where the desk was clean of dangling cables, and that used to
    be the sales pitch, now we have to screw around with plugging and
    unplugging every time we want to do a task that didn't require it
    before.  For what?  To brag about how "svelte and sexy" it looks now? 
    Who the hell cares about a scant inch or so in the iMacs depth!  I'm not
    carrying the damn thing under my arm or plastering it to the wall for
    giggles. As an IT professional with twenty odd years this is a seriously
    effed up decision and I have bought countless Apple products.  End of
    the road?  Could very well be.

  • krzystoff

    LIKE IT OR LOATHE IT, optical discs of all formats are on the edge of extinction, on the proverbial express flight to Mauritius...
    a few things to consider:
    1. the overwhelming majority in the developed world download all new software, aside from the operating system, Microsoft Windows and Apple OSX both come on a USB drive now.  the need for CDs/DVDs/BDs/etc is just for opening music / videos / archival data.2. music is fundamentally simple, painless to transcode to digital formats, if you don't have a portable media player already and takes up very little space, even in lossless format. 3. video DVDs/Blurays are better played on a good TV than a computer, but if you really need to repeat view them on your PC, ripping them isn't so hard.4. given that optical discs are one of the least reliable and easily damaged media every used, there is zero argument for not updating your data -- if it matters, if it is worth something to you, you owe it to yourself to make a backup every few years at least, and in the process check the files you have archived can still be opened in current software.5. if you are arguing that you need access to your antiquated collection of software discs, then most likely you can't afford a new computer anyway, if you can afford a shiny new iMac, you can most definitely afford a couple of hundred dollars for a new version of Office.6. as above, you can afford some cloud storage and/or a couple of external hard drives) to move all your old software onto -- if not, don't buy a new PC.last but not least, Apple is not alone -- ALL computer manufacturers are rapidly phasing out optical drives from their computers, there is little consumer demand for them, and they save on weight, space and energy, esp. in notebook computers.  if your current optical drive is defective, buy an external one and use it to transfer you data now while you still can.

  • fastasleep

    for f's sake - the second hit for "external dvd drive" on amazon is $16.45. hot glue one of those to the back of your iMac.

  • Dan Shannon

    Buy an external disc drive then. Trying to argue that every iMac should come equipped with a disc drive to meet the needs of the few is ludicrous and short-sighted. You need to recognise that you're part of a legacy minority.

  • mmontferd

    I'd think an IT professional with twenty odd years would get a Mac Pro or any of the hundred different Windows PCs that offer all of the things you're requesting.