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.