How Apple went from bust to five million colorful iMacs sold

Posted:
in General Discussion edited April 2020
It's the machine that saved Apple, but today as the iMac is just one part of a hugely successful product lineup, it's easy to forget just how crucial it was. But back on April 19, 2001, Apple reminded us with the news that it had sold its five millionth iMac.

The end of the beige computer.
The end of the beige computer.


The Apple II was the most important computer Apple ever made. The Mac was the most world-changing. But it was the iMac that was the best. This machine took the innovation Apple had done before, it took the company's ethos of strong design and a complete appliance-like tool, and it shouted about it all.

Where the Mac had literally said "Hello," the iMac figuratively said, "look at me." And people listened. The iMac was announced by Steve Jobs on May 6, 1998, but it didn't go on sale in the US until August 15 that year. Two weeks later, it was released in Europe and Japan.

Two years, eight months, and four days later on April 19, 2001, Apple announced that it had shipped its five millionth iMac. That makes approximately 5,112 iMacs sold every day. It's one iMac every 1.183 seconds.

No wonder it saved the company.

Even before anyone could actually buy an iMac, though, there were signs that demand would be high. In a rare 1998 interview on Fox Business, shown the day before the iMac went on sale, Steve Jobs was asked whether Apple had enough iMacs to meet that demand.

"Yeah, I don't know," said Jobs. "I mean, we're making a lot of them, but we're going to find out... what the real demand is and it could exceed... lots."




Origins of the iMac

The part of Steve Jobs's May 1998 presentation where he reveals the iMac is well known, but if you watch the fuller show, you see more context. He champions the machine as he always does, and he somehow makes it sound both magical and inevitable, that only Apple could have made this yet all computers should always be like this.

However, that spiel comes after he has taken some time to address the state of Apple as a whole. He skips over some details, he doesn't mention anything about his replacing Gil Amelio or Apple having bought NeXT, but he is at pains to show that Apple is strong again.

"It's been ten months since the new management team took over at Apple," he said. "People have been working really hard. You can see a lot of cars in the parking lot some nights and the weekends. And because of their hard work, I'm really pleased to report to you today that Apple is back on track."

He then promises he'll be announcing some great new products, and he teases that he'll reveal Apple's entire product strategy. But first, he spends just over four minutes showing slides about Apple's finances.

It's not the most exciting segment and the numbers are paltry compared to today, but as he so often did, he was really setting the stage.

With this detail, he was working to put a line under all the years where Apple was within an inch of going out of business. He wanted to separate the new Apple from this so that he also separated it from the concomitant problem that nobody buys from a company that's about to die.






This speech, followed by the unveiling of the iMac itself, was remarkable. No one advised against buying the iMac because Apple might close. Instead, everyone talked about the revival of Apple, and of this great machine

Great reception

"These words are being created on the coolest-looking personal computer I've ever used," wrote Wall Mossberg in the Wall Street Journal. "It's... the boldest Macintosh model Apple has rolled out since the 1980s."

Apple could not have recovered if the iMac hadn't delivered all that it did, but Jobs's comparatively boring financial presentation was also key to the whole party.

One millionth iMac

It's interesting to see Jobs on stage being, for him, briefly a little dull, and also on news shows being faltering enough to say sales could exceed "lots." But if his reward for that work was the success of the iMac, it does seem that this success also ignited his more showman-like side.

The Bondi Blue iMac
The Bondi Blue iMac


About one year after this launch, it looked to Apple as if it were well on track to sell its one-millionth iMac. Jobs wanted to go big.

According to Ken Segall, ad agency executive who is credited with the name "iMac," Steve Jobs wanted to channel Willy Wonka.

"Steve wanted to put a golden certificate... inside the box of one iMac, and publicize that face," Segall wrote in his book, Insanely Simple. "Whoever opened the lucky iMac box would be refunded the purchase price and be flown to Cupertino, where he or she (and, presumably, the accompanying family) would be taken on a tour of the Apple campus."

Jobs had a team designing a prototype golden certificate -- only Apple prototypes certificates -- but he also wanted to be the one to meet the winner. Except he wanted to be dressed as Willy Wonka. "Yes," writes Segall, "complete with top hat and tails."

Segall was not as taken with the idea as Jobs was, and says that it died. "Fortunately, the legal issues were restrictive," he explains. "For one, California regulations required that this be classified as a sweepstakes."

That would mean it had to be possible to win this iMac and the trip to Cupertino without making any purchase. So the winner could well be some random person who had no interest in Apple and wouldn't go all fanboy or girl for the cameras.

Apple did not mark the one millionth iMac sale at all. Nor the two millionth, three, or four. But on the date of the five millionth, it did put out a comparatively modest press release.

Five million sold

"Simply put, the iMac has redefined the consumer and education computer, ushering in several industry firsts including USB, FireWire, desktop movies, wireless networking, quiet fan-less operation and world-class design," said Jobs in the release.

The rest of the release gushed about how the "iMac offers a great all-in-one design that is fun and easy to use," while its "easy setup" means Apple is "delivering exciting solutions."

There's no comment from Jony Ive, who designed the iMac, and intentionally no mention of how this is the computer that saved Apple. Apple didn't need saving, thank you very much, and that part of its history was being erased.

"I look forward to shipping our ten millionth iMac in a few years," concluded Jobs in the release.

What happened next

There is no question that Apple has exceeded ten million iMac sales, but not only has Apple stopped making press releases about its sales numbers, it's steadily stopped reporting any detailed figures at all. We do know that by the end of 2004, they'd sold 8.7 million iMacs.

If we presume that figure is up to December 31, 2004, then that's six years, four months, and 16 days since the iMac went on sale. That works out to an average now of 2,330 iMacs every day, or one about every 3.9 seconds.

That's obviously quite a decline from the speed of the first five million iMacs, but it's still phenomenal -- and by 2004, Apple was deep into its iPod phase. The iMac was far less crucial than it had been, even as it was still bringing in a lot of money.

After 2004, Apple stopped reporting iMac sales per se, but it continued detailing desktop Mac sales, of which the iMac was presumably the majority. There was the Mac mini after 2005, there were regular PowerMacs throughout this period, but it's reasonable to guess that the iMac's broad appeal made it the most successful desktop Mac at this time.

What a difference time makes. Steve Jobs (inset) with the original iMac, as shown on a 2017 iMac Pro.
What a difference time makes. Steve Jobs (inset) with the original iMac, as shown on a 2017 iMac Pro.


Today the iMac is still going well. Yet if Apple were to release any figures, the iMac would be small next to the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, and impossibly tiny next to the iPhone. But that's more a sign of those other devices and their extraordinary, unimaginable success.

None of which they would have had if it weren't for the iMac.



Keep up with AppleInsider by downloading the AppleInsider app for iOS, and follow us on YouTube, Twitter @appleinsider and Facebook for live, late-breaking coverage. You can also check out our official Instagram account for exclusive photos.
«1

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 29
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 10,557member
    “You know, when you move forward, some people don’t understand.” Steve Jobs



     I remember the head shaking and guffaws when the iMac came out without a floppy drive. It had a USB port, a CD-ROM drive, and a 10/100 ethernet port. How were users going do real work without a floppy drive? Same as today, same as back then, the naysayers croaked about what was missing rather than what was new and different. Fast forward to the removal of the headphone jack and the retiring of the built-in DVD drive, the reaction was exactly the same. The naysayers literally invented scenarios in which they couldn’t perform any work. Same as back then, same as today, users found they could perform their work easier than before.
    edited April 2020 lolliverjony0williamlondonjbdragonStrangeDayswatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 29
    The horror of plastic everywhere.  I wasn’t that impressed.  I remember having a 21” CRT for my PC that must have weighed 30 pounds by itself.

    At the time 21” screens were HUGE.

    Didn’t care about the floppy that was about the same time as Zip drives... might have owned an $600 CD burner.

    All in one designs were awfully limited...
    williamlondon
  • Reply 3 of 29
    apple ][apple ][ Posts: 9,233member
    I bought a bondi blue iMac back then and I still have it, and as a matter of fact it still looks great still and runs good, though I don't exactly use it or turn it on too often these days of course.

    I was loving Apple's designs around that time. The colorful and see through plastic was something completely new and different that nobody else was doing. Everybody else had these god awful plastic beige machines. Apple's designs were fresh and vibrant, everybody else's were rotten, boring and decaying.

    I also liked AQUA on Mac OS X and those designs were exactly right for their time.

    The original iMacs were good machines at a reasonable price that served their purpose. It's no surprise that they were a huge hit.

    The only bad thing I have to say about the original iMacs is the horrible hockey puck mouse that came with them. They were not ergonomic at all, they weren't even optical, they had a spinning ball that would often get dirty and they were a pain in the butt to use. But it wasn't really a big deal, because somebody could just hook up any third party mouse or trackball of their choice to the machine, which is exactly what I ended up doing.
    edited April 2020 StrangeDayswatto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 29
    Just a little thing... One iMac sold every 17 seconds (actually 16.9), not every 1.1 seconds, I am afraid.
    williamlondonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 29
    I remember a pallet of them being delivered to the Sony Art Department in the division where I worked at the time. The art department didn't have ti use Sony machines though most of the rest of the company did. They were the envy of everyone in the building. I think they went to the support/editorial groups we worked with. We already had Macs as our production machines.
    edited April 2020 StrangeDayselijahgwatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 29
    eriamjheriamjh Posts: 1,662member
    Don’t forget that Steve wanted to call it something else.   Something awful.   

    edited April 2020
  • Reply 7 of 29
    jony0jony0 Posts: 379member
    eriamjh said:
    Don’t forget that Steve wanted to call it something else.   Something awful.   
    Yeah, pretty awful, IIRC I think it was MacMan, a take on the Walkman for its portability and perhaps a nudge to the popular game of the time Pacman with some sonic semblance. Thank you Ken Segall.
    elijahgwatto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 29
    apple ][apple ][ Posts: 9,233member
    Lots of products have gone through name changes and had their names changed before the official release. Another one that comes to mind is Apple TV, that was originally called iTV. If I'm not mistaken, Apple even demoed it or spoke about it on one of their keynotes, and they used the name iTV.
    edited April 2020 svanstromwatto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 29
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 6,099member
    I remember those fun iMac years.  I also remember the shameful Chinese iKnockoff makers making a virtually identical PC-version of those iMacs back in the day.  
    svanstromwatto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 29
    apple ][apple ][ Posts: 9,233member
    sflocal said:
    I remember those fun iMac years.  I also remember the shameful Chinese iKnockoff makers making a virtually identical PC-version of those iMacs back in the day.  
    Yes, not long after the iMacs were released, everybody was all of a sudden releasing a ton of stuff in the same color palettes that the various iMacs came in, just a coincidence of course. 

    The entire world was using beige mostly for years and years and nobody questioned it, that's just how things were and everybody was happily just chugging along.

    And along comes Apple and says "Screw this beige crap", and they make a super bold move with the introduction of the iMac.

    Not long after that, it was monkey see, monkey do time.
    svanstromlkruppStrangeDayswatto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 29
    jd_in_sbjd_in_sb Posts: 1,600member
    In the Fox interview it was jarring to see a young vibrant Steve Jobs talking away while the date of his death was superimposed below him. Will miss you always, Steve. 
    svanstromelijahgwatto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 29
    svanstromsvanstrom Posts: 702member
    All in one designs were awfully limited...
    Not more than they are today. When we buy an iPhone or iPad or MacBook we pretty much decide which all-in-one level to "limit" ourselves to, and then we're more or less stuck/happy with that until we replace the device.

    Were the iMacs even more "limited"?! Well, that does depend on if you're part of the group of people that wanted the specs from some randomly (in theory only) built PC or not. But, most people doing those theoretical builds in their heads never even once in their lives actually built anything that came close to what they "must" have when they criticised Apple for not selling it; and at the time the games to actually take advantage of that hardware were Win-only anyways.

    I was happy with my iMacs at the time, and most people that actually had them seem to have similar memories. I actually can't think of a single person that I know that were unhappy with their iMacs.
    williamlondonStrangeDayswatto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 29
    entropysentropys Posts: 4,199member
    Superior to competitor PCs at a competitive price. Of course the iMac did well.

    it was the beginning of great days for the Mac which appear to have ended around 2015, with the Mac Pro warning in 2013.
    edited April 2020 williamlondonelijahg
  • Reply 14 of 29
    pembrokepembroke Posts: 230member
    My father has a Bondi Blue iMac. At the time, I remember it looking shockingly different. Jobs said, “isn’t it cool”. I thought ... the insides of a computer ... are not cool, as in attractive, to look at?

    Sure it was interesting and radically different, the dull Bondi blue plastic itself was far better than beige, but I reckon Apple needed Jobs to convince people it was attractive. Without the fanfare of a Jobs promotion, it would never have garnered a reputation for being attractive; Interesting and cool because it was different, sure, but hardly attractive - IMHO anyway. 

    The subsequent clearer iMac plastics did make the form look more attractive though.


    edited April 2020
  • Reply 15 of 29
    john f.john f. Posts: 111member
    apple ][ said:
    The only bad thing I have to say about the original iMacs is the horrible hockey puck mouse that came with them. They were not ergonomic at all, they weren't even optical, they had a spinning ball that would often get dirty and they were a pain in the butt to use.
    I actually prefer flat mice, instead of "ergonomic" ones that your hand has to fully envelope. I rather rest my hand flat on the table, with the mouse loosely grabbed underneath. The current magic mouse is pretty flat. I occasionally use a MS Wedge mouse that is flat and I only rest my two fingers on the buttons (horrible scrolling, though, without Smooze installed). I don't like the original pro mouse and mighty mouse that much.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 29
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 6,099member
    pembroke said:
    My father has a Bondi Blue iMac. At the time, I remember it looking shockingly different. Jobs said, “isn’t it cool”. I thought ... the insides of a computer ... are not cool, as in attractive, to look at?

    Sure it was interesting and radically different, the dull Bondi blue plastic itself was far better than beige, but I reckon Apple needed Jobs to convince people it was attractive. Without the fanfare of a Jobs promotion, it would never have garnered a reputation for being attractive; Interesting and cool because it was different, sure, but hardly attractive - IMHO anyway. 

    The subsequent clearer iMac plastics did make the form look more attractive though.


    My history is a bit blurry, but I believe the iMac also was the first all-USB computer, And it also ditched the floppy drive.  I remembered the furor from those that shamed Apple in doing that...  of course, nowhere to be seen now.
    StrangeDayswatto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 29
    Ironic that the one company that wanted you to forget the specs and think of a computer as an appliance took to exposing the innards (albeit in a stylized way) as a means of making a beautiful gestalt. 
    StrangeDayswatto_cobra
  • Reply 18 of 29
    I was there in the audience for this one. 

    It was mostly Apple employees but it was all SJ.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 29
    apple ][ said:


    The only bad thing I have to say about the original iMacs is the horrible hockey puck mouse that came with them. They were not ergonomic at all,

    I was having terrible RSI issues at the time so I was flat-palming all mice.  Turned out that the iMac mouse was perfectly ergonomic for that:  rest palm on the mouse, using the cord to aim it (between fingers), and flex fingers at the knuckles to click.   I used the iMac mouse long after I stopped using an iMac.  
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 20 of 29
    dewmedewme Posts: 5,423member
    The horror of plastic everywhere.  I wasn’t that impressed.  I remember having a 21” CRT for my PC that must have weighed 30 pounds by itself.

    At the time 21” screens were HUGE.

    Didn’t care about the floppy that was about the same time as Zip drives... might have owned an $600 CD burner.

    All in one designs were awfully limited...
    Seeing a picture of Steve cradling a CRT based AIO makes my back ache. I had a Dell 21” high resolution, high refresh rate monitor and it actually weighed close to 68 lbs (from the spec sheet). I still recall the UPS guys sweating profusely from moving it from his truck to my front door stoop. Of course I was doing the same after moving it upstairs to my home office. The full sized tower computer that came with it wasn’t much lighter. These memories make me appreciate the modern era aluminum slab iMacs all the more. Thank you Apple.
    watto_cobra
Sign In or Register to comment.