25 Years Ago Steve Jobs Launched the First iMac—and the Strategy That Saved Apple

25 Years Ago Steve Jobs Launched the First iMac—and the Strategy That Saved Apple

Steve Jobs didn’t want the photographer. It was May 1998, and he was about to launch the iMac, the computer that would strap Apple in for a wild ride to the greatest comeback in corporate history. The product was due to ship that August, 25 years ago this month. And Jobs had chosen me, then working for Newsweek, to get an exclusive first look and hang out with him while he prepped for the launch. He hadn’t demanded a cover, as he often would in future years; at that moment neither Jobs nor the nearly bankrupt Apple had that kind of clout. (Even later, when Apple did have that clout, Newsweek would make no guarantees.) But, being Steve Jobs, he was very finicky about who would be taking his picture. He blew up when he learned the identity of the photographer Newsweek had assigned to shoot the behind-the-scenes images. Apparently it was someone who, in Jobs’ mind, had done a less-than-stellar job at a photoshoot years before for Next, the company he founded after John Sculley fired him from Apple in 1985. And he was intensely skeptical of the portrait photographer our art director had chosen to take the hero shot. Moshe Brakha? Jobs had never heard of the guy.

When Steve got antsy like that, floors suddenly got knee-deep in virtual eggshells, forcing everyone around him to step with gravity-defying lightness. His PR team had to all but beg him to walk downstairs from his office and sit for the picture. Jobs glared at me as he grudgingly complied.

Brakha, who had flown up to Cupertino from Los Angeles, was used to recalcitrant subjects: He’d shot Joni Mitchell, Devo, and the Ramones. He handled Jobs the way a Yellowstone Ranch cowhand does a wild stallion, whispering soothing words while subtly maneuvering Apple’s cofounder into the poses he desired. Brakha’s fearlessness seemed to calm Jobs. By the time the photographer asked the interim CEO to sit with legs crossed and hold the machine on his lap, Jobs’ spidey sense told him that he was in the presence of a fellow artist. His smile was sweetly genuine in what became not only the dominant photo of the Newsweek spread but one of the most iconic Steve Jobs shots ever. Apple eventually bought the rights so it could control its use.

That was 25 years ago. This week we’re celebrating not only the anniversary of the iMac G3’s launch, but the moment when the dark clouds over Cupertino parted with the possibility that Jobs might actually pull off a recovery. Though the machine had no groundbreaking new technology, it was cleverly curated to provide the best of Apple’s innovations to date—a powerful G3 chip, crisp 15-inch display, built-in modem, and software that demystified what was then the frustrating process of getting on the internet. Part of the package was the removal of technology—it had no floppy disk drive, which was standard on computers back then. (“A complete nonissue,” Jobs said when I asked if people might complain.) But most striking was its look, created and refined by Jobs’ young, new design wizard, Jony Ive. The final result was a curvy translucent plastic blob that evoked both the Jetsons and a blue watermelon. (The color was dubbed Bondi Blue, after the dreamy waters of an iconic Australian beach.) After months of advertising to drum into our heads the idea that Apple thought different, the company had delivered a new computer that lived up to that slogan.

Personally, I’m also celebrating the anniversary of a turning point in my own relationship with Jobs. I’d known him since writing about the original Macintosh launch for Rolling Stone in 1984, and in 1997 I had covered his return to Apple. But his offer of an advance look at the iMac was the start of a routine in which I’d get an early peek, or at least a post-keynote personal briefing, on virtually every big product Apple launched in the next decade. The access I got for this particular story included multiple interviews, and even some informal hangouts. In his corporate suite at One Infinite Loop, I saw him take a call from Jerry Seinfeld, who was helping him get a clip of the comedian’s first Johnny Carson appearance for a Think Different commercial. And after we drove in his Mercedes to the event facility, I watched an uncomfortable moment when he reamed out one of his employees at the launch rehearsal for not meeting the Jobsian bar of perfection.

The most valuable moments, though, were when Jobs foretold how he would bring Apple back from the dead. “The world is a slightly better place with Apple Computer in it, and if Apple can return to its roots as an innovator, the whole industry would benefit from that,” he said, adding that this was a project straight from his heart. His plan centered around what he called the “whole-widget” strategy, whereby Apple’s products would be designed from scratch, with software created in-house, and marketed directly to consumers. The only company doing anything comparable was Sony. Jobs said he had originally thought Apple could be the Sony of the computer business. But now he had visions of surpassing even that Japanese electronics giant. “Now I say, Apple could be the Apple of this business,” he said. “And that’s what we’re gonna do.”

Of course, Jobs did that. The apotheosis of that whole-widget strategy was the iPhone, but the iMac G3 was the start. He told me that the internal codenames for the iMac were styled after Columbus’ ships: Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria. I asked him why. “It’s a new world,” he answered.

Reading the transcripts of our conversations that May, I came upon an exchange I’d forgotten about. Jobs had told me there was a detail of his software strategy that he would reveal on stage at the iMac’s formal introduction. Since our story would come out after the event, I said that if we didn’t include it, Newsweek might look dumb. He snorted at me with derision. “You’re going to look really smart,” he said. “You’re gonna have the first great photographs of this thing, and you’re going to have the first in-depth story about it.” He was right—25 years from that conversation, the article is still remembered, for the photograph as much as the text.

The iMac worked because of its simplicity, its value, and especially its design, which not only delighted our eyes but fired our imaginations. On its silver anniversary, the iMac name persists, and it still epitomizes the whole-widget strategy. But it’s a drastically different machine, way more powerful and way less fun. And there will never be another Steve Jobs.

Time Travel

Here’s my Newsweek story about the iMac. Though I included some of the hedges required by journalistic convention, my exuberance regarding Apple’s future under Steve Jobs turned out to be more than justified.

Last Wednesday Jobs himself received a more thunderous thumbs-up at the announcement of Apple Computer’s successor to its own hall-of-fame classic, the original Macintosh: a machine designed for consumers dubbed the iMac (only Apple would dare to lowercase the “I” in Internet). The crowd in Cupertino, California’s Flint Center—site of the historic Mac launch 14 years ago—largely consisted of Apple employees. But due to an industrial-strength cone of silence shrouding the new product, few had been aware of its existence. So after a morale-boosting slide show documenting the company’s new profits, and a demonstration of the speed of its sleek new laptops, the crowd went bonkers when interim CEO Jobs, in a rare appearance in a business suit, literally unveiled a piece of hardware that blends sci-fi shimmer with the kitsch whimsy of a cocktail umbrella. As distinctively curvy as the [VW] Beetle, dressed in retro-geeky, translucent plastic, the iMac (due to ship in August) is not only the coolest-looking computer introduced in years, but a chest-thumping statement that Silicon Valley’s original dream company is no longer somnambulant.

Ten months ago, when 43-year-old Jobs temporarily assumed control of the company he cofounded in a garage in 1977, the move was widely seen as a last-ditch effort to inject excitement into a barely breathing corporate husk. Maybe Jobs could weave his famous “reality-distortion field” and preserve enough interest for some bigger entity to snap Apple up at a face-saving price. But now strange words are emerging from One Infinite Loop, the glass-atriumed Cupertino headquarters. Words like profit. Stability. And even, if you strain to hear, growth. For the first time in years the face icon appearing on the Mac boot-up screen has a reason to smile.

Ask Me One Thing

Ana asks, “With AI, most things schools teach today will be accessible in a matter of seconds. How should we educate our children in an AI-enabled future to produce amazing humans?”

Great question, Ana. You also mention that you are lucky to have lived your life to date in a world free of the level of AI that we’ve seen recently, and that will certainly be more powerful in years to come.

Let’s be optimistic, for at least the space of this answer. We can consider the possibility that you—and I—may one day regret not growing up in a world soaked through and through with AI. That a collaboration between humans and AI frees educators from imposing dull tasks on their students. That a new level of creativity comes from the back-and-forth between young people and image generators that display the contents of their imaginations. That responses from large language models encourage students to more deeply explore social science subjects. That STEM candidates go beyond math exercises and use the calculations from AI-driven bots (presumably improved so that they get the right answers) to tackle the really difficult problems in the field.

I know that’s a Panglossian response, and please also note that I reserve the right to withdraw my optimism in future letters and proclaim doom at any time. But whether anything like that happens or not, educators must do what they have always tried to do—trigger the excitement of learning in their students and encourage them to truly understand, via logical means, the subjects we ask them to study. Any administrators in our education system who see AI as a means to cut costs are dead wrong. The ubiquity of those tools requires more resources so that educators can work more closely with students—and AI tools—to get the results only made possible by human curiosity and discovery.

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

Headlines from British tabloids: “‘Zombie apocalypse’ in UK town as flesh-eating drug turns people into ‘walking dead.’” And “Plague of beer-swigging racoons trashing people’s homes and eating their pets.” What is happening?

Last but Not Least

Not satisfied with new variations of the Turing Test? Bring Alan Turing back and let him decide.

The war on AI data sets takes down a tiny startup.

Remember that letter warning about the AI apocalyse and begging for a six-month pause on development? Not all the signers really believe what they signed.

In-house medical clinics at Amazon warehouses are apparently pushing injured employees to get back to work. Maybe they should order a book about Hippocrates.

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