Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Thinking too much about the Apple iMac G5 design

Picture of Apple's new iMac G5We purchase a lot of Macs around here. There was a time when Swarthmore was an all-Mac shop. Even though we've been a dual-platform shop for a long time now, and our tech shop is happily agnostic about platform choice, about three quarters of our faculty stuck with the Mac. Since I'm heavily involved in the business of selecting and purchasing the equipment for labs, classrooms, and faculty/staff desktops, I tend to pay attention to the big changes in Apple's product lines.

The new iMac G5 was just introduced with barely a murmur; Jobs is in cancer recovery and couldn't do one of his "insanely great" pitch jobs to introduce the new model. Furthermore, a production snafu resulted in a product delay right as we entered the back-to-school buying season. It's obvious that the iMac doesn't fill the central role in the product line that it once did. I think the Wall Street Journal reporters had it right: the iMac is now serving as a chic crossover product for the millions of happy iPod users. Trendy industrial design is part of the Apple mystique, so they always have to up the stakes with each new version of the product, even if the change isn't really an improvement. The iMac has become the concept car of the Macintosh family. "Look, it comes in yummy colors." "Look, it's a desk lamp." "Look, it's a laptop on a stick!"

On the plus side, the new iMac is a G5, so we'll benefit from the performance increase. The small footprint and flat casing will also make this iMac a nice solution for labs and classrooms where table space is at a premium. Still, from a pure design standpoint, I don't think there's any way I'll consider the new form factor an improvement. I use the current 17" iMac every day at work. On the basis of ergonomic design alone, it's the best computer I've ever used. It's a simple thing, but the monitor on a swing arm makes a huge difference to me. As I adjust my seating throughout the day, the monitor moves with me to remain at perfect eye level. If I want to stand for a minute, no problem. As I roll along the work surface of my desk, I can aim the iMac display so that I can continue to reference my open windows.

If it ain't broke, you don't fix it. Unfortunately, that's not an option for Apple. Apple markets its design and engineering superiority, so it has to constantly eat its young to demonstrate its ability to revolutionize the product line. Usually we ooh and aah at what they dream up. Every once in a while we laugh at it. (The Cube, anyone?) But in this case I wish we could just say "Stop. You already had it right." When it's time for my swing-arm iMac to retire, I think I'm really going to miss it. Maybe that's just me.


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9:54 PM  

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