Apple's 15 boldest computer designs, 1976-2012

Here are some of Apple's most bold, iconic computer designs and what we think they're telling us

Apple's computer hardware designs through the years have reflected the state of the company. Subliminal messages abound with each product release. Sometimes, a design presents radical change and shows the company to be a leader and risk taker. Other times, a design lacks energy and shows the company to be in disarray. Here are some of Apple's most bold, iconic computer designs and what we think they're telling us.

Apple I (1976)

It's the dawn of Silicon Valley, the spring of 1976, and Apple releases the Apple I, designed and hand-built by Steve Wozniak and financed by Steve Jobs selling his VW van. The rough design tells the story of a couple of young engineers-entrepreneurs bootstrapping a great idea out of a garage. It screams American capitalism at its best.

"The evolution of the Apple Mac computers is a timeline of Silicon Valley," says graphic designer Steve Yamaguma.

Apple IIe (1983)

"Somewhere between the Apple I and the Apple II, the element of design and style began shaping its form factor. The computer no longer was a techno innovation but an object, an ideal that elicited great passion and loyalty. We were the Mac-aphiles, the loyalists who believed in the movement." - Silicon Valley graphic designer Steve Yamaguma.

Macintosh (1984)

It's 1984, and Apple launches a small, boxy computer unlike any computer on the market. Its revolutionary design immediately created the divide between loyal Apple fanbois and staunch naysayers who laughed at this new-fangled curiosity. Driving home the point, Apple advertised the Macintosh with what is now considered one of the greatest television commercials in history, taking liberally from the "Big Brother" theme in George Orwell's dystopian novel '1984'.

Macintosh Plus (1986)

When most people with a little age on them think of their first Apple computer, the image of the Macintosh Plus invariably comes to mind. Building on the iconic Macintosh design, the Macintosh Plus used a clean, bright-white casing that gave the impression of efficiency and coolness. This helped create a bond with the owner similar to that of a Volkswagen Beetle or Corvette Stingray, says Yamaguma. (Ironically, Steve Jobs was fired the year before.)

Macintosh Portable (1989)

Apple's foray into the mobile computing world didn't start out smoothly, beginning with the clunky Macintosh Portable, whose claim to fame was that it was used to send a message from space. But the pricy computer was mired with battery problems, and sales languished. Although not really a "mobile machine," the affordable pizza box-shaped Macintosh LC (1990) followed on the heels of the Macintosh Portable and at least allowed you to take your computer from work to home.

Macintosh Quadra 700, 900 (1991)

With the Macintosh Quadra tower, Apple looked to change its image somewhat from a Volkswagen Beetle to an American muscle car. No frills, just power. Quadra computers rivaled the most powerful PCs. The story goes that Apple hired Lexicon Branding to come up with the name. Quadra is a take on technical terms such as quadrant and quadriceps. There's no question Apple was flexing its muscles.

Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (1997)

It's 1997, and Apple is choking. Industry watchers predict the death of the company. In response, Apple delivers the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh - a metallic-coloured computer designed with hard angular lines, not the soft and simple curves we've come to expect from Apple today. The Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh looked futuristic and expensive, and it was at $9,000. But the design was a façade, a vanity project built for Apple's sake and not the customer's.

iMac (1998)

In a bid to make a splash and become relevant again, Apple, with Steve Jobs back with the company, introduced the blue iMac in 1998. This spawned a refresh of translucent, candy-coloured Apple computers, such as the Powermac G3 (1999), iBook (1999) and various iMac patterns (2001). The coolness factor of the design worked, and the younger generation jumped on board the Apple train.

"Apple was now breaking new ground in design and personal computing, distancing themselves from the staid world of Windows PCs," says graphic designer Yamaguma.

PowerBook G4 (2001)

The first PowerBook came to market in 1991, a black-and-white machine followed by colour versions. From a design perspective, the series didn't really hit its stride until the PowerBook G4 with a titanium skin and a 15.2-inch screen suitable for watching widescreen movies. The machine was developed under the watchful eye of CEO Steve Jobs.

"With the release of the PowerBook titanium, Apple brought a new sense of design, style and class to the realm of portability," says Yamaguma. "Unfortunately, the frame was a painted silver colour. Due to constant rubbing of the hands resting on the laptop, the paint would rub off, leaving an embarrassing scar on an otherwise beautiful machine."

iPod (2001)

The iPod mp3 player was the design that ignited Apple's meteoric rise in the last decade. The precursor to the iPhone, the iPod delivered "a thousand songs in your pocket" through copious amounts of computing power in a tiny form factor that's easy to use. The hardware design of the original iPod and its successors gave Apple its winning identity, one of style and sensibility.

"With the release of the video iPod in 2005, we were hooked - no turning back," says Yamaguma.

iMac G4 (2002)

Who can forget the boldly designed iMac G4? It bore close resemblance to a lamp or flower pot and was even dubbed iLamp. The thin panel display is held up by a cantilevered metal arm. In fact, advertisements portrayed the iMac G4 as a kind of free-thinking robot with its own unique personality, similar to Luxo Jr., a computer-animated lamp in a 1986 Pixar short film. The iMac G4 design epitomised Apple's willingness to push boundaries. You just never knew what to expect from the folks in Cupertino.

iPhone (2007)

The story goes that Apple was working on the iPad when Steve Jobs had a revelation. Why not make it a phone? The iPhone was small enough to take everywhere but large enough to surf the web. It could run all sorts of apps. The design itself sent the world a single message: An Apple computer can fit in your pocket and go anywhere, thus hinting at the future possibilities of computing power.

iPad (2010)

By the time the iPad arrived in 2010, Apple was at the height of its design powers. The hardware design of the iPad re-introduced a form factor that had laboured to become mainstream, but this time Apple's timing couldn't have been better. Mobile computing was fast gaining in popularity. The clean, elegant look of the iPad made rival netbooks look cheap and boring, which quickly led to their demise.

Once again, the iPad design made Apple appear miles ahead of any competitor. "The iPad challenged our traditional way of work and play and opened up a new realm of possibilities in how we live our daily lives," says Yamaguma.

Siri (2011)

One might argue that Siri, the well-known voice-recognition and artificial-intelligence engine inside the iPhone, doesn't belong on a hardware design list. You're probably right. Of course, if it's hardware you want to see, we could show you the massive Apple data centres that Siri uses to answer questions.

But Siri's "design" represented something bigger to Apple's image and the future of computers: form without form. "The pursuit of technology into the future will render technology ubiquitous and invisible," says Yamaguma.

iPad Mini (2012)

The iPad Mini and the rumoured cheap iPhone are indicative of the people running Apple today. They're business and operations folks looking to increase market share and stave off Android through patent lawsuits. Apple is struggling to remain the grand inventor and tech visionary it has been for the past 15 years, and is in danger of becoming a miniature and cheaper version of itself without Steve Jobs.

  • Apple I (1976)
  • Apple IIe (1983)
  • Macintosh (1984)
  • Macintosh Plus (1986)
  • Macintosh Portable (1989)
  • Macintosh Quadra 700, 900 (1991)
  • Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (1997)
  • iMac (1998)
  • PowerBook G4 (2001)
  • iPod (2001)
  • iMac G4 (2002)
  • iPhone (2007)
  • iPad (2010)
  • Siri (2011)
  • iPad Mini (2012)
  • Play
  • Play
  • Backward
  • Forward

iPhone (2007)

The story goes that Apple was working on the iPad when Steve Jobs had a revelation. Why not make it a phone? The iPhone was small enough to take everywhere but large enough to surf the web. It could run all sorts of apps. The design itself sent the world a single message: An Apple computer can fit in your pocket and go anywhere, thus hinting at the future possibilities of computing power.

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