It may be hard to remember, but before the iPhone and the modern era of Apple1 Apple made computers not of highly recyclable BFR-, PVC-, and beryllium-free, low-carbon aluminum and glass, but of that boogeyman of our more environmentally-conscious world, acrylic plastic. It was with acrylic that Jony Ive first made his mark at Apple, and it was acrylic that ultimately saved the company entirely.
The first hints of what was to come were found in small touches across Apple’s product line in the late 90s. The Power Macintosh 8600/9600 and successor Power Macintosh G3 all had small translucent plastic touches; more heavy usage was found on the eMate and LCD display. Perhaps most infamously, there was the G3 All-in-one or “Molar Mac”, which in many ways feels like the Postosuchus to the iMac G3’s Coelophysis—superficial cousins, but an evolutionary dead end. The Molar Mac was heavy and unapologetically still a Platinum-era Mac, despite its translucent shroud.
(Image by Stephen Hackett)
Then the Bondi Blue iMac came along, and everything changed.
(Image by Rama, CC-by-SA)
With the iMac’s success, Apple quickly moved to a completely different design language, but it was expressed in different flavors. The first short phase I’d call “smoky”. This was expressed in the original iMac and Blue & White G3, which were less translucent and more understated compared to what was to come.
The second phase was “clear”, and it was exemplified by the more transparent, more saturated colors of the later iMacs, along with the introduction of the Apple Studio Display and PowerMac G4 in 2000. The pro Macs were more restrained in colors (the early G4s had a pinstriped, vaguely blueish-grey called “graphite” that changed to a more neutral “quicksilver” in 2002) and used clear plastic prominently for handles and accents, while the iMacs went through a total of 13 variations, including the still-bananas Flower Power and Blue Dalmation, before settling down. The iMacs introduced in 2000 did have a harbinger of the next phase of Apple’s products, however—the white “Snow” color.
(The “snow” iMac G4s. Image by Omega21, CC-by-SA)
After this exuberant use of acrylic, Apple began a slow migration away from it. The PowerBook, which never got a clear acrylic makeover, was the first to switch in 2001 to an opaque grey metal-and-plastic enclosure—first titanium, and then the now-omnipresent aluminum. The PowerMac line would follow with the G5 “cheesegrater” in early 2003. What followed was the “opaque” phase, where Apple’s products became defined by opaque white plastic and/or aluminum across all their computers, monitors, and peripherals. In retrospect, this period seems less a serious design era on its own, and more a slow evolution to where Ive and the rest at Apple really wanted to go. The iMac added aluminum in 2007 and became fully jacketed in 2009. The Mac mini followed in 2010. The iPhone became glass-and-metal with the iPhone 4, and the final vestige of the plastic era was the polycarbonate MacBook, which was discontinued in 2011.
(Though ultimately a failed product, the Power Mac G4 Cube was perhaps the apotheosis of Apple’s acrylic Macs. Photo by BinarySequence, CC-by-SA)
In retrospect, the acrylic era really only lasted roughly five years as the predominant look of Apple’s products, but that timeframe was the key turning point for the company. It saw Apple kill its old products and start over with the simplified 2×2 product matrix, the introduction of the iPod and the very start of Apple’s iTunes empire, and the creation of the “digital hub” strategy that would define Apple until the success of the iPhone. And it might just be nostalgia speaking, but those computers still look great. While some PC makers have in recent years gotten much closer than ever before to getting close to Apple’s fit-and-finish with metal or carbon fiber computers, no one has touched Apple’s use of acrylic in the nearly twenty years since they showed what could be done, and it’s entirely possible no one ever will.
What is the modern era of Apple at this point? It’s easy to use Steve Jobs’ death as a marker, but now we’re nearly eight years out from that moment—Jobs’ passing is closer to the release of the iPod in 2001 than the present. With Ives’ departure, it’s possible we’re entering a new epoch of Apple history—but like with all history, it’ll be a while before we can truly see the differences.↩