I kid you not, in the late 1990s I actually paid good cash money for a Macintosh computer that looked like this:
It was as ugly as Steve Ballmer’s ass. It weighed a million pounds. It was referred to as “The Molar.” That was not a term of endearment.
Apple Computer was dead. It was not “nearly dead,” as you’ll hear some say today. It was doornail dead. It was laid out on a slab in a Silicon Valley morgue, a tag hanging from its toe. Scott McNealy could have purchased the remains for an amount more or less equal to what he was spending on greens fees every month, but at the last moment he came to his senses and put his checkbook back into his pocket. The few pathetic fanboys left on the planet – myself among them – knew when we bought a new Mac that what we were really buying was a memento mori.
In 1996, the Apple board exercised the only option it had left, short of outright dissolution: it paid Steve Jobs to come back and take possession of the corpse. But it wasn’t until two years later that Apple released the first product of the second Jobs era. It was a quirky little computer called an iMac. It didn’t look anything like any other PC on the market. It had an outdated all-in-one design; pretty much every other desktop computer on the market had a CPU box and a separate monitor. It was egg-shaped, not square. It lacked a floppy drive. It had some sort of weird new port called USB. Most unusual of all, it was colorful. It was blue, not the ubiquitous beige of the typical PC box. And the color wasn’t just any run-of-the-mill blue. It wasn’t navy blue or sky blue or baby blue. The color of the computer actually had a name. It was called, Jobs let it be known, bondi blue.
Now, nobody in America knew what the hell a bondi was. We didn’t even know how you were supposed to pronounce it. Was it bond-ee blue, or was it bond-eye blue? But we were soon to learn that the color took its name from Bondi Beach, a long, curving strand just east of Sydney, Australia, popular with sunbathers and surfers. The color of the computer was intended to replicate the color of the sea in that particular part of the world.
Who other than Jobs would have thought, in the middle of the Age of Beige, to fabricate a computer in the color of the ocean off some beach in Australia? It was nuts. But the original iMac was the electroshock that kickstarted Apple’s heart. By no means did it secure the company’s future, and compared to the industry-altering products that were to follow – iPod, iTunes, iPhone, App Store, iPad – it seems like a fairly trivial product today. But it attracted a lot attention and, even more important, it bought Jobs time. It’s fair to say that, had it not been for the bondi blue iMac, those later products would never have appeared, at least not in their Jobsian form. Apple would have stayed dead, and Jobs would have probably headed off to be a player in Hollywood, maybe even the CEO of Disney.
All the other PC makers back then basically saw their computers as industrial tools. What they cared about – and what most buyers had been told to care about – was the specs of the innards, things like chip speed and hard drive capacity. Jobs sensed that there was in fact a set of computer buyers who might actually want a computer that was the color of the ocean off the coast of Australia – and not only that, but they that might well enjoy forking out a little extra money for the privilege of owning such a computer. A computer, Jobs saw, wasn’t just a tool. It was a fashion accessory. And as the guts of PCs continued to turn into commodities, his instinct was confirmed: it was the outside of the PC – the shape of it, the color of it, the look and feel of it – that came to matter. His insight resurrected Apple and killed the beige box.
Some years after the introduction of that first iMac, I had the opportunity to travel to Sydney, and the fanboy in me demanded that I make a pilgrimage to Bondi Beach. It was a chilly, overcast day, and other than a few joggers and maybe a surfer or two the beach was deserted. I took a picture:
Look at the color of the water where it hits the beach. That’s bondi blue. It may well have been Steve Jobs’s greatest invention.