For an obsessed fan of beautiful Apple designs, I was initially unmoved by the new iMac. It seems like a step-backwards to me. It's merely an Apple Cinema Display, but with a wrongly-proportioned frame. After three days' reflection, I have had a change of mind.
The first iMac was daring and inspiring. It was quiet (the slot-loading versions were fanless), cheap and powerful. It was also culturally important: the prefix "i" became part of the public consciousness; colourful plastic became the material of choice in the late-90s for electrical appliances; and most importantly, it made Apple relevant again, paving the way for the possibility of the iPod.
The second iMac was different. It was a "revenge" product, after the commercial failure of the Cube. It wanted perfection and commercial success. Legend has it that it was inspired by a sunflower:
Jobs sketched out the Platonic ideal for the new machine. "Each element has to be true to itself," Jobs told Ive. "Why have a flat display if you're going to glom all this stuff on its back? Why stand a computer on its side when it really wants to be horizontal and on the ground? Let each element be what it is, be true to itself." Instead of looking like the old iMac, the thing should look more like the flowers in the garden. Jobs said, "It should look like a sunflower."It is amazing that a sunflower can be supported by such a thin stem. Likewise, the metal arm that supports the LCD display (especially the 20" version) creates the same sense of amazement - it's easily adjustable, yet stable once you have decided on the position of the screen.
But it was also a commercial failure.
Stuffing a computer behind a LCD has been done before (see Sony Vaio and Gateway Profile) and hence my initial indifferent reaction to the new iMac. It lacks the vibrancy of the first iMac and the out-of-worldliness perfection of the second.
You can argue that the new iMac's execution is better than the other half-hearted attempts. That might be true. But it is its aggressive pricing that changed my indifference towards it.
In its introductory video, Jonathan Ive remarks the "inevitability" of the new iMac design. Yes, it is inevitable that Apple had to face the fact that the consumer market is price-driven, and compromised on the design of the product. Yes, it is also inevitable that the new design will put even more focus on the display, since every revision of the iMac sees a reduction of the size of the actual computer, but an increase prominence of the display:
When put next to the iPod, with its ultra low price tag on, the iMac suddenly makes sense to me. A clear product narrative emerges: the new iMac is a non-threatening, economical and minimalistic companion of your digital contents, just like the iPod is to your music. Third time lucky indeed.
Addendum: The "wrongly-proportioned" frame of the new iMac's display was created for a good reason: the heat-inducing transformer unit simply cannot be placed behind a LCD, hence the bottom-heaviness: